“This blog post is not intended to be interpreted as attempting to solve and disentangle white privilege and the systematic oppression of People of Color and disabilities. It is a vulnerable personal narrative of my experiences and should be taken as that”.
– Rachel Dorsey, MS, CCC-SLP, Guest Author
My mom is Puerto Rican and was raised in a strict Catholic household. My father is from New Jersey and was raised in a Jewish household. My mom moved to the states when she was in her twenties, met my dad, got married, and then they had me.
It is not my place to share their individual stories. But I will say that my mother and I have known for at least 15 years that my father is autistic. And since I received my diagnosis, my mom is suspecting herself too.
Everything is all very confusing—how all these pieces of myself fit together. To be fully transparent, I am no longer religiously Jewish. But I was raised Jewish and attended a Jewish preschool and synagogue and Sunday School until I was 13. It ended at that age because I cried and begged my parents not to force me to go—I didn’t get along with the other kids there. I only talked about anime. I would recite lyrics from anime opening theme songs over and over and draw anime on my worksheets. I couldn’t learn to read Hebrew despite taking courses for several years.
Some kids said I wasn’t really Jewish. Because my mom is Catholic. And because we couldn’t afford for me to have a Bat Mitzvah. And because we didn’t keep kosher. But my mother read children’s Torah books with me? And we would participate in major holidays both at home and at the synagogue? Every now and then we would talk about God at the dinner table.
I remember in first grade our teacher printed out this class activity to decorate a coloring book page Christmas tree with glitter and jewels and sparkles. These highly stimulatory visual things make me feel euphoric. I asked my teacher if we could decorate a menorah coloring book page for Hanukkah. The next day he printed out a menorah page and the activity was to decorate with markers. Just markers.
My mom’s grandparents immigrated to Puerto Rico from Spain. So that side of the family looks very Western European. So I look very Western European. I look white.
My mom has a complicated history with Puerto Rico. She would cook Puerto Rican food, but my dad was a picky eater, so she made less and less as I got older. She would use certain Spanish phrases that better emote than their English translation, but she made the conscious effort to not speak most Spanish within our household. By speaking Spanish, and exposing me to that language, she felt she was passing on a difficult part of her life onto me. So I don’t speak Spanish. But I do lisp, because my mom lisps, because of that classic Spaniard lisp.
My classmates and teachers always knew I was Puerto Rican. Either I told them or they met my mom, who told them. My mom often had difficulty being understood because of her accent or some of her unexpected social behaviors, so she would tell people, lots of people, she was Puerto Rican—I think because she felt like she had to justify herself to others.
In high school, Latinx kids had their own clique. But I didn’t speak Spanish, so, quite understandably, I was not in this clique. One time I was talking to a Dominican boy in my class, and he was telling me about when he moved to America. I mentioned that I am Puerto Rican. He told me I am not because I don’t speak Spanish.
Looking back, I wonder what aspect of myself was responsible for this communication breakdown. Was he invalidating my heritage? Or was I invalidating his heritage by trying to compare our very different experiences? Was he trying to open up to me and I shut him down by making it about myself, despite trying to bond by showing commonality? Was it my autism—my tendency to relate by sharing similar feelings and experiences? Or are our experiences so different, his immigration to America and my being born in America to a Puerto Rican mom and a white father, that any sort of comparison was insulting? Or was it him—minimizing my experiences and viewing ethnicity and heritage from some external objective lens?
People have said that to me—“You aren’t Puerto Rican!”—many times. More often than not, it’s from white people. They say it to try to poke fun at how white I look. Or maybe just to express they are surprised. Or maybe I am giving them too much credit, and they are invalidating my experiences despite meaning well. Or maybe they do not even mean well, because if they meant well, they wouldn’t invalidate in the first place.
I am autistic. It is hard for me to understand the intentions of others. I automatically think people are trying to insult me somehow, and I need to prompt myself to think of all possible explanations for others’ behavior.
In college, studying the undergraduate speech therapy degree, my peers pointed out I lisped. I didn’t know I lisped. I told my mom, and I told her she also lisped. But she thought it was very sweet that I was doing something she does and seemed to attach a sentimental value to it. So she saw it as a cultural speech difference. But my undergraduate department was telling me it was an articulation disorder, and I needed to get it fixed. Luckily, I found a speech therapist in the area who was near retirement and saw me pro bono for a few months. I still lisp sometimes, especially as cognitive load increases when I focus on other things.
In graduate school during my speech disorders class, I explained this situation to my professor after class one day. He told me that my lisp is a cultural speech difference in my circumstance. That felt validating. But the rest of the world hears me occasionally lisp, and I am so white looking, and I do not speak Spanish, so to them it is a disorder that needs to be fixed. It’s hurtful. But it makes complete sense, as the research base has solidly concluded that lisping is an abnormal development of /s/. But also, cultural sensitivity and this emphasis on cultural speech differences vs speech disorders are also evidence-based. It’s all very confusing. Makes me think of some low-key commonality between this and autism being a medical disorder vs a neurotype. Not in the intensity of experience or disability in any way—just another example of the medical model of disability vs the social model of disability in thinking about any sort of disability or difference.
After working as a speech-language pathologist for a few years, I got formally diagnosed as autistic. It’s another layer—another factor—to this entire thing. I present so neurotypical. I seem so neurotypical. I seem so normal. So normal. Until I don’t. And then I am unexpectedly annoying or odd or unsettling or confusing. I work very hard to mask when interacting with parents and other professionals. The pain of a communication breakdown, and then my going over and over it in my head, analyzing every possible interpretation of the situation, is exhausting. Disclosing I am autistic to friends has been more unsuccessful than it has been successful. I am often invalidated. The common narrative of autistic identity invalidation.
So here I am. I WAS religiously Jewish, and I AM ethnically Jewish. I AM Puerto Rican. I AM Autistic. I am a speech language pathologist, too.
Except in all my experience being several minorities, every single one has been invalidated. It’s enough to make me doubt myself. It is an uncomfortable spot to be in. Being ME is an uncomfortable spot to be in. Like many autistics, I take comfort in solid explanations and answers. It is a fact that I am Jewish, Puerto Rican, and Autistic. That’s solid. But no one knows, and if they do know, it’s invalidated. That’s messy.
On the completely other side of things, since I do look so white, do I have white privilege? Yes, yes I do. Absolutely. People don’t question my judgement or intelligence, generally, like they do with my mom with her strong Puerto Rican accent.
Client’s parents have said some awful things to me about People of Color. Or Jews or Muslims. And they say it in this “Am I right?” sort of tone, with the understanding that since we are both white, we are in complete agreement. More often than not, I have been a coward. I stay silent. I don’t want to lose this client—I don’t want them to contact the service coordinator or school and request a different therapist. Then these authority figures will judge me as not “meeting parents where they are at.” Because I am autistic, and that is hard for me, and it would be another client dropping me for these communication mismatches. And I think of the child, and the child did nothing wrong. And this is a low-income area, with few providers, so it would be another few months before another provider is available.
Are these just excuses? Yes, so I am bad. I am perpetuating racism. But I am also Jewish and Latina myself, so it should be on my own terms if I want to disclose that. But in being silent, I am letting my own people continue to be oppressed. But the child still gets seen. So, no, I am good. Right? Yes? No?
Sometimes I feel ashamed of myself. I should be this openly proud Jewish, Latina, Autistic woman. Because exposure to minorities leads to tolerance or maybe even acceptance. But instead, I hide under this safety of whiteness and excellent masking. But…it’s effing hard. It is hard to confront the oppressive system by self-disclosure. Potentially lose clients. Potentially lose employment. It is hard. It is hard.
So, this is it. No word of encouragement or empowerment—to either allistic white therapists or autistic POC, or, in my case, autistic therapists who are POC. If anything, I want people, all people, to know….it’s hard. It is just fucking hard.
About the Author: Rachel Dorsey, MS, CCC-SLP is an ASHA certified speech-language pathologist who works for AKSpeech in private practice and runs her own consultancy named Rachel Dorsey: Autistic SLP aimed at educating parents and professionals about their autistic children and clients. You can reach it at www.dorseyslp.com