The Controversy of Normativity Passing

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

In a society where the definition of normativity is defined by the hegemonic society, passing becomes the ultimate form of escape.  In literary works – such as: Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Krik! Krak? by Edwidge Danticat, Space Between Us by Thrity N. Umrigar, and Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa – various forms of passing are demonstrated. Passing in this sense, is escaping from one’s true identity to mold into the identity of what society deems as dominant and “normal.” While most people associate passing with race, passing is really just one individual trying to identify as what society deems as “normal.” In other words, passing for normativity – which is a white, heterosexual hegemonic society.

Before Western influence, cultures thrived in acceptance. In Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes, addresses how Western influence makes other cultures ignorant to their own traditions. “Esi was thinking that the whole thing sounded so absolutely lunatic and so ‘contemporary African’ that she would save her sanity by not trying to understand it. The only choice left to her was to try and enter into the spirit of it” (Aidoo 91), Ali had proposed to Esi, though he had a first wife. Esi understanding traditional African culture was confused as to why she had to wear an engagement ring. She was accustom to the traditional African way of life and aware of men taking on multiple spouses. Due to Ali being reconstructed into this Western way of thinking, he is coming in and trying to impose a Western version of marriage on a traditional African way of life. Cultures, to some degree, cast more judgement now. Disabilities have always been unaccepted in many societies, but Western influence only further enhances this ignorance. People are born the way they are and they cannot help the way in which they are born.

The education system has been taken over. In Cracking India Lenny is being nurtured from her home. She had been withdrawn from school due to her condition of being diagnosed with polio. It appears as though her disability defines her, when she has not yet been given the chance to explore the realm of education. As the novel progresses, it is clear that Lenny is smarter than she looks. She has an awareness to the world she lives in and the people around her.

Society forces people to attempt to pass as someone who does not have a cognitive learning disorder. This results from the ignorant gazes of those who do not care to understand and just want to box people who are different from them. Instances in the media and literature display how people try to further handicap people who already have a disability:

Wagging his finger over my head into Ayah’s alarmed face, he tut-tuts: “Let her walk. Shame, shame! Such a big girl in a pram! She’s at least four!” … But back he bounces, bobbing up and down. “So what?’ he says, resurrecting his smile. ‘Get up and walk! Walk! You need the exercise more than other children! How will she become strong, sprawled out like that in her pram? …” (Sidhwa 12).

In Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Crack India, Lenny is a young girl who was diagnosed with polio. As a result of having polio, she was pulled out of school and under the watchful care of a nanny. She is misunderstood, like so many other children like her who have been labeled disabled. The scene above represents an advocate like my mother trying to promote the advancement of Lenny as she grows older. The gentleman recognizes that she is being hindered and reprimands Aayah for continuing to hamper Lenny.

A crack in the foundation is all society looks at. But who’s to judge where the crack comes from? Why is it that these innocent children who suffer from a disability in learning, but are in all essence happy, deemed as a source for this faltered foundation? Is not those who judge whom create such a rift? Judgement is the source of violence. The Ku Klux Klan judged skin color and used that as their motive to terrorize the African American community.

Power, control, and blending in are reasons as to why people pass – whether by force or by choice. “History teaches us that, in certain circumstances, it is very easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people” (Cabral 53), looking at the words of Amilcar Cabral, the system of society becomes the foreigner imposing on the young, innocent minds of individuals. Society creates the curriculum that adults must instill in their children. Over the years, the curriculum has transformed into a system surrounding testing. Youth today are required to attend school in order to memorize the materials to pass tests rather than actually learn valuable skills and lessons that they can then use in their everyday lives. As a result, people who have a cognitive learning disability are punished. Unless they can perform at a level of average or above average learning capacity, people are destined to fail. Cabral goes on to state that “In fact , to take up arms to dominate a people is, above all, to take up arms to destroy , or at least to neutralize, to paralyze, its cultural life” (Cabral 53). In some ways, the systems within society are destroying a group people who are different from its definition of normal. Destroying, although it is a powerful word, accurately portrays some of the effects that society has on some people. In society, adults are still living a thin line between passing and living their life in their truth. Racialized passing is still occurring due to the injustices that negatively impact the African American community.

The experience of colonial domination shows that, in the effort to perpetuate exploitation, the colonizer not only creates a system to repress the cultural life of the colonized people; he also provokes and develops the cultural alienation of a part of the population, either by so-called assimilation of indigenous people, or by creating a social gap between the indigenous elites and the popular masses (Cabral 57).

By segregating people who are the designated “other” from people who are not, the systems within society are propagating the notion of division in society.

Society is built upon division. Races, cultures, or disabilities construct who has the upper hand in society. This divide reminisces to a phrase within Cracking India: “There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warris Road? How will I ever get to Godmother’s then?” (Sidhwa 101). With all the divisions being created within society, there is going to be a break. People who are disabled in some form of fashion are not a disease to the country. Society needs to stop creating this invisible barrier and portraying people who are mentally slow or disabled as being outcasts. They are human beings just like everyone else, and deserve the same amount of respect if not more. While the rest of society continuously judges one another, the children within this classroom see no differences. Everyone is the same to them.

Love is so vital to the survival of being an “other” in the United States. Children who are born with a mental and/or physical disability become vulnerable to the world. It becomes clear to see how easily someone could take advantage of any of the children. Where Lenny holds some intelligence, she is naïve. She is willing and open to conversing with people whom she does not know and is intrigued by some of the men that Aayah brings around. Similar to Lenny was this one child, who continued to reference women as being his mom. It showed that he was capable of going home with stranger. Other children are aware of different people, but accept what they are told. The love and compassion these young children have are similar to a particular line within Krik? Krak!: “It’s so easy to love somebody, I tell you, when there’s nothing else around” (Danticat 96). Marie says this after retelling her life story. It is clear that she longs to be loved and to love. She has lost everything and has nothing. Love, in Haiti, is essential to surviving. Lenny yearns to be affected because she is an outcast. Marie simply just wants to blend in to society and feel safe. The old president of Haiti is like society within the United States. He instilled fear of safety within the people. Society, today, just is not safe anymore. People have more ways to shield their true demeanor. In addition, in schools such as this one, the children are divided and made to appear as outsiders. All over the world, people must fight to survive for whatever reason. Those who must fight the hardest, are the people who suffer the greatest disparities. The way Aayah loves Lenny and the way some of these other characters receive love from people who look past their flaws is similar to the love Sethe has for children in Toni Morison’s Beloved. Sethe kills one of her children in order to save her child from the hands of slavery. While these families can’t bare the disability that their child has, they are attentive and understanding. Some of the children have parents that don’t care enough about their well-being and look at them as problems because they can’t take care of themselves.

Like Lenny, many of these children are underestimated. Some are skilled in the art of drawing, while others are extremely personable. Each child is unique and possesses his/her own way of learning to survive within society. While the more impaired children need extra help and attention, there is still a unique attribute in which they can contribute to society that is also useful. Some children grow up to be examples of people whom we should pay more attention to.

The most common form of passing in a school system can be seen between children who have a mental – cognitive – disability and those who do not. In Ms. Christine Fiorello’s class, she teaches children who are cognitively disabled that range in age from five years old to ten years old. The dynamic of how the school system categorizes children is fascinating. There seems to be a disconnect. The school board has no sympathy to those who are considered “others.” Nowadays, schools are designed for testing and not necessarily providing skills that are essential for surviving in the real world. As a result, children who are enrolled in special education due to a cognitive disorder, are suffering.

Runny nose. Loud rambunctious child-like voices. Pounding footsteps. These are the noises one can hear when they enter the Harrington Elementary School located in Lynn, Massachusetts. For those who are unfamiliar with the city of Lynn, it is a city dominated by immigrants and impoverished, working class people. The Harrington Elementary School is a public elementary school that caters to children who function as standardized, cognitive learning children and to those who suffer some sort of mental disability in grade levels preschool through fifth grade. A school is the perfect place to locate various identities and how society forces people into compromising situations.

After visiting the classes at the Harrington Elementary School, one realizes how ostracized children who have a disability really are. A greater love is made for these children. They have an innocence that radiates and seems everlasting. A no judgment zone that can teach people today how we should treat one another.  One would most likely prefer to be in a classroom full of students who are mentally disabled. They don’t judge based on someone’s skin color or style of hair, and that in fact would feel quite refreshing. Getting a hands on experience working with children who are cognitively disabled and seeing what makes them so different, enables people to get a better understanding of who these children are and what type of education they really need and deserve. The major difference is the simple fact that the majority of them do not discriminate. Yes they learn at a much slower rate than the average student and many of them also have behavioral issues, but for the most part, they are friendly and misunderstood.

Students who have a cognitive learning disability with have three disparities against them. Just looking at the basics, class and race. Many of these students come from poor or working class families. Some students are immigrant children whom may or may not be illegal and English is not their first language. This segues into race. The majority of the students are minority races and mixed cultures. Now, add to the fact that they have a mental disability. Life is hard for them, and is forced me to reflect on my own outlook on life. In Ama Ata Aidoo’s book Changes, Opokkuya addresses the issue of life being hard: “But Opokuya wasn’t having any of her self-pity. So she countered rather heavily. ‘Why is life so hard on the non-professional African woman? Eh? Esi, isn’t life even harder for the poor rural and urban African woman?’” (Aidoo 50-51). These children will most likely grow up to have non-professional jobs, and be forced to try to make a living for themselves.

The education system is trying to prepare them in a path that they are creating for students who are capable of achieving in the college system and taking tests to have professional careers. Rather than understanding that these particular students need to be taught in a different manner that enables them to be self-ready for the world that they are going to have to live and survive in. The paperwork that coincides with children with disabilities, does not allow for an accurate detail of where the student is at. Instead, it is too standardized and structured for the students who are capable of excelling in the academic world. The children whom are in Ms. Fiorello’s classroom, don’t learn at the average pace of children their ages, nor do their behaviors match their ages. Most of them are in pre-school learning, when their peers are in kindergarten to second grade. There is a disconnect in the education system because the board members don’t understand, and quite frankly, don’t care enough to try to build a curriculum that empowers the levels of learning that these children are at or find ways to document each child accurately.

Ms. Fiorello is an advocate for children who have a disability. She tries to incorporate life situations into their lesson plans so that they can get some experience dealing with the real world. She always goes to meetings and attempts to create changes in the lesson plans that are more adapting to children who suffer from some type of cognitive disability. While so far her attempts have gone unanswered, she does not stop. Yet, being a teacher, she only has so much control. At the beginning of her school year, a female student was placed in her class. Yet, after a few weeks, the school decided that her learning ability was “passable” to be moved into a regular functioning kindergarten class. Ms. Fiorello did not decide, the school decided. The young girl is now forced into a classroom that may be uncomfortable for her because she must act like the other boys and girls who do not have a learning disability. On the other hand, a male student was placed into Ms. Fiorello’s classroom halfway into the school’s first semester. This student had a behavioral issue that had got him kicked out of regular kindergarten. Ms. Fiorello’s classroom caters to students who have cognitive learning disabilities, not behavioral issues. The school deemed him as abnormal because his behavior was not up to par with other students his age. Since he was no longer “normal” the school decided that he must be special needs, regardless of the fact that he could learn at an average learning level.

In the situations that occurred with the students that Ms. Fiorello dealt with, an issue of passing is portrayed. There is a misunderstanding both by the school and the parents of the children. If nothing else, the parents have an excuse. Many of these immigrant families come from cultures where having a disability of any kind was shunned upon. In the news, some countries appear where they are kidnapping people who are regarded as abnormal because they don’t compare to what that society or culture constitutes as “normal.” In this case, some of the parents of these children try to persuade their children to “act normal.” In doing so, society is creating an identity crisis. Passing deals with identity because it is concealing one’s true identity; trying to appeal to society’s normativity ideal. Studies have been done that show why forcing an individual to subdue his/her “abnormality,” actually inhibits his/her ability to function at a level that allows them to advance both mentally and physically.

Thirty Umrigar in his novel The Space Between Us uses is a descriptive phrase that genuinely sums up the atmosphere that one engages in as he/she works alongside these children who are mentally, and some physically, impaired: “You felt a deep sorrow, the kind of melancholy you feel when you’re in a beautiful place and the sun is going down” (Umrigar). The parents of some of the children are accepting. It is clear to see that they want to be involved in the education of their children and do anything they can for them. The school that Ms. Fiorello works in, consists of minority families who are underprivileged. These families come from countries where special needs persons were shunned. It was almost like a sin. People cannot always help how their children are born, but in the eyes of some countries it is an ailment. However, just as Ali struggled to integrate his two worlds, people today struggle to do the same. People are accustomed to how they were raised and some of these families cannot ignore what they were taught growing up. Cultures where it was a sin to be disabled is hard to run away from even if one moves to another country. Danticat demonstrates this struggle to escape in her novel, as well.

Aside from just the educational aspect, is the social aspect. There seems to be segregation. Students who are mentally retarded are kept away from the children who are “normal” as if they have some contagious disease. There is a social construct surrounding the idea of what is “normal” and that which is not “normal”. Lenny is physically disabled, but is kept away from the other children. Lenny being withdrawn from school because she has polio, makes it appear as though she has some type of contagious disease. The colonialism within the education system is so black and white. It is very clear who runs the education policies within the city. Parents of children who are cognitively impaired try to push their children to pass just to succeed in the education system. Despite the fact that the city is majority comprised of minorities and immigrants, the education board consists of mainly white men and women. These are the people who are in charge in structuring the way the classrooms are run and how children will be educated.

Essentially, society has constructed a standardized assessment of normativity. As result, societies, and/or cultures, are enabling parents to dictate how they should instruct their children to act. Does a parent allow to be a child to be his/herself despite the fact that he/she is cognitively impaired, or does the parent try to get their child to “pass”? Either way, there is no true win. The education system inhibits children who are disabled from advancing in the society that they live in. At the same time, passing inhibits the children from be their true, genuine self. At the end of the day, there is a colonization within the education system and these children need help to overcome forced passing and a system set up to destroy them.

Passing is a notion of survival amongst the victims. The novels aforementioned demonstrate examples of passing within their contexts due to the fact that the characters were victims of colonialism. Colonialism is what causes people to lose their true identities in order to feel safe and attain the economic status in society. Sethe chooses to be an outcast in both why and black society for the decision she made, which she set her child free. Lenny is unable to pass because society is depriving her and ignoring her potential as an intelligent young girl. Esi submits to the culture of Ali who is trying to merge his traditional African culture with his Western knowledge. Unfortunately, neither one is able to pass with fluidity amongst one another’s lives without one suffering. In this case, Esi is forced to “pass” into Ali’s distorted lens of a relationship, tricked by Ali’s persistence and attempts to “pass” into the world of Esi. The list goes on and on; however, the notions of passing within the textual literary works are supported by the current issues of passing. Disabled students, not the type like Lenny, but the students who are cognitively disabled, are encouraged to pass, but in doing so, they are further hindering their ability to interact safely in society. Passing is a continuing problem that’s needs to be dealt with a global level. The novels only further advocate the need to create change.

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