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Appropriation in the Disability Community: We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

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Appropriation

In the past week, I have been a part of two discussions about appropriation occurring in the disability community.  In both incidences, the ignorance and disregard in respecting the oppressions of marginalized groups were shared, and the outcry for the offense to stop is great.

How is appropriation occurring?  It occurs when we compare our struggles as a community to those of other marginalized groups, particularly racial minorities.  The widely used appropriation “scapegoat” is Black people and the Black experience; words like “cripface” are derivatives of words that have roots within the Black community (e.g. “Blackface”).  When we “refurbish” words from other histories and cultures to explain our own struggles, we are stripping the true historical roots of those experiences to the bone marrow, and tossing them aside like yesterday’s garbage.  Our movement have been around long enough to establish our own terms, lingo, etc. – we should not appear to be “lazy” in developing terms that we can call ours.  When we “reinvent” words, we are being disrespectful to the cultures and experiences we are borrowing from, AND the individuals within our communities who may identify within those groups.  

I want to make one thing crystal clear:  it pisses me off as a Black disabled advocate when I see disabled people, mostly disabled Whites, rehash words from the Black experience and attach them to our movement.  I know why this is done – sheer laziness, plus we all are knowledgeable about the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, which provided the “blueprint” for other movements like ours when it comes to fighting for our rights in society.  HOWEVER, that does not mean disabled people have the right to compare our struggles to Black people and say that they are the same, or to microwave words from Black history in trying to make them fit into our history.  That is NOT how you strengthen your own movement – doing this is an absolute slap in the face for those of African descent in this country, especially for Black disabled advocates like myself.  My culture and history are not for you to appropriate in any regard, and I will fervently call out any advocate who does this with zero hesitation.  

How Appropriation is Rampant in Our Community

After the second heated appropriation discussion occurred (this one focused on comparing colorism seen in the Black community to the visible and invisible disability representation in our community), I realized something:  there is a strong desire for validation about our experience as disabled people that allows appropriation to thrive and fester.  And who needs that validation the most?  Apparently disabled Whites, since they are viewed as the “appropriation” offenders in our community.

Yes, I said it – disabled Whites.  It seems that some (keyword:  “some,” not all) disabled Whites have to feel some form of validation as to who they are, and the best “cure” is to play the Oppression Olympics.  Those who are guilty of appropriation fail to understand that their Whiteness is not negated because they are disabled.  In fact, it amplifies their status in society.  Being a disabled White person amplifies your ability to gain access to resources, become prominent “voices” within advocacy circles, and define what and how the disabled experience is understood within our world.  How is this so?  Look at who is the “face” of the community – White people.  Some White disabled people do not make ANY effort to increase diversity and visibility; some feign as if they do not know a single disabled advocate of color to support in the community to make diversity and inclusion a reality.  If you claim to have a “challenging” time finding disabled advocates of color, it is because you are NOT TRYING TO FIND US in the first place.  We have ALWAYS been here since the beginning of the movement, but if you were to go by the history books that discusses disability rights, you will not see our faces, voices, or stories shared freely.  

As a disabled White person, you do not have to hijack an experience or culture to make disability-related hardships important.  You do not need to compare yourself, your personal and systemic obstacles, or the collective barriers we endure as disabled people to other equally marginalized groups, just to get your agenda ahead to key stakeholders and create awareness in society.  Doing so is NOT how you gain good allyship from other marginalized groups.  Doing this is how you ostracize disabled advocates of color who fight just as hard as you do, while bearing multiple oppressive memberships at the same time.  This is why many disabled people of color are hesitant to align themselves with the disability community.  We endure enough marginalization from the broader society; why in the world would we want to experience more devaluing within a community where we should feel safe?  How can we say that all disabled people and voices are important when appropriation and invalid comparisons are prevalent in our advocacy work?  That is not how true unity is established in a diverse community as ours, and that is why I proclaim we as a group are our own worst enemy.  The hand of one is the hand of all – when one of us is guilty of appropriation, it affects all of us, and our ability to progress as a people.  

How Being Culturally Eurocentric Gives Me the Power To Speak Out Unapologetically

This will be my fifth post on race and disability in a row, and I have developed a reputation of speaking on these matters unashamed.  I am particularly fierce in calling out disabled Whites who commit offenses that divide instead of unite, and will continue to do so.  How can I, a Black disabled person, not be scared to speak up?  It is because I am culturally Eurocentric.  

By “culturally Eurocentric,” I mean that I have been enmeshed in White Culture my entire life.  All of my doctors have been White.  All of my speech, physical, and occupational therapists have been White except for two.  I did not have my first Black teacher until the 4th grade, and I attended a predominantly BLACK school district.  Majority of my friends are White.  With the exception of my membership in a historically Black sorority, my professional affiliations are typically White-dominated.  

As a light-skinned Black woman, I can easily enter White spaces without much difficulty or objections.  That is a privilege I use to my advantage to get ahead in my own life, and to help those who cannot do this.  I know how to connect with every type of White person there is by code switching – from connecting with “rednecks” by speaking country/Southern slang to the educated Whites by showing that I got two degrees on my wall and deserve to be here as much as they do.  I am very observant by nature, and it does not take me long to read people and know how to connect with them and have them open up to me – that is an innate ability I used to infiltrate White circles and learn how to “read” White people.  I view this skill as a survival one; as a triple minority, I have had to learn how to relate to those of the majority by gaining alliances in order to situate myself to access power and privileges that are not bestowed upon those who look like myself.  That is how I became “culturally Eurocentric” – my lifelong affiliations and interactions afforded me knowledge of the culture and made me less threatening due to my familiarity.  That is why I, at times, speak so brutally about Whiteness and its privileges in our community – I know WHY it exists, and how it is used by those who hold membership.  I am not a Negro who can be fooled because I know what cards are being played – I steadfastly make that fact known every time I write one of these kind of posts.  

Final Thoughts

A friend of mine shared the following quote with me:

“People that don’t accept the truth don’t want their illusions destroyed.”

We have to realize the truth about how damaging appropriation is to our cause and advocacy efforts.  To continuously overlook it and be silent when it occurs is damning.  It divides us further, when there are deep divisions based on disability status and severity that currently exists in our community.  The self-sabotaging of our efforts has to stop; appropriation is only one matter that has to cease if we truly want what we are fighting for each and every day to exist without it being at a severe cost.

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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