By Christina V. Cedillo
In the last few years, different hashtags have emerged on social media that call attention to the white supremacist character of U.S. society. These hashtags include #OscarsSoWhite, used to contest the lack of diversity in award nominations; #STEMSoWhite, created to call out a lack of Black and Latinx representation in science fields; and #SoWhite, which denotes popular things or phenomena that illustrate “basic” or “bougie” whitestream aesthetics. An important function of these hashtags is pointing out how everyday life norms reify white supremacy. These hashtags also emphasize the ubiquity of white supremacy and how it makes life comfortable for members of the dominant culture at the social, political, psychological, and material expense of racialized peoples.
Here, I highlight one related hashtag, #DisabilityTooWhite. This hashtag focuses on the ways that racism and ableism converge with respect to multiply marginalized people. To be frank, writing as a disabled Chicanx social media user, I often reflect on this specific hashtag since many of the conversations sustained by this hashtag speak to my own experiences. #DisabilityTooWhite addresses how racism and ableism sustain one another, and how they conspire to have direct negative impact on the lives of racialized and disabled people who are not centered or necessarily even included in discussions about racism or disability. Leaving racialized and disabled perspectives out of these conversations ignores the plight of the most vulnerable within these affected groups and further advances white supremacy by framing disability as a white phenomenon and racialized disability as a threat. Below, I explain what #DisabilityTooWhite teaches us about racism, ableism, and their intertwined effects.
Popular belief holds that white supremacy is mainly or only enforced through the use of epithets and physical violence. While these mechanisms do much to maintain the oppressive status quo, often overlooked is the power of pervasive rhetorical and spatial erasure in our society. By “rhetorical erasure” I mean the omission of invested, usually multiply marginalized voices from a conversation and its curated history, whether through complete disregard or because multiply marginalized perspectives are viewed as too limited (e.g., “All Chicanx disabled people are Chicanx but not all Chicanxs are disabled”). I use “spatial erasure” to mean the denial of a platform or access to another such space due to material and physical conditions that effectively silences people (e.g., planners of a Zoom meeting fail to provide captions for Deaf attendees, or the lack of ramps at a gathering prohibits wheelchair users from addressing crowds from the podium). While rhetorical and spatial erasure tend to be interpreted as isolatable forms of symbolic or epistemic violence, as critics like Gayatri Spivak (2015), Aimee Marie Carrillo Rowe (2004), and Sami Schalk (2022) explain, they are necessarily material in nature, sanctioning the state’s physical subjugation of racialized populations, who are all impacted by ableism (see Schalk, 2022, p. 11) and among whom disabled people are especially vulnerable to violence and the denial of resources.
These erasures manifest upon and against the bodyminds of vulnerable human beings. They maintain the hierarchies that frame some people as more marginalized, and therefore more disposable, than others. By suppressing the voices of those most harmed, they enable the use of overtly racist and ableist dehumanizing speech that authorizes physical violence against those deemed threats to social order due to their race and disability. At the most fundamental level, they imperil people’s lives through a lack of food, shelter, medicines, and therapy, the trauma of INS raids and police killings, and institutional abuse. Rhetorical and spatial erasure further obscure their own effects on people by suggesting that no one contests the dangerous conditions they expedite since those who might object are now silenced, debilitated, or dead. Ultimately, rhetorical and spatial erasure are tools of white supremacy, and white supremacy is inherently ableist but that ableism is never disjoined from racism. These two evils are co-constitutive and to treat them otherwise is to perpetuate harmful views of disability and race.
Erasure and exclusion are not always apparent, ostensibly, to members of the privileged group who provide the template for normalcy and citizenship, and this problem of recognition allows those with privilege to deny responsibility for perpetuating white supremacy or to assert that no such problem exists. Thus, hashtags focused on racism ask users to think about how racism works through disregard and omission, which may be claimed as unintentional on an individual level but are destructive just the same. For example, #STEMSoWhite highlights how academic discrimination negatively affects retention rates for Black students and how macro- and microaggressions have lasting consequences for Black, Native, and Latinx graduates (McGee, 2016; Park et al., 2022). Couched in ableist terms of deficit, limited success, or disinterest, low numbers of Black, Native, and Latinx scientists are used to justify stereotypes that members of minoritized groups are less knowledgeable, intelligent, or ambitious than their white counterparts, making them less likely to be hired. Among the general population, this lack of representation “proves” the veracity of these stereotypes when experts are always shown to be white. Along similar lines, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag reminds us that the lack of positive media representation has a direct impact on the social vulnerability of Black people and other people of color, framing them not as integral members of society but as Others who are only cast due to forced diversity measures and only win because they (re-)enact tragedy. In addition, the #____SoWhite hashtags underscore that disregard and omission are actions rather than situations; that is, they require actors to create these conditions rather than simply manifesting on their own. Thus, to continue to ignore the existence, voices, and needs of racialized and disabled people is to actively participate in racism and ableism whether one means to or not.
The hashtag that most clearly stresses the active quality of rhetorical and spatial erasure is #DisabilityTooWhite, a hashtag originated by disability activist, blogger, and social worker Vilissa Thompson. This hashtag shows how white supremacy coheres through the active maintaining of rhetorical and spatial hegemony which, in turn, authorizes material and physical violence against marginalized groups. Given that up to 1 in 3 members of racially minoritized communities are disabled (CDC, 2020), these deliberately generated conditions prove dangerous, if not lethal, for many racialized disabled people.
Vilissa Thompson, a Black disability activist, started the #DisabilitySoWhite hashtag and subsequent social media campaign in 2016 to challenge the media’s overrepresentation of disabled people as white. Thompson aimed to highlight the experiences of disabled people of color who contend with racism and ableism. Thompson is founder and CEO of Ramp Your Voice, an organization she started as a blog in 2013 to empower disabled people of color, especially disabled Black people. In an interview for Essence magazine (Kent, 2020), Thompson states that she was driven to found Ramp Your Voice by the lack of representation of Black disability when she was in her teens and early twenties. Yet, she says, “I started off doing this work broadly. Talking about a range of subjects…to show my range. Because I knew if I had started off just talking about ‘Black issues’ [or disabled issues], I would be just pigeonholed in that because there weren’t many of us [Black women with disabilities] who were blogging at the time.” Her decision to start the blog with a deliberately broad scope before she focused on talking about Blackness, disability, or Black disability shows that the rhetorical and spatial erasure she aimed to contest is not by chance. General audiences (meaning white people and non-Black people of color) are often uncomfortable listening to and learning from discussions of Blackness and Black lives due to apathy, an assumption that these issues do not affect them, or because they are used to being rhetorically centered as subjects and speakers.
Furthermore, even broader audiences (meaning including ablebodied Black people) are made uneasy by representations of Black disability. As Moya Bailey and Izetta Autumn Mobley (2019) state, in particular “Black women are disallowed disability and their survival is depoliticized. Survival is a form of resistance and a source of celebration, particularly in the face of the reality that, as Lucille Clifton said, ‘Every day something has tried to kill me and has failed’ (Clifton 1993, 25)…Resilience is praised while trauma, violence, and pain are too common to actually be interrogated for very long” (p. 21). What Thompson’s rhetorical strategy reveals is that if the public equates marginalized identities with the absence of insight regarding issues beyond marginalization, multiply marginalized identity becomes an ipso facto excuse to erase multiply marginalized people altogether.
In Thompson’s case, she knew her blog had to appeal to “wider” audiences before honing attention on the needs of disabled Black women. Non-Black audiences regard their own experiences as far removed from those of Black people, farther still from those of Black women, and even farther still from those of disabled Black women—if they consider these latter perspectives at all. Disabled Black women must contend with misogynoir, a specifically anti-Black form of misogyny (see Bailey, 2021), as it intersects with ableism, which is itself built by depicting Blackness as a disability and rendering Black people economically, politically, and physically disabled (Schalk, 2022, p. 15). Since gender itself is constructed using binaries of logical and illogical informed by race (Crenshaw, 2013), Blackness becomes irrationality’s Othered Other, signifying nothingness since, as Calvin Warren (2018) argues in Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation, to even label Black people as irrational would mean categorizing them as human and worthy of concern. As a result, disabled Black women must deal with having their subjectivity exponentially denied while having their physical presence hyper-visibilized and construed as threatening to white supremacist order.
This leaves activists like Thompson needing to combat rhetorical and spatial erasure before they can make their voices heard. Ronald Walter Greene (2004) explains that “rhetorical agency often takes on the characteristics of a normative theory of citizenship” that includes the proper use of persuasion or even “more radical visions of argument [that] might include strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts in the rhetorical arsenal of good citizenship” (p. 188). When multiply marginalized people are disqualified from speech, physical presence might be one way that rhetoricity can be achieved (see Kerschbaum, 2014, p. 57). But what if one’s voice and one’s bodymind are rhetorically excluded and physically barred from entering the spaces where argumentation takes place? Taking up Marilyn Cooper’s work on rhetorical agency, Stephanie Kerschbaum (2014) explains that we can think of agency as based not in individual and intentional choice but interactional “immersion in and involvement with social context” where “all actions have effects on both individuals and environments” (p. 63). Thus, Thompson’s campaign, like those spearheaded by other racialized disabled activists (for example, Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, and Imani Barbarin, who writes and creates content under Crutches and Spice), must create new spaces like Ramp Your Voice (the website) where interaction can occur and where non-action is also understood as a form on agency, albeit agency predicated on the choice to ignore Blackness, disability, and the imbricated history of these identities (see Erevelles, 2014; Samuels, 2014; Dolmage, 2018).
As Thompson notes in another interview, lack of racial and disabled representation leaves disabled people of color feeling like social outcasts (Blahovec, 2017), and this feeling of alienation is experienced even within advocacy groups. Thompson explains that disabled and ablebodied white people expect disabled Black people and other people of color to undertake the emotional labor of educating would-be allies while leadership in disability activist groups and service organizations remains largely white; meanwhile, Black rights groups do not always address ableism. A refusal to address race and disability intersectionally matters because a lack of representation creates gaps in public perception that may then be filled by stereotypes. Thus, when audiences see only white disabled characters on television—and then typically as inspirational and overachieving figures (see Kafer, 2013; Schalk, 2016)—ablebodied people come to perceive disabled people who don’t fit those roles as nuisances, charity cases, or dangers. Informed by racial stereotypes that frame people of color as violent, criminal, or even murderous, those views also frame disabled people of color are always already suspect, as threats needing to be contained, and, in the case of police violence, as imperfect victims to blame for their own deaths (Ore, 2019; Dukes & Gaithe, 2017; Hurwitz & Peffley, 1997; Gilliam, Iyengar, Simon & Wright, 1996). This is the deadly arrangement that enabled the killing of Tanisha Anderson, Deborah Danner, Elijah McClain, and too many other individuals whose Black disability has been demonized by rhetorical and spatial erasure. The convergence of both forms of erasure denies speech to disabled Black people and demands that they be invisible or else be construed as a threat.
At the same time, ableism and racism cohere to suggest that due to their disabilities these victims were somehow more worthy of care—and now more worthy of remembrance—than other victims of anti-Black police violence, not because society necessarily cares but because sympathy for disabled people is so often deployed as proof of one’s integrity. Indeed, performative demonstrations of pity for disabled people combined with our white supremacist society’s contempt for Black life creates hierarchies of care that frame Black disabled people as more or less worthy of compassion depending on how they can be linked to racist and ableist tropes. For example, stereotypes related to madness have provided the means to attack the reputations of Black women victims of police brutality like Sandra Bland, while the image of the “Sweet Innocent” who is “polite, respectful, humble, godly, pure and sexless, and seems to bring out the protectiveness of every good-hearted able-bodied person” (Norden, 1990, p. 224) marks the media’s portrayal of victims like Elijah McClain. Though none of these people deserved to die, this kind of thinking suggests that some victims deserved to live more than others. Thus, disability must not be used to further infantilize Black people and other people of color, and race must not be used to render disabled people as less worthy of resources and care. Countering rhetorical and spatial erasure demands centering intersectional analysis and the safety of multiply marginalized people when contending with racism and ableism.
The state-sanctioned murder of these victims is not the result of a co-incidence of factors but by purposeful design. The dehumanizing mechanisms of structural oppression do not require people’s conscious participation (Gee & Ford, 2011; Bonilla-Silva, 1997). When people use racist or ableist terms, whether intentionally or unintentionally, those terms are already charged by the full force of political and material endangerment made possible by erasure. This point must be stressed because, while we must certainly combat the use racist and ableist language, too often racism and ableism are associated with deliberately harmful speech while the material and physical dimensions of the rhetorical and spatial conditions from which they draw their power go unchallenged.
Thus, #DisabilityTooWhite provides online spaces where counterstories can be shared (Mulderink, 2020), but also where spatial (re-)orientation centers racialized and disabled experiences rather than framing them as peripheral concerns within either the Black rights or disability rights movements. Moreover, in combination with Ramp Your Voice, the hashtag creates spaces that bypass standard notions of kairos as a temporary, if-you-weren’t-there-you-missed-it kind of phenomenon that easily leaves out racialized and disabled people sans the privilege to be in a specific place/space at a specific time. Instead, by facilitating focused discussions in asynchronous time, the hashtag accommodates both crip time, which allows disabled people to contribute as they can, and CPT (Pardlo, 2016), which is often deployed as a stereotype against Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples but which has grounding in how material and physical oppression steals time, labor, and energy from racialized populations.
In addition, by using plain and direct language to call out the racism of much anti-ableist work, #DisabilityTooWhite reminds social media users that disabled people can also be racialized, that all disabled activists should be invested in combatting racism, and that the relative privilege of white disabled people comes at the expense of racialized and disabled people through our erasure and dehumanization. At the same time, it reminds users that racialization deploys disability as a marker of non-whiteness by opening space for threads where the interwoven history of race and disability construction is exposed. This matters because as public attention hones in on an issue highlighted by a hashtag, an individual’s new or uninformed perspective on the issue can obscure those of the people who have been affected most severely by the problem and for the most time. Hashtags can easily become signifiers for empty performances of “wokeness” and promote forms of self-proclaimed allyship that recenter more privileged (in this case, both white disabled and ablebodied) bodyminds. When this happens, hashtags might highlight the urgency of the problem but simultaneously obscure the problem’s historical material and discursive trajectories. Meaning, a hashtag can be taken up by supposed allies who then reinscribe created spaces by crowding out those whose voices were meant to be centered. The unapologetic candor of the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag means white disabled and ablebodied users should reflect carefully on their intentions and how they take up space when sharing while using this hashtag.
Some Final Thoughts
In the last decade, activists from marginalized communities have used political hashtags to draw public attention to the violence faced by their communities. Hashtags are powerful rhetorical forms that encapsulate widespread concerns in just a few words. This essay draws attention to Thompson’s 2016 hashtag response to the lack in disability representation in popular media and the lack of racial diversity in representations of disability and in disability activist circles. Though drawing on social media’s logocentric makeup, #DisabilityTooWhite demonstrates a need to take seriously issues of marginalized representation beyond matters of language. The hashtag suggests that we must be wary of the lenses we use when aiming to encourage more equitable representations of multiply marginalized people. This lack of representation is not just concerning but dangerous, because it erases the experiences of multiply marginalized people who are typically the most vulnerable members among already marginalized groups.
Erasure has rhetorical and spatial consequences—affecting the visibility of marginalized groups—but it has material and physical consequences, too, including a lack of access to resources and increased exposure to state violence. Visibility can prove an ambivalent notion for multiply marginalized people as it is “saturated with the value of normative embodiment” (Johnson & Kennedy, 2020, p. 163), meaning it can easily translate into hypervisibility, or a situation where “bodies become overly visible in harmful ways” (Johnson, & Boylorn, 2015, p. 7). Hypervisibility substitutes stereotypes for people and so, it erases real human beings and their interests—even their entire existence (Noble, 2013; Vaquera, Aranda & Gonzales, 2014; Arat-Koç, 2012; Sambor, 2021). Thus, erasure is more than a mono-dimensional specular or discursive phenomenon; it is rhetorical and spatial and, therefore, material and corporeal since bodyminds (i.e., bodies including the epistemologies that move them) that are not white and ablebodied are often physically barred from entering spaces where crucial discussions take place or resources are distributed. Consequently, discussions of oppression tend to exclude the perspectives of multiply marginalized people and the interactive quality of oppression is thus ignored. When public attention does hone in on these issues, the voices that have long been seeking public attention are silenced. For people who are multiply marginalized, representation and access to spaces easily translate to sociomaterial conditions that dictate health, risk, life, or death (Mbembe, 2019; Cacho, 2012).
As Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (1991) notes, “Contemporary feminist and antiracist discourses have failed to consider intersectional identities” (pp. 1242–1243), but so have many anti-ableist discourses. What #DisabilityTooWhite tells us is that we must approach race and disability as “interlocking forms of oppressions” that are “interconnected and collusive” (Annamma, Ferri & Connor, 2018, p. 47). Otherwise, we allow impressions of disability to remain white and erasive, and continue to engage issues of race in ableist ways, fostering the very rhetorical and spatial conditions that many of us encounter on a daily basis and seek to transform.
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Christina V. Cedillo (she/they) is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Their research draws from cultural rhetorics and decolonial theory to focus on embodied rhetorics and rhetorics of embodiment at the intersections of race, gender, and disability, particularly in relation to Latinx rhetorics and critical pedagogies.