Rating: 3.5/5 stars (but still worth a read)
Short version: While the book provides novel insight into how we can care for people instead of utilizing shame, its core principle hinges on a myth that indirectly says that disabled/ neurodivergent people cannot be nurturing in the way the author outlines as the “right” way. If readers utilize a disability justice lens and additional readings (provided at the end) about disabled wisdom and diverse manifestations of emotional intelligence, I believe the book can still be helpful in learning how to be more nurturing both individually and as a culture.
Ableism – which can be defined as disdain or outright hatred for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill people – is present in everyone and all aspects of society. No person or group, no matter their identities, is exempt from recognizing and unlearning their ableism.
All too often, disabled people are left out of social justice work. Somehow, because we have more or different access needs than “the average person” and we (rightfully) become frustrated if those needs are ignored, we are unable to do “the real work” of activism. Because we aren’t “normal” – because we can’t be out in the streets for hours or we’re unable to complete a task as expected due to a flare-up, we aren’t “good activists”. Of course, this is bullshit.
The core concept I have learned from disability justice is simple: every person is different. Not in the trite, “we’re all the same on the inside” way – I mean that no two bodies or minds are the same. We all have different needs and methods of approaching tasks and challenges. We all understand and express things – such as emotions or frustrations – differently. We are all different, and as long as they aren’t harmful, all of those differences are valid.
However, we tend to stigmatize people whose differences are more apparent than others. Nora Samaran’s book Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture makes it clear that the author not only believes in, but actively perpetuates the idea that there is a “normal” and “right” way to approach the work of transformative justice and making our world a more caring, nurturing place. This hinges on an ableist belief that is repeated throughout the book: that the ability to be nurturing relies on “attunement” to “subtle, nonverbal cues” (pp. 27-28). Again, this is bullshit.
There are many neurodivergent people in this world who are not attuned to “subtle, nonverbal cues” who are still incredibly loving, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent. There is a prevailing belief that autistic people cannot empathize with others because they do not understand common nonverbal cues in the same way as neurotypical people. On the Autism FAQ section of their blog, Lydia X. Z. Brown answers the question, “Do Autistic people have empathy?” Their answer perfectly sums up my issues with Samaran’s assessment of what qualifies as nurturance.
One of the…characteristics of Autism is a deficit in the ability to understand nonverbal forms of communication — including tone or pitch of voice, word choice (such as idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors), facial expressions, body language, and other subtle communications…most Autistic people have a hard time accurately expressing their own thoughts, feelings, or opinions using nonverbal forms of communication. We also have trouble identifying the emotions of others based on subtext or body language.Lydia X. Z. Brown
The inability to produce and interpret nonverbal cues does not prevent someone from having emotional intelligence; insisting otherwise is ableist, full stop. So long as we continue to prioritize “subtle, nonverbal cues”, we will ostracize autistic and other neurodivergent/ disabled people and perpetuate the ableist myth that someone must produce and read a certain type of body language to be able to communicate well with others.
Clinging to socially accepted nonverbal cues also adversely affects nonwhite people in the West. In many other cultures, it is offensive to look elders or superiors in the eye. Speaking as a Black person, our cultural idioms and body language are often read by non-Black people as “aggressive” or “threatening”, even though it’s how we’d interact with loved ones.
Prioritizing “subtle, nonverbal cues” hinders the development of the ability to make explicitly clear our feelings, frustrations, and discomfort. Being able to communicate these things in a way that everyone can understand is far more important than producing them in possibly unreadable ways. Being able to tell someone – in language they understand – that they’re harming you or making you uncomfortable is a very important part of emotional intelligence. Insisting that someone communicate in a certain “normal” way is not empathetic or emotionally intelligent.
In Chapter 3: “Turning Gender Inside Out”, the author presents a dialogue between her and Serena Bhandar, a transgender woman. Bhandar critiques parts of the book by saying “we reproduce this assumption that there is a cis[gender] audience that is primary and a trans[gender] audience that is secondary. We should be prioritizing them differently.” (p. 53) Mainstream society reproduces the assumption that there is a primary able-bodied population and a secondary disabled population. This is demonstrated when organizations ask people to convey their access needs after the event is already planned, or when we refer to certain methods of communication used by disabled people as “augmentative and alternative communication.” Augmentative and alternative in relation to what? Why are we saying that ablebodiedness is “normal” and that anything else is an “alternative”? Why do we ostracize certain ways of existing?
I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt; I really do. Disabled people are often perceived as “unlikeable” for pointing out everyday ableism like what I have pointed out in this review. On page 106, Samaran asks: “How long…would you retain your sanity while speaking kindly and asking for harm to stop and having it seem as though you had not spoken at all?” I’d like to flip that question for able-bodied/neurotypical readers: how long would you continue to be “likeable” while asking people to stop being ableist and they make it seem like you’re being disagreeable? How long would you keep being “likeable” if your identities weren’t even an afterthought – if they weren’t a thought at all? How long would you try to be “likeable” if people acted like you were an asshole simply for existing?
I believe that if someone were to read this book and implement its practices without the knowledge and lens of disability justice, they would inadvertently reproduce ableist maxims about which methods of communication are “normal” and “right”. They might think a neurodivergent person is harmful because they cannot read and reflect their nonverbal cues or because they communicate in scripted phrases, repetition, or “abnormal” physical action such as stimming.
We need to keep in mind that disabled people are not harmful simply because we move through the world differently than most people expect. Disabled people have a culture all our own, complete with the expectation that communication styles work for everyone, or as many people as possible. Saying that our methods of communication are not valid or emotionally intelligent is not nurturing – it is ableist and harmful. In social justice work, we cannot leave anyone behind; disabled people must be included and listened to in bringing about the emergence of nurturance culture.
- Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, (2018).
- Chapter 2, “Crip Emotional Intelligence”, pp. 69-73 (can also be read here)
- Chapter 7, “Cripping the Apocalypse: Some of My Wild Disability Justice Dreams”, pp. 122-135
- Chapter 8, “A Modest Proposal for a Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered by Disabled, Femme of Color, Working-Class/Poor Genius)”, pp. 136-148
- Chapter 17, “Protect Your Heart: Femme Leadership and Hyper-Accountability”, pp. 213-224
- Brown, Lydia X. Z. “Ableist bullshit targets nonspeaking autistics/autistics of color. Also, the sky is blue.” Autistic Hoya. (29 April 2017.)
- Berne, Patty. “Disability Justice – a working draft.” Sins Invalid. (9 June 2015.)
- Sequenzia, Amy. “Non-speaking Self Advocate on Communication.” Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network. (2 August 2012.)
- Brown, Lydia X. Z., et. al., eds. All the weight of our dreams: on living racialised autism. DragonBee Press, (2017).
- Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice.” Leaving Evidence. (12 April 2017.)