Crip Kinship by Shayda Kafai

You may be thinking I’m reading more about disability lately because I’m studying ASL. You’d be wrong! Although some medically deaf people feel they are disabled/impaired, culturally Deaf individuals do not. They celebrate their language, community, and history. Instead, I’ve been reading more about disability because I read so many books about fat activism, and, as Aubrey Gordon says, fat justice. Fat justice is not body positivity, nor about being accepted. Instead, the word “justice” clues you in that fat activists want equal opportunity and treatment under the law. What happens when a community improves justice for fat people is you see the ways equality affects disabled people, too, and vice versa. Think about it: comfortably flying, being considered for a job based on merit, and thoughtful medical treatment — these affect both fat and disabled people.

Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid by Shayda Kafai (she/her) examines how a specific community in San Francisco has gathered to support, listen to, and learn from each other. The group, called “Sins Invalid,” is made up of people with disabilities who are not white and identify as LGBTQ. Even in disability justice, the faces of the movement are often straight white individuals whose disabilities are “tolerable” to look at, so to speak, meaning someone who “looks normal” but needs a wheelchair vs. a person who is stimming or drools.

The best part of Crip Kinship is you an feel the love and care within this community coming off the page. It starts with Kafai’s careful diction; she uses specific words, defines them, and then uses those repeatedly to do her best not to accidentally write oppressive or exclusionary language. For example, the entire group is often described as “disabled, queer of color bodymind.” Kafai explains the phrase “…acknowledges Sin’s Invalid’s intersection of artist-activists who are disabled, chronically ill, and/or Mad, who are queer, gender nonconforming, and/or trans, and who are people of color.”

Even “Mad” and “bodymind” are defined. “Mad” is capitalized to identify the history of scholarship that argues “mad” as a term is problematic. “Bodymind” insists the mind and body cannot separate, e.g. the body is broken but the brain is “normal” or vice versa. I did get stuck at one point, thinking “queer of color” should have a comma somewhere, but what Kafai means, I believe, is like “community of color” or “people of color,” but these are all folks in the “queer of color” community. As a specific kind of reader (white, straight, able-bodied, some disabilities), it is my job to listen, not judge the language.

As the book progresses, Kafai slowly progresses on what she’s built, and it’s that careful crafting that lulls you into feeling as if you, the reader, are cared for. Never did I feel like I was unwelcome by the Sins Invalid community while Kafai pulled back the curtain, but I did understand that her showing me their safe spaces is a gift, because it’s a community to which I do not belong.

A big part of the community is performances at which people dance or tell stories. Kafai argues performance is connected to justice and not just entertainment:

Because so many of us often do not speak in our own voices and are instead, spoken for, disabled storytelling is a radical act.

Who speaks for the Sins Invalid community members? Often, it’s well-meaning family members or the medical establishment. Disabled people face surgeries and tests in an effort to “improve” them, or are relegated to care homes where they aren’t part of a community anymore. Hidden away, one might argue. By sharing her community, Kafai’s work uplifts a message of a different, beautiful reality. What is it we won’t see? What are we afraid to see?

Sometimes, we are so erased by the intersecting oppressions that regulate our bodyminds that all we can do to remember we exist and that we deserve to exist is to leave evidence, to leave proof that we were here. To resist this erasure, we offer bodymind maps of endurance; we offer our stories, our faces, and our histories so that we too can become tangible.

As I read this quote, I am reminded of the current debate around teaching “Critical Race Theory” in American public schools. Of whitewashing and cleansing history to soften it for students. But erasing history doesn’t change what happened, and ignoring the past makes for a cruel, ignorant present that neglects many of our current community members who want to love and give, rest and toil, to exist fully.

For your interest, chapters include information about the origins of the group, liberated zones, sex, COVID-19 navigation, and connecting online.

CW: none

11 comments

  1. This sounds really interesting, especially around the language she uses. Words like “Mad” or even “invalid” are ones that seem really old-fashioned and I would probably avoid using.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting the way language is being reclaimed. Even the use of “crip” is surprising. And the book explains that the use of “invalid” is pronounced like the way you’d use the word “wrong” (e.g. invalid password) vs. in-VUH-lid. The group acknowledges folks call them Sins In-VUH-lid a lot, and the mix up is understandable, I think… It sounds like they’re trying to make a point about disabled people.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, ok, I was pronouncing invalid the other way! I find it fascinating when people, especially minority or disenfranchised groups, reclaim language. It can be so powerful. I usually feel like I probably shouldn’t use that language when I’m not part of that group but I like seeing the way language changes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t remember if I mentioned this in another comment, but I LOVE the cover of this book, it’s so beautiful.

    I appreciate your reminder that it’s our job to listen and observe, and not judge the language because I often need to remind myself of that, especially when reading some Indigenous literature, where as white person, I often feel blamed. it’s hard to read that stuff sometimes, especially when I consider myself an ally, but I always need to learn more about how to show up better for these communities, so reading is an exercise in that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You did mention you love the cover on my last Sunday Lowdown 🙂

      In my Interpreting class we’re learning about cultural differences, and one thing is Deaf people may complain about hearing people to a hearing interpreter. It’s less that that mean you, a hearing person, are garbage, but that a system designed to keep people out, which is enjoyed by hearing people, is the garbage.

      Liked by 2 people

      • hahah that’s an important distinction to make, and one that is so relevant right now. Lots of people feel ‘blamed’ when minorities are complaining about the lack of inequality, but so often, us privillaged folk don’t realize how the system itself is stacked against them, and our ignorance to that continues the unfairness

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post Melanie. You are right about “Even in disability justice, the faces of the movement are often straight white individuals”. That was the case with feminism for a long time too, and probably still is to a degree.

    I like your comment about being made to feel “welcome” in the community by the author though you don’t belong. It’s interesting how own this happens – how generous minority groups can be to those who ignore, or, worse, oppress them.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like a fascinating book and the language to learn about interests me a lot (I have to think about in-group/out-group language a fair bit in my editing work). Also on “You may be thinking I’m reading more about disability lately because I’m studying ASL. You’d be wrong!” I hear you – I’ve had a few people comment on how great it is that I’ve started to read more books by global majority peoples, etc., recently. Nooo, I’ve always read what I could find, yes, there is more being published at the moment but I’ve always done and shared this stuff. Anywy, a very valuable share of a very valuable book.

    Liked by 1 person

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