Exclusive Interview: #DisabilityTooWhite creator Vilissa Thompson

The hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite went viral recently, and with good reason; even though coverage of issues facing the disabled might be out there, the coverage is too frequently focused solely on how disability issues affect white Americans, not all Americans. I was happy to interview the creator of #DisabilityTooWhite and founder of the site Ramp Your Voice!, Vilissa Thompson, LMSW. In our email interview, we discuss the origins of the hashtag, some of the problems with mainstream coverage of disabiilty issues, and what people should take away from the messages stated in the hashtag. If you want to read more about the lack of diversity in coverage about the issues facing the disabled, read Thompson’s article, “White Privilege & Inspiration Porn.” Like Thompson states in her article, I too had an epiphany while reading this and will work on internalizing all of the complexities surrounding “inspiration porn.”

 

What prompted the hashtag?

It was an article on xoJane that a friend and fellow advocate shared that showcased the standard image of disabled women: white disabled women.  Of course, we need more visibility of disabled women as a whole, but the “face” of this subgroup is typically white.  As a Black disabled woman, that frustrates me because I know how it feels to be invisible in the communities I hold membership to — disabled, Black, and female.  I, like so many Black disabled women and other women of color, are frankly tired of that erasure of who we are, especially when it is an issue that gets rarely discussed publicly in our community.  The hashtag was something that came to me instantly when I replied about my annoyance of the lack of diversity and inclusion, especially on platforms that specifically focus on women.

What problems have you seen when it comes to representation of POCs with disabilities?

There is this “excuse” that circulates within the community about not being able to “find” disabled people of color.  To me, that’s a poor excuse to utter, especially with how many disabled people of color advocates utilize social media and speak out on the issues that matters to them as folks who hold multiple memberships.  As I wrote in a recent article, that excuse can no longer be tolerated – you don’t find us because you aren’t looking hard enough TO find us.  We have been here since the start of the Disability Rights Movement, yet if you were to let the history books tell it, disabled people of color were not around.  This has been a continuous issue of erasure in our community, and it’s something many of us, including myself, make known and speak out on unapologetically. It’s 2016 — it is beyond time for disabled people of color to be visible in our community in every capacity; from organizations to articles published about the disability experience.

There’s been a lot of needless pushback against the #DisabilityTooWhite. What do you make of the backlash and what lesson do you want the hashtag’s detractors to take away from the hashtag instead?

From what I saw, many of those detractors were trolls — they just wanted to infiltrate and derail the conversation that was being held.  With those individuals, I personally ignore them, and continue to get my message across — they will not be a distraction to the bigger picture for me as an advocate.

The persons who really need to understand the hashtag are the disabled people, particularly disabled Whites, who felt that the hashtag was an 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.

There are those who have learned a lot from the hashtag and have interacted with you personally to thank you for creating it. What do you think of the hashtag’s positive effect?

The most positive effect of the hashtag was the fact that disabled people of color were able to freely share their truths.  We talk amongst each other or keep it to ourselves — we rarely have the opportunity to discuss these matters so publicly.  Being able to share your experiences, the good, bad, and painful, is an empowering moment, especially when you are able to connect with others who have endured similar circumstances.  This public sharing validates who you are and the life you live — as disabled people of color, we seek out that validation greatly because of the lack of attention to our lives in the community and the broader society.  Our community and society can no longer feign ignorance to who we are and how the world responses and treats us – that’s a powerful realization when these hashtags are created and gain mass attention.

Having the ability to connect with other disabled people of color on social media and build an incredible network and support group is another positive effect.  Personally, one of my favorite things about being a blogger and advocate is befriending and collaborating with disabled women of color.  The hashtag allowed me to bond closer with the women I already knew, and to meet disabled women of color who understand the world I, and we, live in.

How do you think the media could rectify how they cover disability issues, especially disability issues relating to people of color?

Diversity and inclusion are huge problems in the media, and it’s being resolved at a snail’s pace.  The media perpetuates the “default” face (i.e., white) for disability when they only share stories about White disabled people, as well as write inspiration porn-themed stories about disabled people of color.  Learning how to write about disability that isn’t disrespectful or plays on the “good feels” or pity emotions is so important, no matter the color of the individual being written about.  There are so many disabled people of color who are advocates, and are doing incredible work in their specific areas of interest and in their communities; the failure to highlight us is inexcusable.

With how connected we all are due to the internet and social media, we should not still have this problem with journalism that plays on disability stereotypes and inaccurate understanding about what disability actually is, along with only amplifying the voices and experiences of one subgroup in the community.  The media plays a huge role in how the society reacts, interacts, and understands disability — it’s long overdue for the media, in all forms, take this responsibility seriously and depict all of our experiences fairly and respectfully.

What is the ultimate goal you have for #DisabilityTooWhite?

I want the hashtag to shine a light on the issue of race and invisibility in our community and force the issue to be discussed openly and not in private, as it tends to occur.  I hope the disabled people of color who participated, and those who read the tweets shared, truly understand that their voices and experience matters, and to not allow anyone quiet them because they are uncomfortable with what they have to say.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Zora Neale Hurston:  “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”  I want every disabled person of color to speak up and speak out about the ableism, racism, discrimination, prejudices, sexism, homophobia, and every other injustice they endure in our community and to do so without worrying about hurting feelings or making others squirm in their seats because the truth is hard to hear.

What we did with the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag was just that:  there were some who did not want to hear what we had to say, but there were many more who needed to hear it.  The latter group is I hope feel the lasting effects of the hashtag, and learn that they aren’t alone and there’s plenty of work left for us to do as advocates to change the status quo.♦