Systemic Oppression Keeps My ADHD Self Down

The most difficult part of my existence as a Black femme with ADD? Convincing people that I do, in fact, know what I need – even, and especially, when others assume I don’t.

More than anything, I need to be believed. I need to be believed when I say that I need time alone. I need to be believed when I say that I need a break. I need to be believed when I say that I’m too overwhelmed with a project.

I also need for others to dispel with the assumption that I’m asking for favors or making excuses. I need people to understand that my request isn’t just about what I want – it’s primarily about what I need.

But when Black femmes speak up for our ADD needs in the workplace and elsewhere, our voices are muffled by the interference of racism, ableism, and skepticism — problems compounded by misogynoir.

Part of this is due to the longstanding stereotype that Black people, specifically Black women, are “lazy,” “deviant,” and “handout-seeking”.

[Read: The Children Left Behind]

A Long History of Hate

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” for example, depicts Black people as incompetent, unruly, dangerous animals who needed taming. The film built justification for the Ku Klux Klan, and was responsible for its re-emergence.

More than half a century later came the caricature creation of the welfare queen – a poor Black woman seeking a hand-out check – often the subject of Ronald Reagan’s speeches in the 1970s. This fictional character reinforced the myth that Black people, specifically Black women, sought to skate by and leach off of society without any contribution. She, the Black welfare queen, is lazy; she pumps out children, demands money, bleeds the system, and wants to be shown favoritism.

These vile stereotypes, coupled with the standard white-patriarchal U.S. workplace culture of “productivity” — plans, goals, systems, checklists, time crunches, and obedience, all of which become more of the job than the job itself — creates a recipe for reprimand and discrimination against Black femmes with ADD.

There’s the Black understanding, for instance, that your employer is “looking for you to do something wrong” as an excuse to fire you. From this comes the pressure and paranoia of being under surveillance because of the color of your skin. That fear, coupled with the fight to suppress the symptoms of a disorder, could be deemed incompetency or rebelliousness by employers.

[Read: “I Could Have Been Myself for So Much Longer”]

A Culture of Distrust

In graduate school, I had to have many back-room conversations with professors about my ADHD accommodations, which stated that I needed more time on projects and more days of rest beyond the absence policy.

I’d already felt self-conscious as a Black woman attending graduate school at a predominantly white institution. The mental-health toll on Black people at PWIs is a well-known phenomenon that I’d already experienced and knew. Yet I’d wanted so badly to play the “Men of Honor” role and exceed others’ expectations. I soon realized that, without the blessing of the Student Disability Services office, I couldn’t.

I had to ask for my professors’ signatures on any course accommodations, which was always an awkward and degrading experience – having them commit that they wouldn’t fail me for taking care of my own needs. These interactions also left me feeling ashamed, like I was playing the “disability card” whenever I reminded them that the reason that I needed more time on a project or a test was because of something beyond my control.

At least I had a piece of paper to protect me in graduate school, unlike in high school, where I’d suffered penalties for missing assignments, misplaced textbooks, disorganized notebooks, and mixed-up dates.

Due to all of the above, my white high school teachers readily excluded me from group rewards and recognition when I “failed” to meet requirements. This was in spite of outwardly displaying almost every textbook ADD-teenager symptom. Not one teacher thought to inquire whether my performance was the result of navigating an undifferentiated education rather than a product of defiance.

They didn’t believe me when I said I lost something and needed another copy. They didn’t listen when I said I needed the directions repeated again. They didn’t believe that I needed another day to study, because I had forgotten about the test. They didn’t believe that I needed to get up and walk around when we were sitting for too long.

What’s more, their distrust in my ability to determine what I needed led to more punishment and less empathy — an all-too-common outcome for Black students. To my teachers, I was an “unruly and lazy” Black child who was “making excuses,” “not working hard enough,” “unmotivated,” “disrespectful,” “distracted,” and on the “wrong track.”

There is no happy ending here. However, I did eventually recognize that others’ distrust in my capacity to state my needs has been rooted in the assumption that I’m deviant and lazy — an assumption birthed from racism, patriarchy, ableism, and workism culture. Herein lies the genesis of a life-long battle to clear the clouds of doubt and skepticism others have cast on me just so I could be – be anything or anyone at all.

Dismantle Oppressive Systems So We Can Thrive

When I do find environments where my needs are fostered instead of disregarded, I thrive and blossom. When I’m trusted and believed, I’m given space to be innovative, creative, humorous, theoretical, intellectual, and philosophical. It’s an investment that guarantees a world of spontaneous, ingenious displays and possibilities. When my employers and coworkers, believe that I’m doing my best and see me as a human, it’s the most important accommodation I could imagine.

And to white readers: While you reckon with white supremacy and figure out how to navigate the world and deconstruct systems of oppression, don’t stand in the way of people like me, who have to suffer as you come to terms. Don’t misunderstand me – your internal journey is important and I hope it yields new understandings and different behaviors. But while you figure that out,  I need to be believed and trusted. I deserve this much not just as a Black person with ADD — I deserve this as a human.

Next Steps:


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Updated on September 14, 2020

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