During the insurrection at the Capitol building, white supremacy was all I could think about. While many were contending with the implications for society at large, the moment was a perfect distillation of how white supremacy manifests itself in the disability community. As Madison Cawthorn, a wheelchair user, was riling up insurrection outside of the capitol building at Trump’s “Stop The Steal” rally, Senator Tammy Duckworth, another wheelchair user, was inside the capitol building escaping the violence that led to 5 deaths. A disabled woman of color was fleeing the harm a white wheelchair user had caused to seize power.
“Talking about race in the disability community is divisive.” This was one of my first interactions on social media. I was talking about my experience being Black and disabled, and a white disabled person saw this as a threat. Talking about race in the disability community had no place in the discourse, according to this person. During my time as a disability advocate, I have witnessed as disabled people of color, myself included, elevating the need for more representation of diverse disabled people, only to be met with “well, any representation is good for all of us” and told we need to wait our “turn.” I have also given talks around the country on disability and race and watched as white disabled people left the room as I discussed these issues.
While the conversation has, over time, shifted to elevating more Black, Indigenous and People of color, white supremacy is still a major problem for our community. And, while we, as a collective, would like to believe such discussion is behind us, we cannot ignore that racism is deeply rooted in the disability community and that we are currently contending with its effects as representational politics become a self-inflicted wound. We have settled for harmful representation, because the white disabled men who permeate media representations, political offices and organizational charts were better than nothing at all.
Ableism has always been the best way to perpetuate white supremacy under the guise of “progress for the disability community” and now, more than ever, white disabled people are presented with a choice: white supremacy or disability justice. You cannot have both. Your actions furthering the goals of white supremacy directly harm the disability community with the hope that you, alone, can be saved by your privilege and proximity to abled whiteness.
Often, disabled white people invest in white supremacy because whiteness is the only privilege they are able to exercise. At the same time, they use their disability identity to escape any criticism or calls for self-reflection as they dismiss those they’ve marginalized as bullies—and because ableism usually accompanies these critiques, they get away with it. Disability is their shield, but whiteness is still their privilege. Even if a white disabled person cannot exercise their privilege in the same way, it does not mean it does not exist.
What we are witnessing with the election of disabled white supremacists to political office is a concerted effort by the GOP to use representational politics to undermine progressive conversations and legislation around universal healthcare and minimum wage increases, among other policies—topics incredibly important to the disability community, but whose deep rooted connections to the disability community aren’t as familiar to nondisabled people. Simply by seeing someone with a physical disability elevating this harm, they will be led to believe these are things the disability community wants.
Politicians like Cawthorn, Gregg Abbot and Dan Crenshaw regularly use their disabilities and stereotypes about disability to seize power and turn around to undermine disability rights and the healthcare of their constituents. Their form of harm is more palatable to nondisabled society because it comes from disabled people (even if they do not consider themselves disabled, their connection to the community does not need to be explicitly stated in order for nondisabled people to think they represent the community).
In terms of the direction we want to take with disability community, we are at a fork in the road: white supremacy is a threat to the progress we want to take as a community. Most disabled Black, Indigenous and people of color are firm trying to pull the disability community in the direction of justice, but our greatest roadblock is white fragility and white supremacy. So I ask you as a community: is your allegiance and proximity to white supremacy and privilege more important than our lives? Because whiteness has created the emergency, and there are disabled BIPOC in the building scrambling towards safety.