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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


The Crusty Label

I seem to have offended someone using the “crusty Asian woman” phrase in my post about Adam’s haircut. I appreciate the person, although remaining anonymous, for speaking out. My intent was not meant to be racist at all, although the person raises an interesting point about labels.

Here I am talking about being careful about semantics, and whack, I used the word “Asian.” Now, I see that word as descriptive, for writing purposes – a set of physical attributes summed up in one word. If that person was German or Swedish (except that "they" are not visible minorities, I acknowledge) or whatever, I would have found a word to sum up a look in order to give this picture. I often describe people in terms of Black (a really general term considering the scope of the world where people are from), German, Jewish, British, Russian, Phillipino, Canadian, American, European. I try not to overgeneralize. Perhaps this is what makes any phrase slanted with racism. A label certainly doesn't describe a person. It only describes a set of features and physical traits. Instead of a sweeping brush stroke to provide a picture, I instead put a black line through an entire race of people?

Of course my intent was not meant to be racist, except that in fact, I did offend someone, so I suppose for that reason alone, it can be considered racist. For that, I am sorry. It’s a good question, actually (feel free to answer it) -- what is racist in the scope of writing, in being descriptive? (I think I've in part answered it). If someone who is not Jewish speaks about the Jewish people, it often comes across all wrong, perhaps even if the person didn’t intend it as such. Just prefacing a sentence "I met this Jewish guy," is like a loaded gun -- I find my hair standing on end, waiting for the next phrase, racist or not. Having converted into a Jewish family, my radar is a little more sensitive than it used to be, so I actually should have been more aware of this type of referencing. Yet, looking at the argument from the side of receiving supports for autism, what have we all come to that we can’t describe and state difference, and if we do, it appears to be discriminatory? How defensive are we that we must equate equality with homogeneity -- to whitewash description and difference entirely?

In my case, I do not intentionally use race to describe the human being. Except in my description, I placed together race and a description of the person “crusty” or abrasive, together. Any person of any race can indeed be unpleasant. Character traits transcend race indeed. It also takes many encounters with a person, many paragraphs and descriptions to figure out if someone is a racist. Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is clearly a collection of rabid racism.

When I describe a person in my writing, I try to paint a picture of the character, hopefully in all their richness. If that character has unpleasant flaws does it make the writer a racist -- the collection and context of words is important here. Perhaps the desciption in my last post was simply too brisk of a sweep. If I describe a person autistic as a “bitch,” (Autistic Bitch from Hell dubs herself, not me... and I think she is brilliant) does that make me bias against people with autism? Many parents can’t take Michelle Dawson (I like her for what she is doing and the voice she has risen, I will state for the record, even if she might very likely find many flaws in me) – does that make them prejudice? It strikes me that if we are going to talk on an even playing field here, then we all have to presume ourselves equal, with difference -- an oxymoron indeed. To debate with Michelle Dawson presumes her competence to fight for her beliefs. In my case, when I call a person “crusty,” it is because they damn well are, white or black or Jewish or Asian.

To me, this is what we are fighting for – perchance to transcend labels or to use them without prejudice, to acknowledge the beauty and the challenge of difference, and the freedom to say that someone stinks when they just, well, er... are. This is the heterogeneity of humanity. Let us be careful, however, how our words are interpreted and how we sweep our brush.

It's a difficult issue -- to equate a person with a crusty old label, still as thick as rye, yet to crumble.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If our computer screens went blank and we could not watch television, thank goodness we will still have our books. Although I am not a religiou person, I will look for books to provide religious inspiration, history, poetry, romance, drama and idealism. Wars that were fought. People loved and left. Nations that succeeded and failed. It's all about humanity all the time.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That last blog was from Scorpion. I forgot to sign in.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

I believe I am "the person" mentioned in this post---glad you are keeping the discussion going.

Have you see the Refrigerator Mothers film that was shown on PBS here in the US a few years? One of the mothers is African-American and she notes how doctors told her that her son could not be autistic because he was black.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Interesting...Kristina, thanks for pointing this out. We are definitely entrenched in labels and assumptions -- we must always point them out to others, as you did to me, to stretch ourselves beyond them.

Thanks again,


5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wrote the comment about the use of the phrase "crusty Asian woman" . Really wanted you to consider whether you would have considered describing her as a "crusty white woman" had she been a white woman.And, you considered it.Any among us who are crusty should not be working with kids or other people for that matter but there is still a big differece btw people who make jokes about their own culture and "outsiders" who label.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In contrast, when you wrote about Sherry you didn't describe anything of her externally, only internally (sweetness).

6:05 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Absolutely right.

She was crusty, any race or religion. But the point is well taken.


6:06 PM  
Blogger Do'C said...

Hi Estee,

This is indeed a thoughtful discussion. I'd like to interject that the concept of 'race' itself is a human construct. The minute hadfull of genes (in comparison to the whole) that results in some physical differences: ie the color of one's skin, predisposition to to a physical characterisic or ailment, etc. can be understood through history, geography, and cultural influences. There may not really be such a 'thing' as race. A "crusty old Asian" in writing does communicate cultural buy-in to the concept of 'race' - intended or not. The description, while meaningful (I'm not saying right or wrong) here, could have zero meaning to a geographically isolated person.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...


Yes, this point about external versus internal traits is a good one.

Anger sometimes expresses unfair things. The anger in itself was directed fairly, however, the pointing out of someone's race had nothing to do with it. In contrast, it is interesting that I did call the other girl "sweet" and made no other reference to her.

I have to make myself an example of how entrenched the use of labels and a step further, racism and bias are. I am not saying that I am either, consciously.

In writing this blog, I find that I have to struggle to go deep within myself, my history which inhabits many of my beliefs, and hopefully transcent them.

Thanks to Adam for this.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

I mean trascend, not trascent.

6:56 PM  
Blogger ballastexistenz said...

Re: what Kristina said, I remember once showing someone a picture of my best friend in special ed. I'd mentioned her before, she was also autistic, etc, he knew this.

Anyway, he looked at her, and he said "You mean that is her?"

"Uh... yeah."

"But she's black."


"Autistic people can be black?"


"Oh no, I don't mean to be racist, I just never... really... thought... of autistic people... uh... being black."

(baffled silence on my part)

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

race as a human construct only goes so far when you consider that medical science has found that many drugs tested on and found to work on people of caucasion "race" do not ,in fact, work for people of certain other races.the same holds true for drugs tested on males which do not work the same way or as well for females. of course there are elements that are mental contructs and of course racial differences have been used, historically to justify evil deeds. still we cannot ignore the fact that there are differences among groups of people which can be important. not talking about eugenics here or anything horrific when i say there are differences. racial and religious differences, all differences can be celebrated, but there are differences.this does not mean we are not all equally meaningful.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lot's of language differences happening today ;-)

As a brit when i hear the term asian I almost always think of the indian sub-continent before I think of farther east.

also crusty. Like bread? I spent most of this morning listening to new model army and the levellers to some people that makes me a crusty ;-)


11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, sparkes, when I heard "crusty" I associated it with being unbathed (for a goodly length of time). I wiki'd on it and recalled why I have that association.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Hmmm, you guys are making me rethink language BIG TIME. I tend to write for sound. Crusty reminded me of brittle. I did not mean "unbathed." So much for interpretation, eh? ;)

5:32 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

I got "crusty", although it might not have been the best word, but what would tell me more than race would be age. Or is that ageist of me? :)

Is "severe" anywhere near where you were trying to go with "crusty"? (If I don't watch it, I'm going to spend the next 4 or 5 hours thinking of possibilities as I'm going about my other activities....)

6:48 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

No kidding. You guys are making me think I have to sharpen my metaphors, and my pencil! :)

7:04 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Okay everyone, I was right. Crusty is associated and defined with "gruff" which was how else I described the woman in a later paragraph.


7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I certainly got it in context; I just could not wipe the "unwashed" visual out of my mind, unfortunately.

7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

7:31 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...


Ah yes, Crusty according to Wikipedia: a travellor or tramp. Obviously not my meaning at all.

It does also mean gruff, though, by other definitions.

8:22 PM  

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