Reflecting on the Impact of #DisabilityTooWhite

A blue background covered in light blue hashtags. Text reads "#DisabilityTooWhite"

It’s been just over a year since activist and Rooted in Rights’ new Digital Manager, Vilissa Thompson, created #DisabilityTooWhite (the hashtag turned a year old on May 18), and started meaningful conversations about race and intersectionality in the disability community.

Vilissa started the hashtag as a reaction to an xoJane article about beauty and disability that featured only white disabled people. The hashtag quickly took off and started trending, and other disabled people of color jumped on the bandwagon. “For some people, it was the first time they publicly shared their plight at being invisible in this community,” says Vilissa. “It was a space for those perspectives to be aired.”

For many disabled people of color, it was extremely validating to finally have these conversations in a public space. The hashtag also became a wake up call and a call-to-action for white disabled people. While I was already aware of intersectionality as a queer and historically low-income person, #DisabilityTooWhite constantly reminds me as an activist that I need to do better. It isn’t enough to cover disability rights topics without seeking and centering the voices of disabled people of color.

Vilissa believes the most important impact the hashtag has had is that many people of color are no longer hesitant to call out the disability community when we engage in behavior that upholds racism or white supremacy. “And also creating a community, and knowing that we’re not alone,” she adds. Vilissa uses the hashtag in her overall work as an advocate to raise the issue of intersectionality and discuss how disabled white people can become better allies.

Other activists have been deeply impacted by Vilissa’s hashtag, too.

“It opens up the doors for disabled people of color who are (and have been) doing the work or have been erased from history,” says Denarii Monroe, a writer, poet, songwriter, and activist. “The more people are aware of the work that disabled people of color are doing, hopefully the more access we can get to the opportunities that benefit both us as individuals and benefit the movements and work we help to sustain.”

#DisabilityTooWhite has even spread outside US border. Nicole G. Cowie, a disability rights activist in Trinidad and Tobago, says, “Vilissa’s hashtag and overall work forced me to reflect on my own personal context as a black woman with a disability and begin to examine the intersections of race, class and gender with disability in my country. Her work makes me want to do even more research and reflection to add to the small canon of disability research in my country and in the wider Caribbean.”

There’s still work to do, though. Intersectionality is often completely left out of mainstream media, and the disabled characters we do see are almost always white, straight, cisgender men. Vilissa also says we need to reshape our disability organizations from the inside out, by making it a priority to hire disabled POC, because many prominent organizations have a history of being racist and exclusive. We also need to support the work of disabled people of color, who are often doing phenomenal work with very few financial resources.

Vilissa’s work impacts both people of color and allies, and speaks to the nuances of what identity means. “As a red woman, with a black mother and white father, I don’t identify as black or white,” says Carly Findlay Morrow, a writer, speaker, and appearance activist from Australia. “I wanted to learn more about black people’s experiences because I don’t know enough. Through reading widely and talking to black friends, I realised just how under represented non white people with disability are.”

As a white disabled ally, I’m grateful for Vilissa’s #DisabilityTooWhite and her overall body of work as an activist. It’s important to me to recognize my privilege every time I’m tackling an issue as a writer or activist, because my experience is not the only valid disability experience. I need to listen and learn, stay in my lane, and remember that I’m not perfect, and I will continually work on being a more accountable ally for the rest of my life. I can call in my white disabled friends when I see them engaging in racist behavior, and uplift and center the voices of disabled people of color.

Thank you, Vilissa, for one year of a hashtag that I hope lives and grows for many to come.

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Alaina Leary is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, The Oprah Magazine, Healthline, and more. She lives with her wife and two cats in Boston. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @alainaskeys.