- Kamsi Obiorah
Interview: Artie Mack and His Reflections on Ableism and Monoculture
Updated: Jun 26, 2021
Artie Mack talks about his experiences as a black deaf man, ableism in the black community, the dangers of aspirational politics, and so much more in this impactful interview.
Artie Mack is a black deaf queer scholar who is taking the world by storm. Before he amassed over 39,000 followers on TikTok, Artie co-hosted an anti-ableism book club for a local bookstore before it fizzled out due to the pandemic. In his free time, Artie enjoys drawing, painting, dancing, and taking part in other fun activities. When asked what his biggest accomplishments were, he said, “When my art, writing, reflections about the world, and conversations inspire people to think differently and behave empathically.”
When Artie isn't creating meaningful art and discussing disability justice, monoculture, and black history on his social media platforms, he is reading books. Artie just started Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. He is also currently reading The Treasured Writings of Kahlil Gibran, Black Disabled Art History 101 by Leroy Moore Jr., and Pokémon Adventures: Part 1 Collector’s Edition. He says that at some point he needs to go back and finish the final part of Douglas Adams’ The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Policing the Planet by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton.
Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Artie Mack faced the duality of being both black and deaf in a majority white town. To discuss his presence on social media, his lived experiences in relation to disability and race politics, and his extensive research, I spoke by video call with Artie Mack.
Artie and I initially bonded over how the American education system had failed the both of us. Even when Artie was free of the challenges that came with a middle school and high school level education, college still barely scratched the surface of black disability erasure from history. "I started taking, like, Intro to African American History, and you really don't get any disabled marginalized experience," Artie says as he thinks back to his time at the University of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Artie proceeded to walk me through the realization that not every enslaved person on board the ships during the transatlantic slave trade was able-bodied. Artie notes that the enslaved people's abundance of physical and emotional trauma coupled with their lack of access to education, medicine, and other resources show that the majority of them were probably disabled.
Artie adds, "And just us not making that connection just shows you how ableism is so deliberately trying to erase us from our consciousness." I naively asked Artie what he believed was at the root of why we don't learn about black disabled people within the black community, and I received a powerful response.
Artie shares, "When you think about the history of the way that black people have been oppressed, the way black men have been emasculated and how they in turn come home and abuse their wives and children and take it out on them; when you think about the way that black people—how they suffer when they interact with white people and then they go back to their communities—a lot of the internalized oppression gets turned against our communities."
Artie then reached for Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions, which he kept on his bookshelf. He shared that the book talked about how disability in and of itself is viewed as a condition in which you do not have complete freedom or control of your body. Artie believes that some people within the black community have internalized this sentiment, and I could not agree with him more.
"Because we don't understand disability from a social perspective, and because the medical industrial complex has done a lot to really make disability look like something that has to be cured, when you combine that with the intersection of race, you know, you really begin to see how we've internalized that disability is something that's undesirable—that there's something in our body that's too human. It reminds us of our mortality. I think that we've learned to reject that," Artie says. If the light bulb in my head wasn't flickering on before, it was now.
Meanwhile, Artie has also battled similar sentiments on a family level as well. "I think about my experience just being on the deaf spectrum. My family is not fluent in sign language. And I have a sister who is also like me, and I have one cousin who is deaf in one ear, and that's it, it's just the three of us. But, we've always had to work hard to communicate with our families. It's expected just like how black people have to work hard to assimilate and keep up with white people. It's weird that black people who are deaf or who also have disabilities are also expected to work harder just to keep up with other black people,” Artie says.
Artie concludes that at the intersection of the scientific community, the medical industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, and other institutions is the desire to systematically keep black people where we are—and that starts through the covert and overt exploitation of black disabled bodies. "The reason why there is so much violence enacted on black disabled bodies is because these institutions have pretty much said, 'Okay, go for it.' That's the big problem," Artie says.
Representation is also a huge problem within the black community and even within the Black Lives Matter movement. Artie articulates, "The ones who are literally leading these organizations are the ones who need it the most. And then you have able-bodied hearing people who come in and take over the movement."
"It's just like we're everywhere, but it's almost like we're invisible in plain sight," Artie powerfully remarks. However, just because society removes disabled people of color from our collective consciousness does not mean that they do not battle internal struggles on a daily basis. Artie shares, "As a black man, I have to be aware of my surroundings and I have to try not to look suspicious when I look around at my surroundings, but as a deaf person I need to look around to make sure that I am hearing everything."
Faced with the challenge of having to be hyper-aware of his surroundings without appearing like a danger or a threat because of his identity as a black man, Artie lives in a constant state of anxiety. He says, "I just always have to stop and think about my survival." The question becomes: How come some people within the black community do not carry the weight of this double burden on their shoulders? Artie believes that the answer boils down to societal hierarchies and privilege.
"I feel like you still have a responsibility to acknowledge that other black people in your community who don't have male privilege—who don't have cis het privilege—still need your support," he elaborates, "I know that as a male or somebody who identifies as a male, I have privilege, absolutely, regardless of how I view my gender. I know that I have male privilege. And that doesn't make me a bad person. It's me having to be aware of how my privilege affects others."
Artie brilliantly notes that privilege is a direct result of institutionalized hierarchies and that privilege is simply being aware of how you take up space. Artie believes that in order for people to have impactful conversations about institutionalized racism and ableism, they first need to analyze the flawed education system.
Artie believes that the education system perpetuates monoculture. He says, "It literally constructs a lens so that we think that able-bodied cis hetero people are the normative and that everyone else is just kind of like this rare occurrence. But the actuality is the majority is actually the minority, and the minorities are actually the majority."
I then chimed in with the point that when you go your entire life operating with this close-minded view, you lose the ability to properly communicate with marginalized people. Artie theorizes that this is why people have a hard time interacting with disabled people.
"There is nothing wrong with feeling a little bit of discomfort with something that you're just not familiar with. That is completely normal. That is fine. It is not your fault if you have not been exposed," Artie says, "The problem is if you allow that to dictate—if that becomes a negative. You know what I'm saying? If you allow that being uncomfortable to become an ‘ism’ or a way that you discriminate. Then that's a problem."
Artie makes it a point that marginalized people already know that the world is uncomfortable with them. I praise Artie for helping us all make the distinction between being uncomfortable and letting our discomfort morph into prejudice. Artie also says that our discomfort is a sheer reminder that we simply have not done the work yet. What baffles Artie is when people get angry at those who simply need accommodations. He notes, "While you're uncomfortable for five minutes, they're uncomfortable their entire life."
At this point in time during the interview, I still couldn't get over how in the past I had failed to make the connection between the medical industrial complex and its ties to ableism. I recalled the statistic that 67% of aborted babies were predicted to have Down syndrome, and Artie responded with a compelling truth: "Disability screening is one of the ways that the medical industrial complex tries to get rid of disabled people or tries to prevent the existence of disabled people."
Artie believes that the polarizing topic of abortion should not be used to justify ableism and that the medical industrial complex should be held accountable for painting disability as something that needs to be eradicated.
Artie then brilliantly brought the conversation back to aspirational politics. He draws the conclusion that since being able-bodied is closely associated with whiteness, which is in turn associated with superiority and purity, some people within the black community do everything in their power to obtain this able-bodied status. Artie articulates the downfall of such a mindset. "That status has sort of become a way to create more hierarchy and division within the black community," he says.
He then raised this thought provoking question: Since people keep talking about how blackness in and of itself is diverse, then why are we still having a hard time with disability? Artie believes that the problem lies within capitalism and the ill motives of black elites. While black elites have historically mimicked whiteness and patriarchal beliefs to secure their own individual survival, their practices may have participated in the downfall of an entire sub-population of marginalized people.
I followed up on Artie's point and asked him if he thinks that white people need to come to terms with their own ableism in order to make things easier for other races to do so. Artie responded, "So much of white supremacy is rooted against that. I feel like black people, black communities, and people of color would have an easier time dismantling ableism in our own communities."
Artie theorizes that unlike whiteness which was founded on principles of world domination and the subjugation of marginalized people, blackness has a better chance of dismantling internalized ableism. "In order for whiteness to survive, it can't be unpacked," Artie says, "Because we don't have a black supremacy that goes back hundreds of years; because we don't have laws written in our favor; because we don't have any of that, it's actually going to be a lot easier for us."
Artie states that since the black community is already doing the work by dismantling racism to guarantee survival, the inclusion of disabled people in our fight for liberation is not as hard as we think it is. "Part of being black and part of being disabled means that we always have to adapt," Artie says, "And that's why I think we actually can do this." Artie later adds, "We already have the tools and the resources to adapt and to dismantle and to change the way that we think."
Since black people do not have centuries old institutions, power structures, and global infrastructures that ensure survival through the marginalization of particular groups of people, then black communities have the ability to create new and inclusive systems.
I asked Artie when he initially began his deep dive into research, and he took me back to his time at the University of Lincoln, Nebraska. As an English major with a minor in art and ethnic studies, Artie took advantage of his courses to learn more about his interests in an academic environment. However, Artie was also quick to say, "School just did not give me what I needed." Artie also surprisingly notes that ableism was not even a word in his vocabulary some ten years ago. "I'm not even sure where I heard the term ableism," he says.
Artie also shared with me some aspects of his own internalized ableism that he previously battled in his past. "I had a lot of problems accepting that I couldn't hear like other people—that I don't hear like other people," Artie says. He further reveals, "A lot of my internalization as a black person was that if I wanted to succeed and get ahead, I had to try to be like a hearing person. I had to try my hardest to make sure that I talk like everybody else and can fit in like everybody else."
He connects his own personal struggle to the lack of representation of black disabled people. Artie says, "Not having representation, not seeing other black deaf artists and creators—I didn't even think they existed." Artie's reflection on his journey as a black deaf person mirrors similar trials that other disabled people of color endure in their lives.
With regards to his research, Artie says that he always had a passion for research but initially never really knew what he wanted to look into. The turning point for his research was the anti-ableism book club that he co-hosted. Even before that, Artie did light reading on race relations, policing, and other topics.
Artie tries to live his life outside the boundaries of capitalist ideologies that force people to give up their passions and interests. "The past couple of years has been me realizing that I have the freedom to research whatever I want," Artie says. "The way that the system is set up, it's like, 'No, no, no, no, no. You have to go to school. You have to be recognized by some institution in order to be certified, in order to be qualified, in order to be taken seriously.'"
Artie also voices the struggles of being an artist in a capitalist society. He says, "We have to support our artists and scholars. Like, I want to make a living off of this. I currently work two jobs. And even last year, I was working three jobs."
When asked about the most striking thing that he has encountered in his research, Artie gave a fascinating response: "Realizing that all of this is not as complicated as we really think it is." Artie says, "The most striking thing to me is all it takes is bias and discrimination and having these ideas solidified by medicine, government, law, and school and academics, and you literally can shape an entire civilization just like like that."
"Our hierarchies and systems of power are literally just out of collective agreement," he says. Artie explains that conformity is what allows the machine to thrive. The "machine" in this sense is the intersection of Western expansion, colonialism, and capitalism.
To drive this point home, Artie made an analogy that dives into the human psyche. "Think about a time in your life when you got really, really sick," he says, "And it was like the worst illness you've ever had and then you get better and you're like, 'I never ever want to be that sick again!' There are some people who don't have the luxury of getting better. There are some people who are sick every single day, chronically ill, but the problem is we look at the experience of being sick and we go, "I hate being sick. I don't like that experience. I hate it."
He continues, "We see a person who is sick and somehow that hatred gets put on that person. And so that sickness becomes representative of that person, and so we don't want to see them. And that's why we don't want disabled people in our society. It reminds us of being disabled."
Meanwhile, Artie's family has a long history with disability. Artie knows family members who have struggled with lupus, MS, diabetes, addiction, neurodivergence, and deafness. Artie believes that we have to change the entire definition of disability. He defines a disabled body as a "body that society does not accommodate" and a "body that society does not allow to thrive."
Then our conversation shifted back to society's uplift of picture perfect black cisgender heterosexual men to hide its neglect of other marginalized groups of people. And who better to talk about than former President Barack Obama? "As an able-bodied, lighter skinned black man, he literally—like what I said—was kind of outside of reality," Artie says. Essentially, Obama's proximity to whiteness allowed him to succeed in his political career and further dismiss the pleading cries of disabled people of color. Artie powerfully adds, "That's not liberation at all."
"There's so much pressure to be progressive and to be liberal, but part of me thinks that's part of the problem. I think even the conservative-liberal is becoming performative on both sides,” he says. Artie believes that we have to be intersectional with regards to the politics of race and disability. For instance, he references society's disregard for how environmentalism directly affects disabled people. "If I don't see politicians making that connection," Artie says, "they're not doing the work."
The performative activism seen through legislators and politicians is quite visible in current business practices as well. “With this pandemic, a lot of small businesses have hopped on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon so that they can get publicity and government funding,” Artie says. Large corporations protect their corporate gains by weaponizing the struggle of people of color, while implementing systems that deliberately hurt disabled people.
Artie articulates that Big Business secures profits through the practice of removing accommodations for disabled people and people of color alike. “The reason why racism is continuing to thrive is because it’s profitable,” Artie says.
It’s also no secret that the general population would rather hear accounts of the black and disabled experience from those who are not even marginalized to begin with. “It’s always going to be a perpetuating cycle of when you have these white people who come in and say, ‘I stand with the Asian community. I stand with the black community,’ and they keep getting rewarded for it,” Artie maintains, “And it’s almost as if white people who speak up on ableism or racism get more praise than black and disabled people who are speaking out on racism and ableism.”
Artie theorizes that the reason why the voices of disabled people of color are marginalized is because white moderates and performative activists find it easier to digest the white narrative over the actual truth. “The white narrative is always about the status quo—it’s always about uplifting the status quo,” Artie elaborates.
One of Artie’s final points was about the shapeshifting qualities of racism. “Racism has to become more graceful. It has to be refined. It has to be subtle. It’s like the more that technology advances, so does our hate,” Artie explains, “The way that society advances, so do all of our ‘isms’ to keep up with that.” Artie also articulates that racism has to constantly adapt to the current political climate in order to maintain capitalism and white supremacy.
Since the racism and ableism seen through the medical industrial complex, the education system, large corporations, and other societal institutions operate subtly through our everyday lives, disabled people and people of color quite literally become erased from our shared consciousness.
“When the public doesn’t care about black people, then black bodies are disposable and can be used for whatever," Artie says, “When the public doesn't see disabled people, then disabled bodies can be disposed, they can be exploited, they can be experimented on, they can be discarded like whatever.” Artie also maintains that this is why the media does such an amazing job at constructing a lens so that we don’t see what is happening behind closed doors.
Artie connects the ways in which disabled people are treated within their own families to the erasure of disabled people as a whole. “How many times is the disabled one in the black family the one that’s just sitting in the back?” Artie asks. He also shares that in his family, he was seen as the helper or the person pushed to the side. Some black families have internalized the actions of the larger society which cause them to ostracize family members on account of their disabilities.
“There is a lot of ugly within the black community that has to be healed,” Artie says. So, where do we go from here? How can we find hope in this sea of ugly? The answer is almost as simple as this: a combination of using our collective agreement to defend the marginalized and amplify their voices. Artie also says that people should not beat themselves up for being a little uneducated about topics revolving around ableism and racism. The issue is when people choose to remain uneducated and continue to perpetuate the cycle of discrimination and marginalization.
Having the opportunity to pick Artie’s brain about disability and race politics for a few hours was truly a privilege. Artie’s story provides a firsthand account of what it means to be both black and disabled in our current political climate. His powerful reflections continue the start of a larger conversation about the impact of capitalism, white supremacy, and aspirational politics on society’s most marginalized groups of people.