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The Black Body, Assisted Suicide, & the “Me Before You” Connection

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Me Before You has been the main topic within the disability circles I am a part of for the past few weeks, and rightfully so.  The depiction of disability within the film, which spurred from the book under the same title, is disturbing; the main character decides that death is a better choice to make than to live with a disability.  The film is suppose to be a romantic tale, but I am hard-pressed to see anything related to romance within a story that has a twisted view and understanding about the disabled life, especially when the actual story was written by a non-disabled author, and the main character is played by a non-disabled actor.  

Film depictions, and other media portrayals similar to Me Before You’s storyline, hones in on the gross disability tropes that adds to the stereotypes and misperceptions surrounding disability in our society rather than shine a light on what living with a disability actually is like for the largest minority group in the United States and globally.  Though I fully and steadfastly support my fellow advocates and allies in their protesting against Me Before You, I have remained silent on the film until now for a number of reasons; reasons that goes beyond the movie storyline.  This piece will take a closer look at the issues that stood out to me regarding what the debate is truly about – assisted suicide and disability representation – and the gaps I witness within media portrayals and the faces of the protesters against Me Before You.  Me Before You is just the “mouthpiece” that has provided the opportune moment for these matters to be discussed for me – that is more important than rehashing the sentiments my fellow advocates have written and uttered over the past few weeks.  

Me Before You:  An Example of #DisabilityTooWhite in Media Portrayals about Disability

I believe what challenged me the most about speaking up when the Me Before You outrage became heavily circulated on social media was that it was a prime example of who defines disability in our media portrayals – the faces and stories of disabled Whites.  Regardless of whether the actors playing these roles are disabled themselves, or the popularity of the very few disabled actors who are mainstream that have become household names, the representations are still overwhelming White.  For me to get behind the outrage was conflicting because this was yet another example of depicting disability as monolithic, as well as a tragedy.  Rarely are disabled characters of color seen in media, and if they are, the problematic depictions do not generate the same level of responses as we have seen with Me Before You.

Understanding this conflict, through a discussion I had with a fellow advocate and friend, made the “light bulb” turn on in my head.  That discussion also helped me to realize two essential hesitations I had in becoming involved:  the lack of assisted suicide representation in Black cinema and television programs, as well as the lack of diversity within the anti-assisted suicide movement itself.  When all of these factors connected, that was when I decided that I had to discuss Me Before You that went beyond the movie, and dig deeper into why I and many other disabled advocates of color, particularly the Black disabled advocates I know personally, had taken a step back in joining the controversy.  

The Black Body, Culture, & Assisted Suicide:  A Very Complicated Intersection

It was during the conversations I had on Twitter that led me to realize how few assisted suicide storylines that actually exists in Black media, specifically television and film.  A fellow Black advocate named one example that I almost forget – the scene between Annalise Keating and her married beau’s wife in season 2 of How To Get Away With Murder.  The wife asked Annalise if she would assist in ending her life due to her having terminal cancer.  Annalise was weary of assisting due to worries about how her beau may react if he ever found out about his wife’s plan to end her life, and Annalise’s involvement in assisting with her wish.  The moral and personal hesitations of Annalise, and the steadfast desire to carry out the plan of the wife, were captivating moments between two Black female characters on a controversial issue.  

When I think about Black media, there are very few disability-themed storylines and characters that come to mind, and hardly any reference to the desire to die because of having a disability, whether by birth or acquired.  Though the depictions are rare, that does not mean that Black Americans do not have strong feelings about assisted suicide, and what exactly influences those thoughts about the subject matter.  

Race & Religiosity – Deep Ties That Influence How Assisted Suicide is Viewed in Black America

Pew Research Center (“Pew Research” for short, as it will be referenced here) has been one of the fact tanks that has tracked the trend of how Americans view assisted suicide since the issue has gained national and political attention over the past few years.  What makes Pew Research’s findings exceptional is the breakdown of views on such controversial topics that can be used to analyze how certain groups think and the cultural and/or environmental factors that may be at play in influencing their perceptions.  

Pew Research’s analysis about the attitudes Americans have towards the use of assisted suicide was pivotal in not only capturing our shifting views, but also shedding light on how minority communities understood this topic.  In 2013, Pew Research reported that 56% of Americans believed that the moral right to end one’s life existed when a person had an incurable disease, and 62% believed this is a choice in situations when a person is suffering great pain and had no hope for improvements.  Though the numbers for both perceptions have increased over time, these numbers are not reflective to how minorities, particularly African Americans, view the right to end one’s life.  

When broken down by race, Pew Research found that Whites were more likely to believe that a person has the right to end their life for the following four circumstances than African Americans:  

  • Great pain, no hope for improvement
  • Incurable disease
  • Ready to die, living a heavy burden
  • Extremely heavy burden on family

African Americans were found to have significantly lower rates of approval when it comes to the right to die under the same four circumstances:

  • Great pain, no hope for improvement – 52%
  • Incurable disease – 46%
  • Ready to die, living a heavy burden – 31%
  • Extremely heavy burden on family – 26%

To better understand the stark differences further, 61% of African Americans stated that they would tell their doctors to do everything possible to save their lives under the aforementioned circumstances; only 33% responded that they would stop treatment so that they could die.  In contrast, 65% of Whites would stop medical treatment if they were to acquire an incurable disease and were experiencing deep levels of pain.  

The differences between Whites and Blacks on assisted suicide are not only seen based on race, but also religious beliefs.  Black Protestants were noted to be less likely to ask their doctors to stop medical treatment so that they could die if they had an incurable disease (34%) and were experiencing deep levels of pain (42%).  White Protestants, however, responded at 64% and 71% respectively, to the two circumstances mentioned.  Black Protestants, based on findings, rejected the notion of a moral right to die; 54% believed that medical staff should do everything possible to save a patient’s life in all circumstances.  

Pew Research concluded that end-of-life views and understandings are strongly associated with both religious affiliations and race and ethnicity.  They noted that the connections between one’s racial identity, faith affiliation, familial connections, and historic experiences are huge signifiers in how individuals’ views are shaped for this subject.  

The Black Body & Choosing Death:  What We Can Never Forget

Being someone who has studied African American history, I was not surprised at what Pew Research found; the Black body and death have been intertwined since slaves were brought over to the Americas during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  There is one aspect of this that I want to touch on that must be said – choosing death over life has always been a circumstance Black Americans have faced, that goes beyond disability.  

The ability to choose death over life in the Black community have been used as acts of defiance, control, and protection, especially during times when we do not have autonomy of who we are.  We see the defiance in slave narratives when mothers chose filicide over allowing a child to live in a dehumanizing system that viewed them as chattel instead of human beings.  Death is used as a control tactic when Blacks allow their oppressors to take their lives during moments of conflicts instead of enduring harsh punishments (such as dying at the hands of the police instead of being incarcerated).  Death and protection are depicted when some of us make the ultimate sacrifice in risking our own lives for someone else; an example of this was witnessed in the “Roots” remake when Fiddler turned the hatred of the oppressors onto himself so that Kunta Kinte could live.  Time and time again, both in the past and present, Blacks have had to make the decision whether it is best to live or die, and what benefits are there if the latter is chosen.  

Death and the Black body are intimately connected, so much so that death by one’s own hands that are not systemic based is tremendously taboo.  We see that “tabooness” in the ideals we ardently hold unfold in the aforementioned research data about assisted suicide that are prevalent in our community:  the right to die by any other means that is not tied to racism, systemic oppression, or saving another is frowned upon, and those who are pondering their right to die will most likely meet resistance from members in our community.  

Given the history of the Black experience in America, it would be an educated notion to also attribute the tabooness to White supremacy, especially when we see how Whites have a more “open-mindedness” take on the moral right to die than Blacks.  Due to the inconceivable choices African Americans have had to make regarding their very lives and autonomy within a system that has treated and viewed them as disposable commodities, it does not come as a shock that such a group would have reservations about not undertaking every medical measure that may exist to save themselves or to improve their health.  Even in cases where medical treatment may be futile, to take one’s own life is certainly not an option to be considered by many.  In contrast, Whites, whose lives and experiences are held as the “standard of being,” have undeniably benefitted from the devaluation of Blackness and Black bodies.  This particular circumstance may give some leaning as to why they may not deem the right to die as a significant conflicting issue – their autonomy and worth have never been disputed or dehumanized in the same manner as Blacks.  That “detachment,” so to speak, may better explain why and how Whites are more receptive to the idea of assisted suicide than Blacks, and what imagery related to the right to die is considered acceptable, harmful, and/or exploitative.

That brings me to the following thought that reconnects us to the catalyst of this piece:

What if Will in Me Before You had been Black?

Would this story exist if Will had been Black, instead of White?  Even with what has been discussed in this piece, could a Black version of Me Before You have reached the level of literature popularity, to the point of having a Hollywood movie created based on its likeness?  Would Black America lead the charge in outrage about such a depiction that goes against our general community views regarding the right to die as we have seen take place within the disabled community?  Would mainstream America even want to see a story of a Black disabled character who decides to end their life because they are disabled?  And if so, how does that play into perverse stereotypes about the worthiness of Black lives, specifically Black disabled lives, that are profound in our history and the current societal climate?  These are the many questions I have asked myself as I have engaged in discussions about the lack of assisted suicide representation in Black media portrayals, and Black disabled characters being involved in such storylines.  

Final Thoughts

13383699_10208316294378440_670209775_oLuckily, I am not the only advocate of color who has “connected the dots” about Me Before You, assisted suicide and the lack of discussion within the Black community, as well as the lack of visibility of Black faces, disabled and non-disabled, within the anti-assisted suicide movement.  Fellow Black advocate Anita Cameron wrote a piece about the latter two points that I believe are pivotal in taking a closer look and ponder how perplexing it is for African Americans of all abilities to be absent from such discussions when we hold stark beliefs regarding the right to die.  For some of us like Anita and myself, the complexities of Me Before You truly goes beyond the actual movie – going the much-needed distance was important to me if I was to write about the movie in whatever capacity, and certainly taking the approach in focusing on Blackness, our culture, and the gaps that have yet to be examined in the discussions that are currently transpiring.  Though I may still have some detachments about Me Before You, there is no denying the importance of Black advocates to be heard and present in critiquing media depictions, as well as digging deeper into issues where our voices are noticeably missing, such as assisted suicide.  Assisted suicide is a subject we need more Black, and persons of color, voices, both disabled and non-disabled to be visible and prominent; Me Before You may be the much-needed “trigger” to diversify discussions and to allow advocates who have strong feelings to be known.

(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of Mike Mort.)  

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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