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#DisabilityTooWhite: Making the “Good Trouble” in Advocacy

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DisabilityTooWhite

By now, many of you may have heard of the hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite.  It was created last Wednesday on Twitter impromptu by me, and has gained a lot of support, resistance, and interest from those within and outside of the disability community.  I have been interviewed by many pertaining to the hashtag, and felt that it was very much appropriate to discuss it on my blog, and to be very candid on how I felt about what has transpired in the past week.

How It Came To Be

Alice Wong, a dear friend and fellow advocate, shared an article about disability and beauty that showcased the “standard” imagery of beauty for disabled women:  disabled White women.  In Alice’s tweet and response, she shared her frustration regarding the lack of diverse representation about who we are as a collective group, and I and many others, chimed in with similar sentiments.  

While I was tweeting my thoughts, an idea popped into my mind, and I started writing #DisabilityTooWhite in my tweets.  A few others saw the hashtag, and began doing the same, and then it just caught on quickly.  Soon, we went from discussing the article to discussing what we endured as disabled people of color when it comes to the lack of visibility and resistance for inclusion and competency in our community.  

The Viral Effect

For several hours straight, long after I decided to go to bed for the night, fellow advocates and allies were tweeting and retweeting their truths and realities about this covert issue that exists within the disability community.  When I left the chat, we were trending at over 2,300 tweets; that morning, we were at close to 9.800 tweets.  I was amazed at the viral effect of the hashtag – I had never created something that amassed such attention on any social media platform in all my advocacy efforts in a short time period.  (At its peak, the hashtag trended to close to 13,000 tweets.)  I had thought of the phrase on the whim; a true knee-jerk response to the conversation I stumbled upon.  Even a week later, I still ponder:  how in the world did it take off and get such a passionate response as it did?  I will be honest – it was overwhelming, but I adjusted to my sudden social media “fame” (I use that word VERY loosely), and wanted to keep the conversation going as much as possible.  

Cry Me A River of White Angry Tears  

Of course, with any good, well-meaning thing, ignorance has to rear its ugly head.  When I woke up the morning after, not only did I see some incredible opinions voiced by advocates, but racist, ableist, and offensive trolls infiltrated the hashtag as well.  

I, as countless others who participated in the hashtag, received some of the most vile, despicable comments in our mentions that I have ever read or heard of.  I was called a Nigger, a cunt, a R-word, more times than I could count.  Being called a Nigger was the first time that word was used at me, in real life and online.  I always thought that my first time being called a Nigger would be traumatizing – it was not.  Instead, it reminded me as to why people use that word towards people that looked like myself – to strip us of our humanness, and demote us to nothing more than the dirt on the bottom of their shoe.  To allow anyone to strip me of my worth and value because of my race would mean giving them power; I was not going to bestow power to ingrates who decided to insult me rather than engage in a civilized discussion.  My reaction to racist, offensive trolls were to mute and block them from my Twitter page, and to bait them to me with the hopes of them leaving other advocates alone.  I knew I could withstand the hatred because I know who I am and whose I am; however, I know that such hate speech is triggering to many, and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to be hurt because bigots could not handle the truth being shared.  My biggest focus was checking in on my fellow advocates, and urging them to take care of themselves if they needed to – their emotional and mental well-being mattered more than this battle.  

Many of the hateful comments came from trolls, but surprisingly, mainly also came from disabled Whites, who felt “attacked” by the hashtag.  This is what I said about disabled Whites who were “offended” in an interview I did for Monique Jones for ColorWebMag:

The persons who really need to understand the hashtag are the disabled people, particularly disabled Whites, who felt that the hashtag was a personal attack on who they are as disabled people and/or was “unnecessary.”  One thing I noticed as an advocate of color: the disabled community is very uneducated on experiences that goes beyond disability; meaning that anything that discusses differences outside of disability meets great resistance (we see this on both an individual level and within disability-centered organizations).  That resistance perpetuates the silence and erasure of individuals who hold dual or multiple identities, which in this case, would be disabled people of color and disabled women of color.

Disabled people have to realize that though we are disabled, that doesn’t negate the privileges we have; admitting that we all have privileges isn’t shameful, but the way some of us react when it’s pointed out is problematic.  I am intimately aware of the privileges I hold, and I use them to help those access spaces that they cannot because they don’t have those same privileges as I do.  When disabled people of color vocalize that they endure plights that disabled Whites do not, it is not us creating an “us vs. them” realm; we are simply stating how the world works for us, and in many cases, works against us due to multiple memberships.  The pushback of trying to understand our stories shows a lack of respect for the diversity of the community, and shows disabled people of color that they cannot feel truly comfortable about how they are and the unique struggles they endure if those thoughts will be challenged by those of the majority (in this case, disabled Whites).

Being open-minded to the realities of others that live and look differently from you as a disabled person is the key takeaway – yes, we may have a disability, but the world interacts with us differently that goes beyond disability status.  Being willing to listen to disabled people of color is so important, and the detractors missed a prime opportunity to do just that.

At the end of the day, the anger from disabled and non-disabled Whites will not silence me, or the voices of those who participated in the hashtag.  We cannot allow intimidation, fear, or hate to keep us quiet – that is what they are hoping will occur.  

How I Want The Hashtag To Be Remembered

The hashtag itself is very in-your-face, and that is how I want it to be remembered – there is no question what it is about, and the discussion that is to follow.  I, like so many, are tired of the “tip-toeing” around sensitive matters in our communities and advocacy to protect or coddle the feelings of those who will be most resistant in trying to effect change that will empower us all.  The disability community has to progress in its ability to fight multiple challenges at once, especially obstacles and barriers that are beyond disability that affect members based on the other identities they may possess.  To purposefully ignore intersectional factors members in our community face is not going to help anyone – when will we finally learn this fact?

How I Plan to Keep the Conversation Going

The hashtag ignited a public conversation that was desperately needed, and from the outpouring responses of those in the community, it was one that was also timely.  We as a community have a long ways to go before all of us feel validated and supported, and these conversations, no matter how painful or uncomfortable, must transpire for ultimate empowerment to exist.  

I like to think of myself as someone who is an unapologetic troublemaker, and I will continue making the “good trouble” on issues that must be eradicated in our society so that we can all be able to freely live without barriers, and not be forced silent about who and what we are.  As one of my favorite quotes by Frederick Douglass states, “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” – as long as I have breath in my body, I will fervently do just that.  

To read media coverage about the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag, check out the following links:

Storify Compiled by Alice Wong:  #DisabilityTooWhite:  Complex Conversations

DailyDot:  #DisabilityTooWhite calls out media for not depicting disabled PoC

ColorWebMag:  Exclusive Interview:  #DisabilityTooWhite Creator Vilissa Thompson

Tea with Queen & J Podcast:  I Can’t F*ck With Zippers
(#DisabilityTooWhite is mentioned around 35 minutes into the podcast)

Justice Beat Podcast interview:  The Intersection of Race and Access with Vilissa Thompson of Ramp Your Voice

Accessible Media Inc. Radio Interview:  May 30, 2016 – #DisabilityTooWhite

Pushing Limits Radio Interview:  June 3rd, 2016 – #DisabilityTooWhite – Call In

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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