Another little dose of honesty here. In disability activist circles there is much talk of ‘inspiration porn‘ (the late great Stella Young had a TED talk about it that went viral) – the inspirational memes that proliferated online and in viral emails (back in the day) that feature images of disabled adults, teenagers or children doing some everyday activity or some out-of-the-ordinary thing, paired with some words that encourage the able-bodied viewer to thus believe that anything is possible, not feel sorry for themselves, and generally be inspired by the awesome attitude of the disabled individual.
Let me be clear: in an of itself, I do not think that drawing inspiration from others who clearly have some extra shit to deal with in this world, or who are amazing to us for one reason or another, is a bad thing. I really don’t. Particularly if the inspiration being taken is rooted in an understanding that this world can be a harsh and obstacle-ridden place for us disabled people.
However, there are definitely instances of ‘inspiration porn’ where the message being delivered is harmful to disabled people; they are harmful for the reason articulated perfectly in the following excerpt from this article:
“Instead of paying attention to the conditions that make disabled people’s lives difficult, inspiration porn focuses on attitudes of disabled persons as the thing that will make one’s life better or not,” Erevelles said. “[Inspiration porn] takes away from the actual issues that disabled people want folks to pay attention to – like the lack of access, like exclusion from schools and community activities, the ways in which people stare at you, the ways non-disabled people are so uncomfortable being around disabled people except for when they are a source of inspiration.”
“People are inspired by a child with disabilities coloring, but not by someone with a disability fighting for their rights, because in the former the subject is happy, while in the latter they are frustrated and angry”
So you see, the reason ‘inspiration porn’ is a problem is because it can obscure the fact that disabled people face a lot of discrimination, oppression and marginalisation in all societies on this planet, that no amount of positive thinking and attitude adjustment (although those things are useful on an individual level) will remedy. It’s perfectly okay and humane (and human) to recognise a strong spirit or the positive inner qualities of disabled people; but it is more important for people to recognise and DO SOMETHING ABOUT the systemic barriers disabled people face to participating and contributing to society, and living full lives.
Please do watch the following TEDWomen2016 presentation by scholar/activist Kimberlé Crenshaw. It’s called ‘The urgency of intersectionality’.
Now more than ever, it’s important to look boldly at the reality of race and gender bias — and understand how the two can combine to create even more harm. Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the term “intersectionality” to describe this phenomenon; as she says, if you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to get hit by both. In this moving talk, she calls on us to bear witness to this reality and speak up for victims of prejudice.
Here’s a quote from this 18 minutes talk:
“Now, you might ask, why does a frame matter? I mean, after all, an issue that affects black people and an issue that affects women, wouldn’t that necessarily include black people who are women and women who are black people? Well, the simple answer is that this is a trickle-down approach to social justice,and many times it just doesn’t work. Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM IN PRACTICE.
I move and involve myself in spaces that are mostly for people of colour; yet I have to regularly do “call in” (and sometimes call out) complaints about physical ABLEISM, which continues to be rife even in spaces created by folks who are supposed to be for social justice. Organisations and collectives that are sometimes populated by people who self identify as super woke “intersectional feminists”.
Do not get me wrong – I understand we are all learning, myself included. But you’ll forgive me for being – after 10 years of physically disabled life, daily physical and cultural discrimination and associated depression -exceedingly weary with people who wear “intersectional feminist” t-shirts yet persistently create “inclusive” spaces and events that are profoundly ableist (not to mention classist. But I’ll save that discussion for another time).
So here’s what I propose; the most basic of remedies. If you really are about that life, here are the basic forms of systemic oppression/marginalisation that you/we should keep in mind and try to address when trying to create “inclusive” spaces, or analysing an issue (because ultimately I see intersectionality as a tool of analysis; a way to get to a more complete or holistic understanding, and therefore better policy and activist practice):
ABLEISM (can manifest in many ways as there are many different kinds of disability, but physically inaccessibility for people with mobility issues is far too common)
RACISM (anti-Blackness, the specific racism Indigenous people face, the specific racism immigrants of colour face, anti-semitism, Islamophobia as a racialised identity, and so forth).
COLORISM (obviously intertwined with racism; anti-Blackness and it’s intersection with sexism especially. This is not just about skin tone but also features, physical build and hair texture; proximity to whiteness is privileged).
XENOPHOBIA, & WESTERN SUPREMACISM (including hatred of folks from ‘Othered’ religious backgrounds, asylum seekers, and cultural diversity in general)
I think it’s also extremely important to think about CITIZENSHIP PRIVILEGE and the precarious and dangerous marginalisation that stateless and undocumented people – people who don’t have the protections of citizenship, particularly in western nations – face in society.
I would also add LOOKISM; yes, lookism. In addition to things like race, colorism, gender, ability, etc. people with other pronounced physical differences like ‘deformities‘, disfigurement and skin conditions like Ichthyosis experience constant harassment, persecution, physical and social marginalisation; and often have poorer life outcomes because of that discrimination. This absolutely needs to change. If you think “normal” women have a lot to deal with in terms of beauty standards and discrimination on the basis of looks, spare a thought for the intensity of what these folks contend with. (And studies suggest that white women who fit a dominant aesthetic have a significant advantage in the workplace and in life over white women who don’t; lookism has an economic impact as well as a social one. Add other intersecting physical identities to that experience, and life gets even more difficult). FATPHOBIA is a manifestation of Lookism.
I’ll end this post with this: “When you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it”, Kimberlé said in her presentation. I wholeheartedly agree. It is important for all who identify as “intersectional feminists” to keep learning to SEE the barriers and violence that others (who are not us) in society face. It is important for us to keep listening to, amplifying and learning from the most marginalised voices. It is important and necessary to recognise some people really do have it tougher than others, and centre their experiences. AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, IT IS VITAL THAT WE CONSISTENTLY WORK ON TRANSLATING THE KNOWLEDGE GAINED FROM EXPERIENCES OF MARGINALISATION GENEROUSLY SHARED, INTO TANGIBLE ACTION FOR INCLUSION & HUMAN RIGHTS.
If we don’t do that, well, we need to stop saying we care about intersectionality; because we clearly do not know what that means.
I was going to post a picture of AFROPUNK FESTIVAL’S “No -isms” poster below without comment, but then realised it includes fatphobia but not CLASSISM Yeah. Maybe because the tickets are expensive?
I’m going to have to write a post down the track about how pop discourse on ‘intersectionality’ (including popular content created by some prominent Black media makers I watch and enjoy) often completely overlooks class and economic disadvantage.