Strategic Essentialism

However, antisubordination activists have engaged in a form of strategic essentialism as a means of resistance (Spivak, 1989). Mimicking conventional strategies of nonsubordinated power holders, strategic essentialism is a move by members of a subordinated category to simplify group identity and counter normative expectations.

DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 205). Teachers College Press

Strategic Essentialism “…refers to a political tactic in which minority groups, nationalities, or ethnic groups mobilize on the basis of shared gendered, cultural, or political identity to represent themselves. While strong differences may exist between members of these groups, and amongst themselves they engage in continuous debates, it is sometimes advantageous for them to temporarily “essentialize” themselves and to bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve certain goals…

John Elder Robison’s piece about using “neurodivergent” instead of diagnostic labels to build coalition is an example of strategic essentialism.

When schools and workplaces move from autism programs to neurodiversity programs, they include every person with a cognitive difference, not just autistic people. The tent gets bigger, and it has room for all.

Whether your goal is competitive advantage or human service, you should be able to meet your goals better under a Neurodiversity at Work banner, as opposed to an Autism at Work one. In both cases the supports needed are similar, but the neurodivergent population is substantially larger than the “only autistic” population so your chances of success are magnified.

While labels like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or PDD-NOS may be useful for therapists and childhood educators, the community-sourced alternative “neurodivergent” is probably better suited for colleges and workplaces. In those spaces, medical labels carry stigma that leads to conscious and unconscious marginalization. Expectations are always lower for people with disability diagnoses.

Neurodiversity is a new concept but the underlying reality has been part of human society forever. In the modern era work and school programs designed for the average person have excluded those whose cognitive styles fall outside that narrow midrange. Despite that, workplaces – including colleges – already contain plenty of neurodiversity so a primary program goal should be the better support of those people. Neurodiversity at School and at Work is not just about bringing new people into the fold.

The newest Neurodiversity initiatives recognize this fact.

By embracing the neurodiversity model instead of autism, employers can move toward a more inclusive welcoming environment.

Source: The Next Step for Neurodiversity | Psychology Today

We like to solve for the infinity, foreground complexity as the baseline, design for the edges, and design for pluralism. Sometimes, doing that requires coalition built on strategic essentialism.

…creating coalitions can subvert dominant hierarchies and transform the status quo.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 205). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

Individuals, however, do not experience identity as a fractured reality. If we start instead with this understanding of intersectionality informed by DisCrit, the multivariant nature of experience may be a place for coalition.

Source: DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education (Disability, Culture, and Equity Series) (p. 212). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

Strategic essentialism can address gatekeeping and make us more broadly inclusive, but it can be taken to the extent of strategic erasure.

Without community, there is no liberation…but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Community is magic.

Community is power.

Community is resistance.

Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the 21st Century

To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.

Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope

MARTÍNEZ: There are various forms of working together. A coalition is one, a network is another, an alliance is yet another. And they are not the same; some of them are short-term, and some are long-term. A network is not the same as a coalition. A network is a more permanent, ongoing thing. I think you have to look at what the demands are, and ask: What kind of coming together do we need to win these demands?

And if you know the administration will pick your groups off one by one, then the largest umbrella you can possibly get is probably the best one. Some of the answers to your question are tactical and depend upon the circumstances. But the general idea is no competition of hierarchies should prevail. No “Oppression Olympics”!”

DAVIS: As Betita has pointed out, we need to be more flexible in our thinking about various ways of working together across differences. Some formations may be more permanent and some may be short-term.

”Coalition Building Among People of Color“, Angela Y. Davis & Elizabeth Martínez – Center for Cultural Studies Via: Spider-Verse, Identity Politics, Leftist Infighting, and the Oppression Olympics – YouTube

Further reading,