one last post on tropic thunder

I’ve been thinking a lot about the strategies the disability community has used in responding to the movie Tropic Thunder. I wanted to wait until the initial media coverage passed so this conversation could be held more internally and not distract from the message we were putting out there.

The amazing Jess Hoffman from Makeshift magazine was recently a guest blogger at Feministe (h/t to Sudy) and has been writing a lot about capitalism and feminism. In part of Jess’ last post, she built on the words of Sister Lorde, Moraga, Anzaldua, and others to talk about why intersectionality was needed in feminist communities. Jess pointed out that this intersectional analysis created by radical women of color has often been misinterpreted and stolen by feminists to say something along the lines of “because *some* women have multiple identities, we need to address their experience” instead of “all systems of power are linked and a multiple-issue analysis is the only way to defeat oppression”.


So it’s not just that some individual people experience multiple forms of oppression, or even that all people have some kind of personal relationship with all systems of oppression… but also that the systems of power themselves—racism, economic hierarchy, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, etc.—are working together.

Included in our activism against ableism and the use of the r-word in Tropic Thunder have been statements from disability organizations and disability activists along the lines of “People can’t say n*gger, w*tback, or other racial oppressive words but they can still say r*tard!”, “Disability is the last frontier!”, “When making Tropic Thunder, Dreamworks brought in African American consultants to make sure the movie wasn’t offensive—where were the disability consultants?”

Though I think I know what this feeling is based on—the frusteration of ableism not being addressed as oppression in activist communities and mainstream society—I believe this short-term strategy or sentiment absolutely cannot be a part of our activism. Not only does this strategy alienate disabled people who have multiple identities but it does nothing to address oppression. When we say these kinds of things, it says that we believe racism, heterosexism, sexism, etc are personal conflicts that happens between people (and that we’ve overcome!), not institutions in which our soicety is based upon. It ignores families being ripped apart by ICE raids, trans women of color being killed everyday, and the ever-growing prison industrial complex.

One leader in the disability community rightfully pointed out the need to stick with the issue of the r-word and not swamping it with 17 other disability issues. I agreed with him, afterall, our society and movement have a history of silencing people with intellectual disabilities. But still, why weren’t the other connections made? How come we chose not to talk about all of the other horrible imagery (particularly against Asian-Pacific Islander folks)? Some responses I’ve seen to this question have been that it is more strategic. Is it really strategic in the long run and if we decide that it is— strategic for who?

I believe our activism has to be bigger than our own oppression but if you want, let’s talk about strategies for our movement. I believe it IS strategic to talk about other systems of oppressions—how else can we expect to have the system of oppression we face as disabled people recognized? How can we even go into social justice work uwilling to talk about the privileges we have?

This can’t be done in a superficial, let’s-high-five-Dr.-King way. What good is our activism, anyways, if it’s based on the backs of others?



Filed under ableism, activism, API-A, community, disability, feminism, homophobia/heterosexism, organizing

10 responses to “one last post on tropic thunder

  1. Pingback: Disaboom | Alexa | Excellent Posts #1: Tropic Thunder and Intersectionality

  2. Thank you for posting this! The whole “How come racism was addressed, but not the ableism? Why do people make a big deal out of the word n*gg*r, but not r*ta*d?” argument is not only oppressing people of color (saying ‘your fight is over, racism is being dealt with!), but it ignores the connections between race and disability. It’s making the norm (or what people perceive as the norm) of disability as being white (just like in feminist communities, the “norm” is able-bodied, white, and upper class), and ignores people of color who are disabled.

    There was recently a poll at Disaboom (a disability community website that is overwhelmingly white and conservative) asking “How much attention do the presidential candidates give people with disabilities compared to other minority groups?”…the options were more than, equal to, or less than. The response was 91% in favor of less than. This poll infuriated me for the same reasons which I addressed above. These polls/questions do not help anyone. I have become increasingly frustrated with the Disaboom community, to the point where I hardly ever post there anymore. I don’t feel welcome, and that’s a sad thing considering these people are supposed to be part of my community, my comrades in this struggle for freedom of oppression.

    I also wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. I can relate to SO MUCH that you say. From one crip to another, keep on fighting!

  3. This is food for thought. I have liked making the analogy that ableism is as bad as racism because in my circles people understand that–not because racism is a thing of the past, but because it’s ongoing. And learning from Civil Rights protesters that have come before seems like a good use of resources to me.

    In my community and nationally groups have united over this protest who have never united before and I see that as a good thing–I don’t think we are “done” by any means and recognize that we will have to grow that. I do agree that all oppression must end for oppression to end, essentially, and it is all the same. But I am delighted for this assertion by any of the disability community and look forward to more…

    Is there more that I am not understanding about this? I find this very interesting. I am actually working on an activism project that will involve activists from many causes… I need to chew on this…

    Thank you.

  4. I grow frustrated with these arguments every time. “People get upset at the n-word so why not [fill in the blank]” “If you were saying this to a black man instead of a woman” etc.

    It just doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. I get what people are ultimately trying to get across: at heart, invisibility. There is a mainstream “conversation” about race and sex, but hardly anything else. Of course that “conversation” doesn’t mean it’s a productive one: just because people recognize that racial discrimination is/”was” a problem doesn’t mean they’ve done anything to fix it. We get to the point of admitting there’s a problem and then ignore the rest of the 12 steps. Hell, it’s a serious fight to even get to admitting there is a problem!

    The fat community does this a lot too. “The last acceptable prejudice”: words that should never, ever be uttered. It bespeaks your privilege: you are complaining about your problem not being on everyone else’s radar even as other people’s problems aren’t on yours!

  5. I agree with most of this… and i especially agree that the “last acceptable prejudice” thing is both inaccurate and offensive… BUT… i do understand where it’s coming from…

    I have known too many people – anarchists, socialists, radicals of all kinds – for whom disability literally was the “last acceptable prejudice”. People who were completely opposed to any kind of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, but who literally did think of disabled people as “naturally inferior” (and often used implicitly disablist arguments in their anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc – eg. “women’s/black people’s IQ is just the same as men’s/white people’s”, without questioning that *of course* a person with a higher IQ is worth more than a person with a lower one…) – who just didn’t get the social model of disability, who didn’t even question the “positiveness” of nursing homes (and in fact many of whom worked in nursing homes because they thought they were doing socially good work, and would have found it absurd to compare them to concentration camp or prison guards), who thoroughly supported things like the Jerry Lewis telethon, whose attitudes to me changed completely when i “came out” as a mentally impaired person, etc, etc…

    I’m not denying that it can go the other way as well – i’ve met racist and sexist disability activists, too – but i think that there is a material difference between recognising something as a problem but not doing anything to fix it, and not even recognising it as a problem – and i think disablism is so deeply ingrained into our society, our language, our mental terms of reference, that many of even those who care about, and actively fight against, other oppressions don’t even recognise it as a problem…

    i dunno. that’s born of very many frustrated conversations on my part… i mean, i do think “Oppression Olympics” is completely and utterly unhelpful to anyone, and i think this sort of thing falls very, very easily into that – and, if there’s one thing i really, really passionately believe in, it’s that ALL oppressed groups in society need to ally and have solidarity with each other (and that’s why we need a *fully inclusive* politics of diversity)… which doesn’t mean that the issues faced by all oppressed groups are identical, or that things can be translated perfectly and completely from one to another – but we all need to recognise that this is all of our fight… perhaps i’ve just met too many people who seem to get that about every oppression *but* disability…

    i dunno, i’m having trouble with words and making my words look like my actual feelings… i hope i’m making some sort of sense, and not *endorsing* the “last acceptable prejudice” view… ultimately, it’s the same shitstem that divides and rules all of us, and possibly this sort of shit is just another of the ways that it does it…

    sorry for rambliness…

  6. I have liked making the analogy that ableism is as bad as racism because in my circles people understand that–not because racism is a thing of the past, but because it’s ongoing.

    Yeah. I think it’s important to speak out against all oppressions, and I think a lot of them have many things in common. And that discussions of them can link them together much more often than they do.

    I think the r-word and the n-word are equally offensive and hateful. (Also, people with dwarfism say the word “midget” is as hateful as the n-word, too). I just don’t think it’s a good idea to use that to imply that ableism is “worse than”/more of a problem/”more acceptable” than racism.

  7. As always, your writing challenges me to get outside the box. I have a few thoughts regarding why this argument by comparison was deployed in the case of Tropic Thunder. Now, I don’t want to be taken as trying to justify this stategy, but merely taking a crack at explaining how this kind of thing gets its life.

    1. Hierarchical systems of oppression are set up to create antagonism among those who are oppressed. The reason hierarchies work despite their being very few people at the top of the system of control is that each “layer” of the hierarchy subjugates the one beneath it and this keeps folks from uniting against the tip of the pyramid. When we talk about trying to avoid the “oppression olympics” we are talking about trying to resist the temptation to buy in to the hierarchy of oppression, and the antagonism it creates. When we make these kinds of comparisons, we are helping that hierarchy sustain itself. We can only defy this system by recognizing that the hierarchy is set up to keep us all busy with infighting, thus ignoring the real oppressors.

    2. Despite #1, it does seem true that arguments can only be made by analogy. When trying to explain a new idea to someone, you have to relate that idea to something they are already familiar with. Our understanding of concepts are ALWAYS relational. When I was trying to explain what was wrong with Tropic Thunder to members of the LP community, someone brought up that the word “retard” was a scientific word that could be used to describe biological plant growth or non-flammable clothing that firefighters wear. I found that, to explain the harm of the R word to this person, I had to draw comparisons to words he already was sensitive to. For example, I pointed out that the word “midget” can refer to anything from a type of submarine to a breed of turkey. In other words, despite having multiple meanings, a word can be very hurtful when it is hurled out into the public space to deliberately humiliate a particular group. To be sure, I wasn’t suggesting that we had done all the work that needed to be done to in regard to the M word, but merely trying to explain to this person why the R word hurts by relating it to a set of ideas he already understood. We can never define any concept except by using other concepts. Of course, while doing this, we need to be aware of the issues raised in this blog and try as hard as we can to recognize our own privalege and not fall into the self-defeating trap of my point #1.

  8. Thanks for this post, I am still digesting it and considering all you have said. I linked to it on a recent post of mine:

  9. Pingback: » Thinking About the Word “Retard” | Eli Clare

  10. hey yall!
    i haven’t had time to come back and comment but i wanted to point out the last two links above as really thought-provoking pieces (comment 8 and 9). please check them out!

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