Ableism, broadly defined, is any expression of discrimination that favors nondisabled people, but it is not a prejudice that harms only those with disabilities. Ableism is a systemic oppression that finds common ancestry with white supremacy.
Disabled people are often asked to give an account of themselves to quell nondisabled people’s discomfort, while striving toward conformity. It is understood that our lives do not matter enough to fund robust public transportation infrastructure, rethink city planning, improve workflows for benefits administration, or to codify universal health care access. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve learned that some people do not think our disabled lives are worth saving; disabled bodies are disposable.
Confronting ableism and revealing its shared features with white supremacy asserts the dignity of disabled people and overcomes dehumanizing practices that mimic white supremacist ideology. And more, challenging systemic hierarchies in all their forms extends an opportunity for people in privileged positions to question their own complicity in dominant systems, and when liberated from misguided rhetoric, closer to embracing their full humanity by recognizing the humanity in others. White supremacist ideology, like the ableist assumption that quality of life must be inherently lower for people with disabilities, does not harm only disabled bodies, but supremacists themselves are harmed by their own ideology, barring the supremacist from living a full and meaningful life.
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James Baldwin explained in his influential 1963 talk for school teachers that the hateful racial slurs directed toward him did not reveal anything about his nature, but instead, revealed something about the speaker: “Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.” When disabled people challenge the status quo, we, like Baldwin, recognize that undervaluing our lives is not a reflection of who we are as disabled people; instead, it points to harm caused by those who are undervaluing our lives, including the dominant society as a whole.
I find solidarity with people challenging privilege in all forms and dismantling systemic injustice, including the foundation of white supremacy.
If It Weren’t for My Brain Cancer
When I notice that my listener expresses the telltale sympathetic head-tilt, the fallen corners of the mouth and pursed lips, and the dropping intonation of a sympathetic murmur, I know it’s time to assuage their concern. With the skills reserved only for people living with a chronic, life-threatening illness, disability or trauma, I reach into my coping mechanism toolbelt, and I effortlessly draw from its holster a disarming phrase to soothe the other: “Well, you know, if it weren’t for my brain cancer…” We share a chuckle. And with this, I meet the expectations of the job that is foisted involuntarily upon me as the unsuspecting recipient of a terrible, terrible diagnosis. I fulfill my duty as the sick person who must comfort the healthy. I must — as disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson explains, following philosopher Judith Butler — give an account for myself.
My disarming joke serves this aim: to comfort the unafflicted. I am performing a schtick, comic relief, doling out a big word-hug to help absolve healthy folks of their guilt and fear. Of course, this is a grave misrepresentation of what is really going on: I am not in good health. I may look well, as I’ve heard untold times, but my warm skin beneath my coarse beard and big smile masks the cancer that lurks inside.
The accounting that those with chronic illnesses and disabilities must give of themselves when their suffering comes into public view, is an accounting that validates, or justifies, our dismissal from certain cultural norms — like full-time work and participation in social activities — and this accounting must also answer to the demands for explanation that are inherent in nondisabled people’s questions: “What happened to you?” “Were you born like this?” “What’s up with your leg?!” an Uber driver once asked me, as I slid my cane along the floorboards and slumped into the back seat of his compact car. Or the monthly call that I receive from the private employment services company that contracts with the Social Security Administration to manage my disability benefits, “We’re calling to check in to see how your recovery is going on your return to self-sufficiency?” When I replied once that I am diagnosed with an incurable and debilitating brain cancer, the speaker on the other end of the line said, “I’ll make note of that in your file.”
They called again the following month.
These questions and others like them, individually, reveal the discomfort most nondisabled people feel when they approach someone with impairments; collectively, these questions reveal the mistreatment — even polite, civil mistreatment — that is built into our economic and municipal systems. We, disabled folks, are called on to “establish new modes of recognition within a context of profoundly discrediting received social norms,” Garland-Thomson writes.
These profoundly discrediting norms are extensions of the status quo and dominant belief that illness, trauma and disability are conditions to be pitied; that our lives, our bodies and our experiences have fallen far short of an ideal life, and so, in its most basic formulation, something is wrong with me, with us disabled people; and nondisabled folk, if they think of us at all, should be thankful that they are not in our circumstances. All else being equal, the dominant view goes, sick and disabled people should strive toward achieving a life that looks closer to the lives of the wealthy, powerful, accomplished and self-sufficient. Those traits mark the ideal life, by American societal standards.
When asked to evaluate the quality of life of disabled people, nondisabled people evaluate the quality of life far lower for people with disabilities than people with disabilities evaluate for themselves. In other words, our lives are not as bad as you think they are. Still, “Many nondisabled philosophers and laypeople are inclined to doubt the reliability of disabled persons’ self-reports to the effect that they are doing well,” according to this discussion on disability and well-being that appears in the often cited Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Doubting self-reports is a symptom of injustice — when, in fact, wisdom, personal growth, and a healthy relationship with our own fragility and mortality are virtues of illness that subvert the status quo and promote a life of purpose that is often not recognized by nondisabled people.
This does not mean that society should take little care in improving the lives of folks like me, and it does not mean that we should not continue biomedical research, health design innovation and policy-making to address health disparities, gaps in care and support services for disabled people.
What this does mean, or at least one thing it may mean, is that what is wrong here is not something that is inherently wrong with me or up to me alone to fix. I live with illness and impairments regardless of what society does, but that does not preclude us from asking: How might we design a world that addresses those impairments and educates nondisabled people about how meaningful a life with a disability can be, particularly if one is supported in the best ways to maximize their potential as fellow folks with dreams, goals, interests, senses of humor, favorite foods, relationships and desires for self-determination? The problem that I am diagnosing here is that attitudes couched in dominant norms about my life do not meet me where I am. A failure to bring attitudes about a population into closer alignment with the attitudes shared by that population is a stubborn privilege that would rather pity the “other” than learn from them.
Privilege expresses itself as ableism, the same privilege that finds those in positions of power fearing and denigrating folks who live on the margins; the people who society would rather forget — poor people, people experiencing homelessness, people requiring low-income housing.
These communities on the margins of society are viewed as something less than, inferior, even blameworthy for their station, and so a form of circular reasoning develops where folks in power dehumanize those on the margins to justify their inhumane treatment, and for marginal communities who experience poverty, crime, joblessness and comorbidities, those features of these communities are trotted out to prove the point of their inferior status. It is a cycle that erects straw characterizations to justify injustice, then uses the outcomes of systemic injustice to bolster the straw characterization.
The truth is, ableism and privilege are, in part, expressions of white supremacy. Both speak and act from positions of power to look down on the other: to pity or to fear. Folks on the margins are not equal in worth to the dominant class, according to those who establish value, and few traits are viewed as more detrimental to individual worth than the inability to contribute meaningfully to the economy. This was the real harm of serious illness, according to Talcott Parsons, a mid-20th century sociologist whose “sick role” theory was at first attractive to me because it codified the social deviance of chronic illness. I enjoyed the claim to deviance. It was a nice foil to conformity. But by “deviant,” Parsons did not mean a laudable resistance; rather, for Parsons, the worst part about illness was its disqualification from economic productivity. The ill person’s deviance, their necessitated exemption from certain defined social roles, must be policed. A sanctioned deviance where dismissal is permitted only through gritted teeth, not extended as compassionate allowance.
I am not, by far, the first to mention a connection between ableism and white supremacy. “The notion that some people produce more (or less) for the economy and are, therefore, more (or less) valuable — is ableism,” write Kristin Garrity Sekerci and Azza Altiraifi in a 2008 article for Al Jazeera. Sekerci and Altiraifi connect ableism to immigration policies, linking economic productivity as the highest good of personal worth. “To be sure, then, ableism is part and parcel of white supremacy,” they write.
Disability justice activists Patty Berne and Stacey Milbern discuss the need for a politicized understanding of ableism:
Ableism tells us some bodies are valuable and some are disposable. In the U.S. context, ableism has been forged with and through white supremacy, colonial conquest, capitalist domination, and heteropatriarchy so that bodies are valued for their ability to produce profit or have it extracted from them, or are otherwise excluded or eliminated through isolation, institutionalization, incarceration, and/or death.
You may wonder whether disability needs to be politicized in these ways, but the short answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Amelia Blackwater writes, “Disability is political when disabled BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] and LGBTQ+ people are being ignored, mistreated and dying because of the color of their skin and sexual orientation.” Blackwater cautions readers that ignoring the political dimensions of disability threatens to erase disabled people of color. While it’s true that my diagnosis places me at the bottom of the triage list when rationing health care, during, say, a pandemic, it is just as true that for disabled people of color, their intersecting identities render their lived experiences more fraught than my own as a white man who possesses markers of privilege.
Ableism Is More White Privilege
We might enumerate three dimensions of the interlaced ideas of ableism and privilege: First, the person living with illness or disability and those who are on the margins of society must give an accounting of themselves, often to comfort the nondisabled; the non-afflicted; those in power. Second, society sees those outside of the dominant norm as people with something wrong with them that is to be pitied, at best, or feared, at worst. And third, those of us on the margins, paradoxically, must perform acrobatics to convince others of our worth and quality of life, ease the distress of those in the center through giving an account, and all while striving to be more like those with power to reverse our deviance.
The three components of ableism and privilege — that “the other” is held to account for our differences; that those on the margins are inherently flawed; and that those on the margins should work toward joining those in the center — are features that I see repeated time and again in the present moment of racial reckoning.
Run of the mill “All Lives Matter” rhetoric from a comfortable, privileged population of white people with power and their willfully ignorant refusal to accept the Movement for Black Lives as a meaningful social movement to effect change and dismantle centuries of systemic racism and police violence illuminates the harm that occurs when we demand that those on the margins give an account for who they are — an expression of the first feature of privilege. For too long, the burden of proof has been on Black Lives Matter activists to defend themselves against accusations of hate and violence, rather than placing the onus of account on white people for challenging their participation in systems that required the birth of such movements to combat institutional oppression. When we find the “woke” white person, the next hurdle is understanding that asking Black people to teach white people about white privilege is a further extension of forcing those on the margins to account for their differences from the powerful.
Systemic and personal episodes of police violence; racial epithets uttered by people in power (including the highest office holder in the country); rising displays of neo-Nazism; the refusal to prioritize a national, coordinated coronavirus response, a disease that is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown Americans and people with disabilities; and ongoing efforts toward voter suppression are a few of the many examples that highlight distrust and fear of those on the margins.
White supremacy takes whatever means necessary to hold on to power, and this includes justifying brutality toward protesters, staging political rallies on days of national importance to Black communities and in places of significance to Indigenous peoples, accepting without challenge the deployment of federal agents in U.S. cities and demonizing those with dissenting views. These are examples of treating those on the margins as flawed and dangerous.
Ableism, as with all privilege, must be confronted to be corrected; change does not come without challenge. The more we expose white supremacist ideology and the ways in which it is enmeshed and interlaced with ableism, the more solidarity we build with those who join in a movement for change.