The Shocking Truth About Detroit

Less than a year ago, I sat in a classroom with two dozen Detroiters when something hit me with the ferocity of a deep razor-sharp truth. We had only just met, but when our professor asked us to talk about what in our lives had lead us to work for social justice, we shared generously.

Many of us were moved to tears by aching stories of transformation, not just because of the pain and struggle we’d all endured, but also because of the strength each of us found in the process.

What became clear was that we had all been taught and expected to hate ourselves into powerlessness, though in the end, we made a different choice.

In most cases, no one had used direct words or actions to make us feel we were unlovable and insignificant.

Instead, it was our culture of commercialization (in which everything, even people, is evaluated by its monetary value), scarcity, and othering (in which standards for beauty and normalcy are narrow and most people don’t fit within the boundaries and are therefore other), which sometimes blatantly, and more often insidiously, told us we were ugly, or stupid, or incapable of changing our situations.

Often, it was the people who loved us who told us these lies and when they did, they were simply reflecting the culture of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and heterosexism that surrounds us every day.

Hearing these themes over and over in that classroom is what prompted a new realization for me. Suddenly, I understood that loving ourselves is our most powerful act of resistance.

As a woman with a disability, this realization has been profound.

By loving myself, I am challenging the assumption that there’s something unlovable about my ‘different’ body.

By loving myself, I am shifting the cultural bias against bodies like mine. Instead I’m suggesting that I have something unique and valuable to offer – not in spite of, but because of my disability.

By loving myself, I am freeing myself from self-hatred and the impossible task of “being like everyone else.” Instead, I have time to really be me and to shine in my different-ness.

As you might imagine, not participating in a culture designed to make me feel bad about myself feels exhilarating.

What has impressed me more recently is how Detroit is very much like a “disabled” body.

People who don’t know Detroit are often unnerved or reviled by it, because it reminds them that success isn’t necessarily permanent and that systems that used to work don’t anymore.

People try to compare Detroit to something they know – media from outside try to define it, putting it in a box that doesn’t fit. People are quick to point out what’s “wrong” with it, and then quick to suggest ways to fix it.

If you were to judge Detroit just by the way it looks, you’d be missing what’s really important here. Loving Detroit is an act of resistance too. And by loving it we are challenging everyone who thinks it is inadequate because it is different, dilapidated, or lacking.

Yet, like those of us with disabilities, Detroiters have become expert at adapting and improvising.

We haven’t been provided with everything we would need to operate like other cities, so we do things differently. Living in Detroit has taught me to define beauty not just by the way things look, but by the way they feel. The creative and resilient spirit of this place would not be possible without its differences and without its struggle.

The relationships that spring from these circumstances are far more beautiful than a citywide makeover ever could be.

Loving ourselves for who we are and loving Detroit in its uniqueness are powerful because we are defining for ourselves what is beautiful and worthy of love – instead of letting someone else do it. These acts of resistance send a strong message that we are in charge of our destinies and are focusing on what truly matters while simply ignoring the irrelevant noise of hate mongering.


About Dessa

Originally a Southerner, Dessa loves the charm and hospitality of Detroit. Dessa is a proud Little Person, using her disability to challenge, endear, and cut lines at amusement parks. Training community organizers by day and earning her Masters of Social Justice after hours, Dessa loves shifting paradigms, breaking glass ceilings, and honoring the Feminine Divine. Click here to read more about Dessa

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