Whiteness as social disease and ableism

I want to preface this by saying that throughout this reflection, when I use “whiteness” I mean it as shorthand, inspired in bell hooks’ definition, for “white supremacist, heteronormative, cissupremacist, capitalist, Imperialist patriarchy” (see here Trudy’s compiled list of origins of definitions and here for bell hooks’ own usage of these ideas in one example of her own writing). I understand that “whiteness” usually means different things to different people but this is what I have in mind when I speak about it. Whiteness as “system of interlocked oppressions”.

Yesterday I shared Sarah Kendzior’s excellent post about media cruelty and exclusion. A number of people objected to the ableism in the piece, mostly, the conflation of sociopathy to racism/ misogyny/ transphobia, etc (you can see it in the reblogs of my post but I also saw the objections pop up on Twitter). Last week, a woman of color, in a private space, asked if people thought that referring to racism as sociopathy was ableist. The question was based, I presumed, in the definition of sociopathy as one in “which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others”. The responses (all of them), said yes. Equating racism to sociopathy was ableist. In all these instances described, the respondents pointing out the ableism were white.

I realized in these incidents that there seems to be a disconnect and lack of understanding of the framework to explain what we are experiencing as PoC. The ableism highlighted in these situations might be technically correct. These could be interpreted as ableist ways of describing social problems, unless the “observer” was implicated by virtue of being on the receiving end of these behaviors. I am not trying to gloss over the implication for mental health and for the stigmas associated with mental illness. Yet, I also realized that for many of us, myself included, whiteness can only be described as a social disease. We lack words to explain this in ways that do not further stigmatize people. I am aware that saying racism is sociopathic could be interpreted as ableist and yet, how do we describe a culture wide phenomenon that kills us? how do we describe a political system founded on our shared inhumanity? how do we describe an oppression that is rooted in lack of empathy and love towards us? Again, this is not to gloss over ableism but what words do we have to pick from? One of the consequences of epistemic injustice is that we do not have accepted frameworks to explain our lives. By “accepted”, I mean, frameworks that are society-wide accepted and recognized as valid throughout academia, mainstream media and public discourses including but not limited to policy and laws. So, in this denial of our knowledge and theories, we are left gasping for air. Here we stand looking for words that would encompass the gravity of what we experience.

Tim Wise, someone whose work is awful, has spoken about the pathology of privilege and this is where Tim Wise’s phony and shallow activism comes through. Privilege is not the pathology. Privilege is the symptom of whiteness as a social disease that kills us. The outcome of our systemic Othering and eventual deaths is the privilege. Wise, ever the apologist, falls into the white trap I’ve written about this past week claiming that racism is bad not because it kills PoC, racism is bad for white people because it causes them mental illnesses

That’s what white privilege does to white folks. But that’s not all. It also creates an intense anxiety, like a mental dysfunction, an emotional anxiety, and distress. If you are privileged after all, if you are the top dog, if you have all the advantage, you are constantly afraid of who’s gaining on you. You’re constantly afraid of who’s coming to take what you have. You’ve got to close the border. They’re coming to take our stuff.  We’ve got to worry about terrorists. They’re coming to take our stuff. We got to get them before they get us; preventative war. We’ve got to stop them. That’s what privilege will do for you because those who have it are constantly anxious. A study in June of 2004, in the journal of the American Medical Association, which received very little attention, found that in the United States the rates of anxiety disorder, depression, and substance abuse related mental disorders are twice the global average, five times the rate in Nigeria. How is it that the most powerful and privileged people on earth can have so much more anxiety than people who live in war torn areas, civil war, political corruption, amazing problems, often famine, all kinds of hardships, that for the most part, we don’t see at least in the same abundance, let’s say, in the United States? And yet, it is here that the greatest level of anxiety exists. I would suggest that the reason that happens is because it’s the privilege that generates the anxiety.

See? White folks suffer more than those Black folks in Nigeria or in war thorn, famine suffering countries! (really? how did he get away with the inherent white supremacy of this statement?! and worse, how did he become mandatory reading material in educational institutions across the Western world?! I know the answer, these are the rhetorical questions I ask myself in disbelief).

How do we, as PoC define a system where you are viewed and treated as the disease and as the reason for the disease (which is what Tim Wise implies, by proximity, in his statements above)? Because if white folks experience anxiety and mental health issues due to a desperation to preserve their privilege, aren’t we somewhat responsible for their perceived suffering as well? How do we steer clear of this language to explain “whiteness as a system that immunizes itself from our existence”? Yes, these are all disease related metaphors and yet, which other metaphors do we have to illustrate something that kills us? Moreover, how do those of us who bear the marks of this whiteness while simultaneously dealing with mental health issues and the associated stigmas find an appropriate framework that doesn’t stigmatize us in one of our intersecting oppressions?

In the Journal of Disability Studies Quarterly, Phil Smith writes about “Whiteness, Normal Theory, and Disability Studies”. From his paper:

Racism is defined bluntly and cogently as “an ideological ethnocentric diseased set of beliefs

“A diseased set of beliefs”. And then, further on, this:

It is very true that minorities are at greater risk for acquiring disability labels and losing ability capacities, often as a result of impoverishment (O’Connor 1993). Difficulty in obtaining services for African Americans may include issues including impoverishment, discrimination, and services that are not culturally competent.[…]

And race has been tied in basic ways to understandings and metaphors of developmental disability. For example, prior to the label of Down syndrome used by modernist medical science, the term Mongolism was the dominant term. The construction of people with disabilities as freaks is "steeped in racism, imperialism, and handicapism…”. Psychiatric survivors have also experienced a “potent fusion of insanity and blackness” as the result of racialized terror felt by Whites.

Race and disability have resided in the same social terrains throughout their history, especially so in educational territories. Eugenicist, modernist science has been instrumental in conflating the cultural topography of disability and race. For example, research has shown over and over that there is a relationship between eligibility for special education services and race […]

One of the most recent of these studies revealed that “…black public school students are three times as likely as whites to be identified as mentally retarded and in need of special-education services…” (Tato 2001, Paragraph 4). Another source notes that African-American students are mis-identified as being mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed at much higher rates than whites […]

I could go on quoting more race based ableist stigmas from this paper but I won’t. My point is made: ableist discourses rest on a foundation of racist Othering. This is not to say that white people are not oppressed by ableism. This is to say that whiteness (see my first paragraph for the working definition) will do away with their own if, by proximity, they can be linked to “us”. And if that is not the textbook definition of a culture that exhibits a “long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others”, then what other words are we left to use to define it?

For the past decade and a half I have been making all my content available for free (and never behind a paywall) as an ongoing practice of ephemeral publishing. This site is no exception. If you wish to help offset my labor costs, you can donate on Paypal or you can subscribe to Patreon where I will not be putting my posts behind a lock but you'd be helping me continue making this work available for everyone. Thank you.  Follow me on Twitter for new post updates.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to top