Ashley Inkumsah: Hello everyone. And welcome back to What’s Up WID: the World Institute on Disability Podcast, where we discuss what’s up in the disability community across the globe. On today’s episode, I’m super excited to share my very fruitful conversation about the intersectionality between racism and ableism with the wonderful Nikki Brown-Booker. Nikki is the program officer for the Disability Inclusion Fund over at Borealis Philanthropy. And she’s also a biracial woman of both Black and Filipino descent living with rheumatoid arthritis. We talked about Nikki’s experiences with respect to her identities as a woman of color with a disability and how the systems of racism and ableism operate together to undermine people of color with disabilities. And I hope that you enjoy our conversation.
Thank you so much for joining me, Nikki. I am excited to have this much-needed conversation about the intersectionality between ableism and racism. And before we even dive into my questions, the first question that I always ask all of our guests is always, how are you doing today?
Nikki Brown-Booker: I’m good. It’s a little bit of a cloudy day in the Bay Area, but it’s really nice. And I’m very excited to have this conversation.
Ashley Inkumsah: Yes, me as well. So as a biracial woman of Black and Filipino descent, and also having a disability, how would you say that you have had to navigate the world in respect to those identities?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Such an interesting question. You know, I feel like when it comes to navigating the world as a biracial person and a person with a disability, that often you’re asked to choose which identity you happen to be at any particular time or moment, which I find really challenging to have to do. I’m not just a person with a disability during any particular time or moment. I have multiple identities and I’m all of those identities all the time. So I think that that’s been one of the biggest challenges of having multiple identities that are really obvious to people. They’re obviously visible. Kind of feeling like I have to choose which one I’m being at any particular time. I also think that that’s not just something that happens in general.
I mean, it happens even within my own family structure, or even with like friends or at school. I have people ask me all the time, do you identify with one particular identity more than another? And I’m like no. No, I don’t. And it’s like why wouldn’t you even ask that question? Yeah. So, but it happens all the time, all the time. So I think that’s been one of the more challenging things about having a multiple identities. And also just like, when I’m in a particular group, say I’m hanging out with like a group of Filipino people or something, sometimes they’re like you don’t look Filipino. Are you really… Do you really belong? Right. So, and that happens in many different settings. Like do you really belong because you don’t either look a certain way? Or I’m not quite quite sure why you would identify as this or that. So that’s something that happens quite a bit.
Ashley Inkumsah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And have you felt pressure to have to prove yourself either way or the other into one identity?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Yes. All the time. I do. I think that happens a lot. I think that happens more with kind of my ethnic identity than maybe with my disability.
Ashley Inkumsah: Oh absolutely.
Nikki Brown-Booker: Because my disability is really clear and obvious, but sometimes when… I remember this happening when I was in like middle school, being kind of by some of the other Black students and not feeling like I was really part of the group. Once, someone actually told me “You don’t really speak like a Black person. You’re not speaking in slang or like everyone else.” I’m like, well, my mom really taught me not to speak in a certain… with regular English and not to use a lot of slang. That’s just how I was brought up.
And so I’ve had that experience and I’ve had that experience from the other side too, being Filipino and being mixed. I think a lot of Filipinos are kind of racist against Black people. And so there’s been some experiences there, where I would have to prove that I really was Filipino, that I had a Filipino mother, that I grew up with a very strong Filipino family. I mean, for me, growing up as a child, I spent more time with the Filipino side of my family than with the Black side of my family. Because my Black side of my family were from the South and Mississippi area. Whereas, all of my mother’s family literally lived within like two miles of my house. So I saw my Filipino relatives virtually every day. We were in school together, with my cousins and went to my grandmother’s house every Sunday for dinner. So..
Ashley Inkumsah: Yeah. And how have you navigated all of these challenges that you’ve faced, fitting into these identities and having to feel like you have to choose between one or the other? How have you been able to navigate that and turn that kind of on its head?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Well, I feel like I pushed back against people about that all the time. Having people ask me to choose or wanting me to choose or act a certain way, I act the way I am and who I am. And if they don’t like it, then they don’t like it. I’m not going to change or try and be someone that I’m not, or be different than who I am. And also, not deny a part of me because someone else or some group wants me to do that. So I kind of push back against that. People ask me what my nationality is or ethnicity is. I always say I’m Black and Filipino. They asked me about my disability. I’m pretty open about answering questions about that. So, I’ve never denied any part of who I am, even when people have wanted me to.
Ashley Inkumsah: Yeah. I totally agree. I mean, there’s no one way to be a Black person. There is no one way to be a Filipino person. And there is no one way to be a person with a disability. And it’s really disconcerting that people feel that people who are multiply marginalized have to even be a monolith, but I think it’s really commendable and admirable that you have that self-assuredness and you refuse to choose and you refuse to let other people define who you are. How would you say that the systems of racism and ableism are interconnected?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Good question. Well, I feel like they’re definitely very connected to each other. I mean, anything that makes you feel less than, or an other, and any type of discrimination really is a problem. And I feel like when you have multiple ethnic identities along with a disability… But sometimes I feel like when you’re talking about cross movement to work, I think a lot of times people in a particular movement haven’t really brought in people with disabilities as much. Or they see the movement as separate, but they really aren’t separate. There’s ableism that exists within the Black community, the Filipino community, just other types of communities. Ableism to me is something that is kind of universal in a way, across communities, and no one’s taught how not to be ableist. I think people are more taught how to be ableist as they’re growing up.
So I feel like that exists in almost all communities. And then, intersecting that with racism, so you would have this… For me, I feel like I’m always having to prove that I’m smart. I’m always having to prove that I can speak intelligently or that I can be whatever I am or who I am or what I want to be. And because I’m always rubbing up against racist ideas and white supremacist ideas and ableist ideas that somehow I’m not as good as someone else because of the color of my skin or my physical disability. I don’t know if that answers your question but…
Ashley Inkumsah: Yes. That did answer my question very comprehensively. This time, last year, we were really having this conversation. We were having a so-called reckoning with race, and we were having a lot of these conversations about racial justice. Why do you think that the racial justice conversation has to include people with disabilities?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Well, I think it absolutely has to include people with disabilities because white supremacy is everywhere. And white supremacy says that you’re less than if you are not, quote unquote, what they would think as normal, whatever that looks like or is. I’m not quite sure what that’s supposed to be. And so I feel like where racial justice movement really needs to bring people with disabilities, really active into that movement, because it’s the only way that we’re going to win, is if we work together. And fighting those ideas of white supremacy and fighting those ideas of ableism and racism that… And also, I feel like those movements really need to also address their own ableist ideas and really work through those so that people with disabilities really feel understood and included within those movements. And like I said, the only way we win is if we work together.
Ashley Inkumsah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I think definitely it has to be said that racism creates disability in a lot of cases, right? That’s why Black and brown people account for the most disabled people because in a lot of cases racism creates… Like one system really can’t exist without the other. And if we look back in history, some of the earliest traces of ableism occurred during slavery time where the concept of phrenology was really pervasive. The idea that the slaves were born with inferior skulls, like the composition of their skulls is why Black slaves were inferior to whites. The way that Black people were characterized as being hysterical and biologically predisposed to being uncivilized and this was what the notion was. The stench of that, the remnants of it is still very much pervasive. And the vestiges of it is still very much here to stay and yeah, like one system cannot exist without another. As long as ableism exists, racism will always exist. And yeah, definitely those societal barriers, only continue to create disability, which is why we all need to come together to fight for each other really. And-
Nikki Brown-Booker: Absolutely.
Ashley Inkumsah: How do you think that people with disabilities from different intersections can come together to fight for disability justice? How can that start to happen?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Well, I think that just having a conversation about it, I think is really important. I feel like that conversation is starting to be had, but I also really felt like, we need to have more communication together and with each other to really see where the commonalities in our movements are. And also people with disabilities can be racist, and people who are a person of color could be ableist. So, until we actually start having the conversations about what that looks like, what that feels like, and really trying to bring some understanding to each other, then we’re always going to be fighting against each other. Like I said, we have to work together to win. And I feel like really actually having sometimes hard, challenging conversations with each other about those things is really, for me, it’s so important and really foundational to the work that needs to be done. And I feel like when we start having those conversations and start having like understandings and meanings behind what that feels like for each other, then we can really come together and actually start working together.[intermission]
Ashley Inkumsah: WID has recently relaunched our new and improved blog, where we tackle current events, affecting people with disabilities, from the Free Britney movement, to why people with disabilities don’t want to go back to normal, to disabled TikTok creators that you need to be following. There is no shortage of content. So visit our website today at www.wid.org/news/blog, to catch up on our latest blog posts.[end of intermission]
Ashley Inkumsah: From a perspective of a business, why is it important that companies and businesses and corporations that their diversity and inclusion initiatives include people with disabilities? Because a lot of times, people disabilities are left behind when people think of diversity and inclusion. Why is that so important that people disabilities are included?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Well, it’s hugely important because I mean, there’s a couple of reasons why I think it’s important. One, if you have people with disabilities who are actually working for you and in your business, then it’s going to force you to actually really think about access within your own companies and making sure that all your workers have equal access to all the things that they need. And you don’t really get that until you have someone who’s working there who might need something as minor as having their computer put up on a stand so it’s at the right eye level, right? We’re not talking like we have to do major, expensive changes or anything. Sometimes access is very, very minimal. I use two pencils for typing that’s a 30 cents solution, right? For access.
So I think for companies, having people that are people with disabilities working there, it makes people feel included. It’s also they’re really missing out on really good skills and opportunities from people, if they’re not really incorporating people with disabilities into their workforce. I mean, people with disabilities have a lot to offer the community and also have a lot to offer businesses. And it’s like you don’t know that you’re missing out, sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. And I really feel like businesses really need to think about really bringing more people into the community, into their work. And that’s one of the ways that we combat ableism.
Ashley Inkumsah: Absolutely. I totally agree with you. And, personally, I would love to hear more about your work at the Disability Inclusion Fund team at Borealis. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got involved in the philanthropy space?
Nikki Brown-Booker: Sure. Before I started in philanthropy, I was an executive director at an organization in Berkeley called Easy Does It Emergency Services. So I was on the other side of writing grants and trying to get funding for my organization and understand the challenges and the struggles of writing grants and trying to get money. And I was really interested in learning more about the other side of that picture and learning more about philanthropy. So when this position opened up, I was really excited and applied for it. And I think one thing that’s really unique about Borealis philanthropy, or as an organization in particular, is that they really try to hire people who have lived experiences of the communities that they’re serving, that they’re basically giving to. And so I think that was one of the things that attracted them to me is that I’ve been an advocate in the disability community for probably well over 20 years and really understood the community, have lots of lived experiences.
So, and I use that in my work for the fund on a daily basis. I feel like a lot of the organizations that we’ve given money to, I understand their work that they’re doing. I, either, understand it from a perspective of… Understanding what those services look like because either I have received services or I’ve worked to give those types of services. And also just understanding the policies behind different types of work and understand advocacy and have done lots of organizing on disability issues. So I think that really made me well-suited to work in philanthropy because philanthropy, in general, doesn’t really understand the disability community and the needs that they have. So I feel like one of our goals of the fund is really to teach philanthropy about disability and for also the disability community to learn more about philanthropy and how that works.
Ashley Inkumsah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes. And I want to circle back a little bit because we talked a lot about your cultural identities, but I want to discuss more about how it was like for you growing up with a disability and what were some of your experiences and what support systems did you have? So if you could share that with us, that would be great.
Nikki Brown-Booker: Sure. So I come from a really big family, I’m the youngest of eight kids. Yeah. And both my parents are also come from big families. So my mom is the oldest of nine kids. And I think my dad was the second youngest of eight kids. So, I grew up in a really big family…I have six brothers and one sister. So I really think that it really shaped my experiences as a person with a disability. One, I know for a lot of people with disabilities, their families tend to be really over-protective of them. I think my family was kind of a little bit of the opposite. They’re always like…Brothers were like, you can do anything that you want to do, just go and do it. And always really supportive.
As a young child [inaudible 00:24:20] was part in special ed. I was in a special classroom until I was mainstreamed into a regular classroom. And I feel like as a young child with my particular disability… I have rheumatoid arthritis so a juvenile form. I spent a lot of time in hospitals, a lot of time, doing things like physical therapy and I’ve had many, many surgeries as a kid. So I think that really shaped my understanding of what disability really means. But I think coming from a big family that was really supportive of who I am and really went a long way. I mean, I felt like my mother and grandmother were really strong women and they had to take care of a lot of kids. They have a lot of responsibilities and were really, really hard workers.
My parents owned restaurants when I was growing up. My father was a chef. And if you’ve ever worked in the restaurant business there, you have to be extremely hard workers. And so I really feel like part of my work ethic came from my family and my parents in particular. And also my parents really supported me in going after whatever I wanted and what I believed in. And so that was something that I grew up with. And my dad was in a union. My mom was a domestic worker, so I really… And those are issues that are really important to me. So, I feel like that really had an influence on my love and desire for social justice.
Ashley Inkumsah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That is wonderful that you had such an amazing support system. That’s amazing. And based on your own experiences, what advice would you offer to other people with disabilities who come from multiply marginalized backgrounds? What would you say to them?
Nikki Brown-Booker: I would say to them don’t let people push you around. Don’t choose who you are in any particular day or time. Be who you are, be proud of who you are, and really stand up to that type of marginalization. And everybody has different skills, different challenges, different things that they’re good at. Find what you’re good at. Find the thing that you love and figure out how your disability or your ethnicity really enhances those things and use those things in your life as opposed to trying to fight against them.
Ashley Inkumsah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s exactly what you’re doing. And it’s amazing. It really is marvelous for sure. Where can our audience keep up with the Disability Inclusion Fund work that you’re doing at Borealis? Where can they find more information?
Nikki Brown-Booker: I think you can find information on the Borealis website and sign up to be on the mailing list for the Disability Inclusion Fund, which you can do on the website also. We’re doing lots of exciting things. We have our Request For Proposal out right now. We’ll be doing more grant-making next year. And I think one thing that I’m really excited about for us in the future, is we’re going to be doing a lot of capacity building for, not only for our grantees, but also just like thinking about things that the community needs and providing some more capacity building around those types of topics.
Ashley Inkumsah: That is fantastic. Well, it was so wonderful speaking with you. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would want to tell to our audience?
Nikki Brown-Booker: I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. I mean, I guess my last thing I would say is one of the things for me that’s been really important that I’ve learned as a person with a disability and a person of color is that people are always going to try and knock you down or not even knock you down, but just make you feel like you’re less than. And just remember that you’re not. That you have as every right to be part of the world and society as anyone else and you make your presence known.
Ashley Inkumsah: That is absolutely awesome advice. Well, thank you once again for joining me. I had so much fun having this conversation with you today.
Nikki Brown-Booker: Thank you!
Ashley Inkumsah: It was so great to have this conversation about racism and ableism with someone who exists within several multiply marginalized identities. Her self-assuredness, and willingness to proudly claim all of her identities and tear down the systems of racism and ableism is the absolute embodiment of disability justice. Now, as always, you can find ASL interpretations and transcripts for this episode and all of our past episodes at www.wid.org/whats-up-WID. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, don’t forget to share it. Now, thank you so, so much for listening to, watching or reading today’s episode. And in our famous last words here on What’s Up WID, to paraphrase one of our founders Ed Roberts, we need to get out there and change the old attitudes so we can build for better. Thank you so much. And I’ll talk to you next time.
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