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?