Please Stop Comparing Disabled Mimicry to Blackface


Those of us who are white in the disability community need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. There are Black and Brown disabled people in our communities. They often go ignored, are not listened to, and they are speaking out about the things that our greater community does that are harmful to them. One of those things is culturally appropriating terms that have been taken from concepts relating to racism and the oppression of Black and Brown bodies. I know it gets tiring to hear this new term or that new term, but when it comes to those who are multiply marginalized in our community, we need to actually listen to what they are saying.

I spend all day, most days studying film, television, and other media. We’ve had this discussion before, and I think it’s an important one we need to have again. We as disabled people and our allies need to stop calling the unfair casting of non-disabled people as “disabled” and the exclusion of disabled actors from media such as film and television as cripface. The term has specifically been taken from blackface, and I see the comparison between the two over and over again. We spoke about it during our #FilmDis discussion back in 2015, which was led by disabled BIPOC. They have told us to stop doing this over and over again, and I don’t know if the message is not getting through to everyone, but I believe we should listen.

I know that we have struggled to find a word or phrase, although, generally, using “cripping up” has been better accepted (though still problematic – Anita Cameron specifically has spoken about how the term was taken from “blacking up” another phrase for blackface), and I’ve also started using disabled mimicry, which I think fits simply because mimicry is often embedded in (often unintentional) mockery. Whether non-disabled actors intend to mock us is not relevant to using the term, because whether there is malice or not that is what happens. It is a mockery of disability, through the weird vocal intonation or accents we hear when portraying CP or Deaf characters, the twitching, writhing bodies portraying strokes or spasticity, the rigidity of body posture, curling and flopping of wrists, or whatever physically stereotypical things these actors take on to portray what they think it means to be disabled. Yes, disabled bodies do some of these things, but they do so naturally and organically. It’s not something easily done. If your body does not curl or twist or writhe or flap on its own, it often becomes a focal point of disabled portrayals by non-disabled performers.

Nobody is saying this is not bad or horrible. In fact, it is very harmful. It harms the disability community, which is why I scoff at the defense of actors doing it. I recently saw an article asking if we should take away the Oscars from actors like Tom Hanks and Daniel Day-Lewis for their performances that are nothing short of disabled mimicry. Even Day-Lewis, who I know some disabled people support, associates disability with nothing more than physically curling up his body and contorting it, while using his voice to grunt and growl.

All of these factors have turned disability into nothing more than physical characteristics, and that is the personification of disabled mimicry. Take away their Oscars for doing real harm to actual disabled people? What a novel idea! While it is nice to think of that in retrospect, we need to look forward to what can be done to prevent this in the future.

I digress.

Going further, I see the comparison between disabled mimicry and Blackface not just in how we talk about disabled people being excluded, but also in comparing the oppression. Blackface comes from a long tradition of outright mocking black people. Disabled mimicry is mocking, but rarely have I seen it done specifically as a form of mocking. Instead, it is done by people who think they know what disability is about or they think it is a great way to get to the Oscars, and they probably aren’t that far off. Often, the actors think they are do-gooders taking on a “challenge” while writers and directors seek praise for inclusion.

Blackface has long been done insidiously, not just to remind Black people of their place in society, but also to remind us white folks of our supposed superiority over Black people. Looking back at cinema, the legacy of Birth of a Nation (1915) has painted Black people as foolish, intellectually inferior, a joke, a silly child. We see the infantilization of disabled people in film and other media, as well, but it comes from an entirely different place. Rather, it is done to make us look dependent, burdensome, or is even used as a plot device. Both forms of oppression are bad and cause harm to the communities they represent, but they have such different histories the comparison becomes problematic.

Consider the fact that there are disabled Black people who not only have to deal with disabled mimicry, but also Blackface. Comparing the two can make these individuals feel invisible. This is what I’ve been told by numerous Black disabled activists, more than once when talking about disability, race, and the media. Add in the fact that over 80% of roles are male, 70% are white, and over 99% are cisgender and heterosexual when it comes to disabled roles, and Black and Brown disabled women and trans/gnc folks are already feeling very excluded from the media. We need to start including Black disabled people, especially women and trans folks, not only in the discussion about media but in the creation of it. That is hard to do when we consider we may be isolating Black disabled folks by comparing their/our oppression as disabled people, with their oppression as Black people.

Disabled mimicry comes from a place where disabled people have no voices because it is often assumed we cannot speak for ourselves. It comes from a place of ignorance about disability. It comes from people who may think they are doing something good for our community, but who are actually harming it because they have no concept of what our community is or what we believe or represent. Can it be malicious? Absolutely! Do I think most people are doing so maliciously? I don’t believe so, and I have consumed a large amount of media that includes disabled characters and storylines. Where the problem comes in is that these creators don’t want to listen. They are not exactly aiming to mock us. They would have to understand disability to know how. I don’t think most of them even understand enough about disability to knowingly do that, but it does mock us and it does harm us.

Blackface was always meant to mock and dehumanize Black people, and therein lies the difference. At the heart of this discussion, it comes down to intent. Whitewashing may have become more insidious like disabled mimicry, but the comparison is not helping anyone. You do not have to believe me. I am white, and racism does not affect me personally. At the same time, I urge you to listen to the Black disabled voices in our community. At the heart of this is the fact that Black disabled people have asked us to stop the comparison and we need to listen to what they have to say.

Anita Cameron, legendary disability rights activist with ADAPT and Not Dead Yet says, “Cripface is appropriative and erases the history of Black folks and how we were insulted, ridiculed and put down by the white film establishment. When cripface is compared to Blackface, it is insulting, inappropriate and flat out wrong. Just don’t do it. And yes, I’m Black and disabled. If I see that comparison taking place I will call it out! Blackface was meant to be cruel to Black folks.”

Heather Watkins agrees with Anita. The Boston-based disability rights activist says she recently had this conversation with a grad student. She said she told the student, “I’d caution against making the analogy between “Black face” and “cripping up” (as we like to say in disability community). [They are] not quite the same and historical significance is staggering. Those analogies are made within the disability community and those of us who have intersecting identities call it out because it’s a comparison of apples and oranges and many of us find it offensive.

While I don’t speak for every disabled person/don’t rep every disability, in my opinion, cultural appropriation seems to fetishize and/or trivialize something down to a passing fad. [I think] the level of authenticity and accuracy would be greater coming from someone with that particular lived experience. Also, what we see far too much of is one story and not nearly enough of nuance and wide ranges of particular demographics with depictions of *comprehensive* views of disabled and deaf lives.”

Disability rights media activist MaeLee Johnson explains that the two are not the same, but, “in the Venn Diagram they overlap a lot.” We know that race and disability overlap and compound on one another which is why comparing disabled mimicry to Blackface is problematic. It ignores the fact that Black disabled folks have to deal with both racism and ableism and makes it an either or situation, rather than exploring the idea that some people experience both forms of oppression. Johnson adds, “We have no control or influence, or voice in our role in the entertainment industry! That’s the real equivalence to Blackface.” Sadly that is not the comparison being made.

Johnson is tired of this debate though. She sees it over and over again, with little change. “I’ve been seeing this debate for a while now and it’s tired. Discussing this is just a reminder of the many many facets of disability discrimination in the media (disabled mimicry) that still need to be torn down.”

As a community, we as disabled people have plenty of valid reasons why disabled mimicry is not okay. Instead of pointing out how other groups are oppressed and excluded, I believe it would be much better if we chose to develop our own talking points about why disabled mimicry, whatever we choose to call it, is harmful, and when we do, let’s include the multiply marginalized voices in our community, in the process.

Edited to include quotes.

Further edited to clarify “cripping up” is also seen as harmful.


8 responses to “Please Stop Comparing Disabled Mimicry to Blackface”

  1. Dominick,

    Thank you for these insightful comments on this topic. I am a musicologist who works a lot on issues of disability particularly in fim and theatre. The main area of my focus has been musical narratives of cripface productions. Until reading your article I was unaware, mainly out of ignorance, of the disdain for the term cripface by People of Color. So thank you for educating me. In my writing I explicitly say that comparisons between blackface and disabled mimicry, to use your term, should not be definitively made. Rather, the areas of overlap between the two performances should be investigated to help understand how disabled mimicry helps to create the disabled other and ultimately how this can be subverted. While I agree with a majority of your points and will stop using the term cripface in my writings, I have to disagree with some of your argument. While contemporary depictions of disability usually have no inherent intention of dehumanizing the disabled, even though that can be the result, films of the eugenic era explicitly labeled the disabled as degenerate and evil. Films such as Freaks were intentional in their portrayal to show the danger within the disabled body and the consequences it could have on the normative culture and society. Despite my small gripe, thank you so much for this insightful article. It truly has changed the way I think about the topic.

  2. Great article, Dominick! With great quotes from friends Anita Cameron and Heather Watkins. I feel like I would need to give the definition alongside its usage. Maybe something like, “pretending to be disabled in a superficial, stereotypical, and exploitative way.” I could add, “in other words, an Oscar worthy performance of disability by a nondisabled actor.”

  3. Right now, Sias film Music is nominated for the Golden Globe, a film which is heavily criticized by the Autistic Community and thousands of others for portrayal of an autistic girl.
    In search for terms to describe the phenomenon of being poorly and prejudiced depicted by ableist actors, I came across this debate; although familiar, unsettling, and I hope it can be revitalized.

    As a disability activist and advocate from Stop Discrimination (Norway), I’d like to remind all of you that disability is a much more heterogeneous category than physical bodies and mimicry.
    It seems too easy to forget that there are several disabled people who have experienced and recognize the mockery in much the same way as black people: people with learning or other cognitive impairments, like autism, and people with psychosocial impairments, and also a lot of people with impairments which traditionally, and still, are perceived and portrayed as less intelligent, like CP, sensory impairments etc.
    For many disabled people the analogy to black people is more relevant than the analogy to body functioning alone.
    Not to say that we should make use of the term “blackface”, quite the contrary. We must find our own terms to describe our own history and ways of oppression.
    But such distinctions made here, are not representative for all disabled people. Nor are the terms “cripping-up” or “crip face”. They are actually just another misleading, alienating and unhelpful attempt to fit us in where we don’t belong.
    I guess, you who feel comfortable using the term “crip”, would feel just as uneasy and alienated if someone used “crazy”, “mad”, “Downs” in the same hegemonic way as “crip” is being used in some disability communities today. Just like we feminists say: “Don’t’ gender me”, I say: “Don’t crip me”.

    We’re searching for a term which can communicate to the non-impaired and non-disabled majority, that we don’t accept their ableist representations and portrayal of us.
    And whether we like it or not, we’ll be forced in the unforeseeable future, to make references to other similar phenomena like “blackface”, in order to get the ableist majority to admit and recognize that we: the largest minority in the world, no matter ethnicity, belief or political view, have always been, and still are being, oppressed in all areas of society. And bullying, mockery, contempt, violence, abuse; all aspects of hate crime, constitutes a crucial part of our history.
    I would like to share a couple of statements from the Mucic debate with you, and link to the source. Note the term “ableist minstrelsy”, which I find most interesting.
    “Autistic actress Chloé Hayden told the Times that “first, it’s undermining autistic people’s capabilities and making us out to be infants. Second, if your film is about inclusion, but you’re not making the actual film set inclusive, it completely belittles the entire point.”
    “This performance is a caricature of autistic body language,” Twitter account The Autisticats said. “It’s unsettling, and insincere. And it is deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms non-autistic people often employ when bullying autistic & developmentally disabled people for the ways we move.”
    Quoted from “Music” is an Offensive Piece of ‘Ableist Minstrelsy’
    https://www.indiewire.com/2021/02/sia-film-music-maddie-ziegler-autistic-community-1234617040/
    BVegheim, chair Human Rights Foundation Stop Discrimination, Norway

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