Feminists We Love: Mia Mingus

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One insidious effect of systematic oppressions–including ableism, sexism, white supremacy, queerphobia, classism, and colonialism–is that we become disconnected from one another and from ourselves. For Mia Mingus, justice depends on connection. On her blog Leaving Evidence, Mingus incites us to leave evidence:

Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached. Evidence of the wholeness we never felt and the immense sense of fullness we gave to each other. Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live–past survival; past isolation.

For her part, Mia Mingus is leaving evidence that liberation is possible through intersectional community work. Her efforts in the areas of disability justice organizing, transformative approaches to child sexual abuse, and queer wellbeing have been widely celebrated from the White House to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Mingus identifies as a queer physically disabled Korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee.

HLT: Mia, in your recent keynote address at the annual Queer & Asian Conference you speak from the experience of disability, but you also identity your relative privilege.

“I want to specifically name my privilege as a disabled person, when so many of us are locked up in prisons, institutions, group homes, or in the back rooms of our families’ houses. I have a level of mobility that many disabled folks don’t have and I know it is a huge reason I am visible. As someone who is physically disabled and does not have mental or cognitive disabilities, I know how privileged it is to get to speak from the mic to a crowd full of people and be listened to.”

So often, we self identify with a group, but rarely do we explore our relative privileges within that group. Why is it important to both identify as disabled and identify “privilege as a disabled person”?

Mia Mingus: It is important to acknowledge the complexities of privilege and oppression and how they play out in our worlds.  For me, it is especially important around disability in this particular historical and political moment.  Historically speaking, we are still so close to the majority of our history, where most disabled people were locked up, institutionalized, homeless,  hidden away in the back rooms of their families’ homes, not allowed to access education or have a job, and generally not allowed to participate in the public sphere at large.  And this is still so true for so many people.  So, for me to be able to do the kind of work that i do–to be able to travel, be listened to, be able to work a 16 hour day–it is so much about having the kind of disability and body that is “able enough” to squeeze itself into those privileged spaces.

“Disability,” includes a huge amount of people and an enormous amount of different kinds of disabilities.  To pretend like ableist oppression and privilege do not manifest themselves differently among disabled people would be such a disservice to cross-disability community building. For example, to pretend as though those of us who pass as able bodied or “don’t look like we’re disabled,” don’t receive a totally different reality than those of us who are undeniably and obviously marked as disabled by everyone they meet, would be ridiculous and does not do justice to what we are up against nor how powerful a system ableism is.

Yes, there are common threads and themes as to how ableism manifests in our lives and there are many ways we benefit from ableism as well, and many ways that we are (knowingly or unknowingly) complicit in perpetuating different forms of ableism as disabled people, often against disabled people who are different than us. Our work to stay curious and honest about our complexities is not some kind of intellectual exercise to get some kind of political gold star, but doing it helps us to understand oppression and violence more so that we may better fight them. It helps us to understand the parts of ableism that we may have otherwise missed. It helps us to better recognize the places where ableism and racism are bound up or where ableism and gender oppression are indistinguishable.

To me, this is about our work as activists, revolutionaries, leaders and organizers–as humans–to cultivate and build our skills in holding complexities, contradictions and Both/And spaces.  To not work so that everything can fit neatly into different boxes because it makes us feel better or sounds better to funders or is a catchier messaging campaign, but to really do the hard work and support each other in being able to hold the messy, the imperfect, the ugly, the uneasy, the truth.

HLT: This Disability Forum involved some difficult conversations about accessibility. Specifically, we received some feedback that our original call was inaccessible. The Collective took this feedback to heart and revised the call. We retained the original emphasis on critical disability studies but also explicitly asked for pieces addressing disability justice and activism. This revision was also critiqued for being inaccessible, and so the original editors regrouped and invited a guest editor who had offered some concerns initial to join us. At TFW, we continue to think deeply about how to take accessibility seriously. From your perspective, where do folks go wrong when trying to make spaces increasingly accessible?

Mia Mingus: One of the biggest mistakes people make around accessibility is by starting only with access. I think access is a tool, a practice, an intervention for justice, but that access has to happen inside of a political container and that political container is disability justice; it has to happen for the sake of something.  Access has to be done in service of something.  What I mean is that access for the sake of access is not necessarily libratory, but access for the sake of connection, breaking isolation, love, justice and liberation is libratory. There is plenty of access being done that is not libratory.  Many times access is done as a quick fix, an add on or a “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it” type of angry/guilty shuffling. Most access right now is about inclusion and equality: how do we bring disabled people to our table? how do we make sure disabled people have access to what we have?  How do we get disabled people access to the current system? Rather than thinking that the entire “table” or “system” might need to change or working to embrace difference. Justice does not have to equal sameness or assimilation; and justice and equality are not the same thing.

To me, inaccessibility is an opportunity to be bold and creative in an ableist world.  It is a red flag, a compass that helps point us towards where the work still needs to be done.  The place to start is with the framework of disability justice and then move toward access, rather than the other way around. The place to start is learning about disability justice now, not when inaccessibility happens, but before it does. Start cultivating and supporting access intimacy now with the people in your life. Inaccessibility will never go away (at least not for a very, very long time), many times it may not even be possible, and, in my mind, it is not an end goal to shoot for–ever.  Start thinking about what you are actually committed to, beyond access: is it to be in solidarity with disabled communities, to end ableism, to challenge able bodied supremacy, to build community for all of us and not just some of us? How can your response to inaccessibility help move you closer to those?  Stop thinking about access as the end goal, but rather as an evolving process and practice that can help us create the kind of world we ache for.

HLT: You were born in Korea, raised in the Caribbean, have deep ties to the U.S. South, and now make home on the west coast. Given your own geographic biography, I am so interested that you identify working for “home for us all” as central to your vision. Why is it important that all of us have home? And how would we know if we’d found it?

Mia Mingus: Home is a huge theme in a lot of the work I am a part of.  Whether in a literal or metaphorical sense, I think home is deeply important, as it connects us to where we’ve come from and what grounds us and, often, what we wish we had had.  Our homes are strategic sites for political work and often go unattended to in our movements, as many times they are the first places where we learn about power and control, oppression and violence, fear and shame.  For some of us, the homes we’ve come out of were not the kinds of homes we longed for or felt safe in. For many of us, we have experienced our deepest sense of home well into adulthood  and many more of us have multiple homes. As a transnational and transracial  adoptee of color who feels a deep connection with other diasporic peoples, I think the idea of home or belonging is a continuing question and process that will constantly be evolving.  I don’t know if there is ever one way to know when you’ve gotten there and so many of us are continually searching for home in different ways.

I think home can be many things: a bestie, a car, a lover’s embrace, a piece of music, nature, land, chosen family.  It can be the way that someone helps you down the stairs, a political movement or the sounds that let your shoulders loosen and your heart open. I work so that we can all have homes where we feel loved and safe and understood.

In working around disability justice and transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse, home is such a central location of silence, isolation, trauma and violence. In many ways, a lot of our work is reimagining what “home” can be and transforming our homes; pushing back against what US empire tells us “home” should be and redefining it for ourselves. What kind of a place would the world be if we never had to worry if our homes would be unsafe for our children or ourselves, but instead had homes that nourished and challenged us?

HLT: It seems that both ableism and empire rely upon fierce distinctions between “us” and “them,” “human” versus “non-human,” “insider” or “outsider.” I wonder if re-imagining home and disability justice require breaking down these kinds of binaries. How do people confront and break down these categories?

Mia Mingus: Breaking down binaries  and binary thinking is certainly an important part of our work to end oppression and respond to violence. It is important to understand how binaries work to maintain domination.  Part of this is expanding our understandings and definitions of what and who are “disabled,” if we use disability as an example. Part of this is simply beginning to acknowledge the binary, how narrow it is and all of the many people who don’t fit neatly into society’s definition of “disabled” or “able-bodied,” and including the experiences of people with non-visible/non-obvious disabilities. Part of this is acknowledging how arbitrary definitions of “disabled” are in the first place and how those definitions are shaped by culture, gender, race, geographic location and have changed over time. And part of it is acknowledging how fluid ability is, and for all of us how fleeting it is in a culture of such relentless violence, and how all of our bodies are changing and moving towards becoming “less-able” as we age.

I think we need to work to challenge and dismantle binaries in strategic and relevant ways that are both grounded in the world that we exist in and that help  move us towards the world we want.  Simply avoiding binaries or pretending like they don’t exist, is not helpful, and often erases the current reality of disabled people who face very real oppression and violence everyday because they get marked as disabled.

I see this happening over and over as mixed-ability (disabled and able-bodied) spaces and groups begin talking about disability and ableism. All of a sudden the conversation quickly jumps to how “everyone is differently abled” and how “we’re all disabled in some way.” And while I think it is important–very important–to talk about how ableism impacts us all (because it does), we cannot ignore the truth that ableism impacts us all in very different ways. And while we may, someday want to live in a world where all of our different bodies are accepted and where we honor everyone’s different abilities, we don’t live in that world yet and we will never get there until we are able to sit with, face and understand what is. There’s where we want to be and where we are. And part of where we are, is that many people are living inside of this binary, being labeled as “disabled” in very real and violent ways, and being denied access to resources because of it; many people are dying inside of it. And many people are thriving inside of it, gaining very real superiority and able-bodied privilege that offers them distance and disconnection from those deaths and that violence. Where we are, is that there are many people who don’t have the luxury of escaping that binary or pretending it is something other than what it is. We cannot move toward disability justice without the lived experiences of the people who get marked and oppressed as disabled and any work to challenge, reimagine and transform what disability is or could be cannot forget this.

HLT:  At TFW, we talk about the importance of sustainability and the role of self care? What are your self care strategies? Are there books, blogs, films, performers, artists, organizations, etc. that keep you grounded, energized, and/or impassioned?

Mia Mingus: I take care of myself so that i can take care of others and that is also always at the root of my self care and sustainability.  Some of the things I do include staying connected with the people I care about, cooking and baking, eating delicious food, getting up to watch the sunrise, sitting in the sun on my front porch with a cup of hot tea, and *trying* to drink enough water and get enough sleep. One of the main things that sustains, grounds and energizes me is the work I get to be part of with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC) to build and support transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse. I feel lucky to have found and get to work with fellow people who consider this as part of our life’s work. Having been involved in activist, organizing and social justice work my entire life, our work in the BATJC has been some of the most inspiring, challenging, connected and profoundly moving work I have ever had the honor to be part of.  It is definitely a big place of resiliency for me.



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  2. Terri Thrower

    December 20, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Great questions from HLT, but even more impressive responses from Ms. Mingus. I love her thoughtful, compassionate, and nuanced discussions of very complex (and rarely tackled) subjects. Particularly, her statements about privilege within the disability community, her disability justice perspective on access and accessibility, and her tactful yet clear responses about how lived experiences of disabled people must not get lost or diluted within the rubric of “mixed ability” spaces and how that can lead to “we are all disabled” in some way. Not exactly, and this gets back to ableism and able privilege–a primary structure of oppression. Anyway, thank you for this impressive interview and introducing me to her views. As a disabled woman , I will continue to follow this intelligent, compassionate feminist