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Kanye West and the myth of the easy villain

September 18, 2014

I joke that I’m really on the verge of turning this into a sick-girl blog, but I’m embracing it. Be glad there will be no elaborate discussion of laboratory results today. I know I’m glad!

PS: this covers bees, which are flying needles by extension

PS: this covers bees, which are flying needles by extension

By now most of us have seen this headline:


Yeah, that’s an awkward mistake for sure.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the gist is, in a moment of enthusiasm-building direction, Kanye West held up his show to call out fans who were not demonstrating his idea of appropriate excitement. West pointed out a particular patron and the crowd responded in kind, booing the disloyal fan, all the while none of them (Kanye or the followers) realized the seated fan was in a wheelchair. We know what happened next.  The internet brands Kanye an ableist villain.

INSTANT villain status

INSTANT villain status

Okay, I did it, too, but here I want to make a few broader points.

It’s easy to look at this situation and identify a pretty spectacular lack of tact on Kanye’s part. Tactlessness is his thing, though, and it was a pretty embarrassing mistake. What I’m more interested in, though, is what happened after he realized the fan was in a wheelchair. All of a sudden, it’s fine that the man is sitting. West points and says, “he in a wheelchair? Okay, only if he in a wheelchair.” And resumes his song.

As a person who has been in and out of wheelchairs since childhood for a relatively invisible illness, I’ve lived with this kind of disability policing. People want to know if your disability is real, because for some reason, we’re all suspicious that someone is faking it. It’s not unlike how people of color are profiled as criminals when shopping (or walking in their own neighborhoods), or how people using public assistance to buy food are automatically presumed to be nefarious, lazy grifters. People with disabilities have to constantly prove they have a disability.

The flip side of that is having to downplay your disabilities because too much disability means you’re unreliable, incapable, or generally useless. Thinking of people as a utility is the underlying root of both of these problems, but in both cases, the disabled aren’t given the autonomy to make their own decisions about how they want to participate in society. Those parameters are preset for you.

Disability has its own set of respectability politics. You could ask your new boss if your insurance covers cancer, but not mental health. You can need time off for a doctor’s appointment here and there, but too many, and people suspect you’re laying out of work. The example I gave last week about an arthritis advocate applying for disability coverage is a good case in point: you’re too disabled to hold a full-time job and support yourself, but not disabled enough to meet disability criteria. Disabled people have to constantly prove both their ability and their disability in order to play with the other kids. Tip one end of that balance too far, and you’re screwed.

But here’s my other point about the Kanye situation. When a celebrity makes a gaffe like this, or as I’d argue, a series of gaffes, we all pile on because, yeah, ableism is horrible. No one’s trotted out any Nazi/eugenics references here, thank God, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see people go there from time to time. Every now and then, ableist dominant culture lets an obvious bad guy through. In order to sustain its “undercover” credibility, ableism, like all other oppressive -isms, needs a villain. Villains make us look better by comparison.

See? See how I'm totally pointing out ableism? #teamallies

See? See how I’m totally pointing out ableism? #teamallies

Villains quarantine the problem for us, so that we don’t have to address the systemic obstacles that disabled people face. We can ignore our stigmas, perpetuate stereotypes, and generally view the disabled to be a voiceless people who need our paternalistic care. We can keep having conversations about disability (particularly conversations about how to “fix” it) and never have conversations that include people with disabilities. We can make presumptions and act as if the disabled aren’t the same as us, because then we can pretend that disability won’t ever happen to us (though it totally will, y’all).

David Perry unpacks this a little at CNN when he says:

We do it because, to the not-disabled, claiming disability seems to have a kind of power.

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, to claim disability is to ask for reasonable accommodation — accessible buildings, more time on tests, audible formats for books, Social Security disability payments, and more. Too many people seem to regard the request to accommodate as a burden and meet such requests with suspicion. The not-disabled exercise their privilege by demanding that people prove their disabilities; then, all too often, proof just generates pity, not understanding or inclusion.

But I think he’s missing something in this. Even if he’s correct that this is the attitude of the not-yet-disabled, that “claiming disability = power,” he’s still not digging into the why of that. The why is that those of us without disabilities are the norm. Everyone else is deviance from than norm. So everyone else is suspect. Ableism says that people who are disabled are the exception, they get special treatment. Even when it’s positively-phrased, “they should get special treatment,” the underlying premise is still the same: the disabled get something you don’t. They are takers, and probably fakers, because who wouldn’t want those advantages?

George Takei posted this on Facebook a while back as a funny and it was a learning experience for him. Read his humble apologies by clicking the image.

George Takei posted this on Facebook a while back as a funny and it was a learning experience for him. Click the image to read about the education his disabled fans gave him, and how he ultimately responded.

I see disabled people getting trapped in this corner a lot. Half of the battle for a disabled person is accepting the help they need to begin with, because here in good old ‘Merica, we can’t need anything from anyone. For me, it looks like that scrutiny for “taking” a disabled person’s parking spot. A likely retort would be, “Well, I’d happily park farther away if it meant my arthritis was cured.” In saying this, I’ve accepted the premise that the problem is my arthritis and not the attitude of the person policing me. I’ve allowed the policing and am defending my actions, while trying to make the other guy feel guilty for picking on me, a disabled person. This solves nothing.

Until we address those premises that say able is normative and everyone else is trying to get over, we’re not going to stop having these collective Kanye moments. We have to look past the obvious villain and become suspicious of ourselves and our institutions. While we may not all have the multimedia platform Kanye West has to eff it up, we all have the capacity to do it: whether it’s giving an ambulatory person the side-eye because they’re leaving a disabled parking spot, going on about how a relative or friend is “playing their problems up for attention,” or laughing at a person who talks/walks/thinks differently than we do.

The good news is we also have the capacity to learn and grow if we’re willing to face our own villainy.

And I’m giving you, dear readers, a present laced with hilarity (and profanity). If you’re not already watching My Gimpy Life, you should be, mostly because it’s free.:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2014 6:34 pm

    This sounds like an oversimplification.

    Who in American society is saying able-bodied people are normal, while the disabled are “abnormal”? Define a normal person for me. There are able bodied people that have more challenges in their everyday life (minorities, the poor, under educated, etc.). What are you trying to postulate here? Of course there are some people who are insensitive and distrusting. Nothing is going to change their prejudice. But to say that is a pervasive opinion (in America of all places, where there are many protections and considerations for the disabled) is disingenuous.

    I’m not even going to address using Kanye West (a habitual speak first, think later offender) as an example of the phenomena you’re trying to highlight.

    • September 18, 2014 6:43 pm

      I’m arguing that we should see past Kanye because to blame him exclusively is an oversimplification. I agree the U.S. is unique in some of its basic protections for the disabled, but as a person with a disability, I can tell you we are still a hot mess and we have a long way yet to go. We can accept progress while insisting there be more of it. I believe in intersectionality and these problems are complicated. But stigma, bias, prejudices: these things exist with regards to race, gender, sexuality, ability. We can’t pretend they don’t exist or that gender bias is worse than ableism. What I’m arguing here is that we like our villains because we can make them the scapegoat for broader problems. To examine a different example, context: we look at a Mark Driscoll and say he’s a misogynist without addressing the culture that allowed him to 1) remain a misogynist 2) be promoted to celebrity 3) teach others misogyny. We can point to a white supremacist and all feel better about ourselves for a minute, but when it comes to examining systemic problems, or our own implicit biases, we bail out.

      I’ve been reading more disability writers lately and between that and my own experiences, I’m seeing similar patterns in how the dominant culture dominates.

      • September 18, 2014 6:51 pm

        I hear what you are saying, but I do believe a lot of strides have been made to better teach society about the most common disabilities, and it appears to be working.

        I’m in the construction industry. Not to long ago, you were lucky to find curb cut ramps even in the largest cities. Now, every new construction or rehab has to at least meet (most exceed) the ADA regulations. In schools, there is regular discourse and dialogue about people who are disabled, and how to treat them like everyone else. I know it’s not perfect, but a more than concerted effort has been made to address the problem.

        I’ve seen more positive movement in this area over the past decade than I have in race relations, education, and wealth inequality.

  2. September 18, 2014 7:24 pm

    I think the progress you’re talking about is a bit tokenistic. I mean, even with the ramps: that’s a very visible sign of progress, but many, many disabilities don’t need ramps. Ramps are an important fix, but most disabilities don’t require wheelchairs (which is one of the probs with what Kanye was doing by policing who’s “legit” disabled). The idea that disability looks like a wheelchair is part of the problem. That, in itself is a stereotype, which becomes a criteria for determining whether or not a disabled person is really disabled. Disabled people don’t get to determine the terms here. It’s arbitrarily assigned by the dominant culture, not unlike the “mighty drop” formulas used to determine race during Jim Crow.

    Another example, I live near DC where they tout having elevators for the disabled at Metro stations. Half those elevators are broken down on the regular and it’s not a priority to keep them working. Or in my homeowners’ association, where the costs of making a pool more accessible were causing the community to consider closing the pool down. Who gets the blame for that? The “PC” bureaucracy. These kinds of microagressions happen to the disabled all the time.

    I don’t want to get into any kind of “who has it worse: people of color or the disabled” conversation, but I do see a lot of parallels between racism, sexism, ableism, etc. that should compel us toward solidarity instead of creating competing priorities. If you’re interested in that, check out how disabled people were standing with Ferguson on Twitter and having conversations about how racism and ableism intersect:

    • September 19, 2014 4:22 pm

      I’m only seeing this reply now.

      I agree completely with what you said; there should not be a ranking of who has it worse. Many people have challenges and should band together to help on another.

      I appreciate being able to have a healthy discourse with you on this subject. 🙂

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