Intersectionality, Shamanism, and Disability

This morning is a wet, gray, damp fleece of a morning. I awoke, in the middle of the night, to the sound of sleet and freezing rain striking the skylight; I could hear the intermittent “pings” even without my hearing aids. Now the world wears an icy coating, although the temperature has risen and as the day goes on the ice will likely melt.

Saturday morning the stairlift repair person was finally able to bring my lift back online. It took a week to diagnose the problem, order parts, and get the machine up and running, a week in which the fear and frustration that accompany lost mobility were my frequent companions. Now that the lift is back in operation I am free to be in the studio, and at this moment I am ensconced in my work area in that very space!

I’ve been working on a proposal for a conference I may want to attend. Writing a proposal has provided me an excuse to catch up on some long neglected reading on disability. Perhaps not surprisingly, reading this literature has left me deeply angered, or rather, has reminded me of how angry I am. No wonder I have shied away from it now that I am no longer teaching!

Other events have contributed to my present unsettled state as well, including the Brazilian government’s renewed genocide against the Indigenous people of the Amazon. We don’t need to revisit all of those events; it is enough to acknowledge that those experiences and readings have awakened a wealth of hurt. This anger and bitterness stands in sharp contrast to the social expectations of persons who occupy the roles of disabled, shaman, Native, and therapist, all of whom are expected to enact a grand acceptance, gratitude, and equanimity.

Two fields of academic discourse seek to address the complexity of life lived at the intersections of diverse identities :intersectionality, and autoethnology. I write frequently about them on this blog, usually without naming them. Both attempt to describe the everyday task of navigating the world with our complex conceptions of self. Those liminal spaces are rich, difficult to articulate, potentially joyful, and the home territory of shamanism. They are also often fraught with danger, conflict, confusion, and suffering. It is a heady mix, eh?

Anger arises here, at the margins and interstices, stirred into motion by a seemingly endless stream of microaggressions and major slights absorbed by me and the people I love. Of course, not all interactions with others cause harm; many are deeply rewarding and renewing. It is more that the incessant sharp cuts create a profound rawness that is difficult to soothe.

The situation is worsened considerably by those who remind me of the truth that as a white appearing, middle class, exceptionally well-educated, male I have considerable privilege. This speaking of one truth serves to obliterate other lived truths, even, at times, my very real nearly life-long disabilities. As a person who uses crutches, has a number of body asymmetries, is frequently exhausted, is in his early seventies, and has a raspy voice, I am all too often just visible enough to be rendered invisible. As a disabled person raised in near poverty, and who identifies as of mixed ethnicity and is unable to trace his ancestry, I experience the ongoing contestation of many key aspects of my identity.

The heartbreaking thing about all of this is that I have, since the age of seven, lived with the active ablism and racism of those around me, and have been forced to navigate the impacts of attitudes and behaviors that are more disabling than the after effects of Polio. Disability is, after all, largely socially constructed. When held in the gaze of those who are temporarily abled, it is easy to find oneself marginalized into a ghostlike existence or fighting fiercely for visibility, both exhausting and deadening positions.

One of the key tenants of both intersectionality and autoethnology, and of shamanism and Narrative therapy, is that marginalization and erasure can be challenged best by building coalitions of persons who share experiences of being exiled to the margins. Yet, increasingly, the creation of shared resistance is thwarted by the sheer weight of the unmet needs of those of us who find ourselves living at the edges of the culture, and the seemingly endless invitations from those in power for us to turn against one another. These are hard times indeed.


7 thoughts on “Intersectionality, Shamanism, and Disability

  1. An honest and powerful reflection about life on the margins, Michael. For some reason, it brought to mind a song by Si Kahn, “What you do with what you’ve got” ( One of the verses seems to fit so well with your discussion about privilege, although some of the language is a bit archaic and demeaning:

    “Between those who use their neighbor
    And those who use a cane
    Between those in constant power
    And those in constant pain
    Between those who run to evil
    And those who cannot run
    Tell me which ones are the cripples
    And which ones touch the sun.”

    It’s obvious that despite many significant challenges and chronic pain, you have chosen the path of a healer. Thank you for using your gifts and for being an inspiration to so many others. ❤

    1. Thank you. The thing is, it is not enough for me to thrive in spite of the ill will of others. There are many people who have fewer resources and more harm, persons who also need support and protection. One must raise one’s voice, eh?

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