Views Editor Hailie Pentleton discusses problematic responses to Chadwick Boseman’s death.
Chadwick Boseman was a hero to many, for reasons beyond his role in Black Panther. His untimely death left the world shocked, especially after the revelation that the 43-year-old had been secretly battling colon cancer for a number of years. Many still cannot comprehend that he played some of his biggest roles whilst undergoing chemotherapy, surgeries, and processing the fact that his own story would soon come to a close. His strength in the face of illness has been inspirational to many – but we must be careful about the form that this inspiration takes.
“Inspiration porn” is a phrase coined by disability activist Stella Young in response to the portrayal of disabled people as being inspirational solely on the basis of their disability. Before her own death, she recounted being offered a community achievement award as a child even though “[she] wasn’t doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.” Other examples of inspiration porn include those poorly edited Facebook photos of disabled children taking part in activities normal for their age, with captions like “the only disability is a bad attitude!” or “your excuse is invalid”. Yes, disabled people can be inspirational, but our existence alone shouldn’t be cause for praise.
Chadwick Boseman is considered an inspiration for many, and deservedly so. He exemplified strength both on and off-screen, as an actor, in his activism, and as a hero to both children and adults alike. He deserves to be remembered for his greatness; his life should not be trivialised as motivation for non-disabled people to try harder. Yet, in the wake of his death, these kinds of sentiments were all over Twitter: if Chadwick Boseman could film Black Panther whilst facing mortality, then you can write that essay! Many could not believe that he had chosen to hide his illness from the public eye and celebrated the “grace” with which he chose to face his late-stage cancer. There are, of course, a number of issues with this kind of response. For one, Boseman did not “choose” how to live with his disability.
A likely motivation for keeping his illness private was the stigma that is often associated with chronic illness, a stigma he still fell victim to despite keeping things under wraps. In response to a video in which the actor was visibly sicklier, viewers commented that he looked like a “drug-addict” and that he had “let himself go”. This is a prime example of the kind of discrimination that disabled people – especially those with invisible disabilities – can face when they aren’t explicit about their conditions. When disabled people are open about their experiences, other types of discrimination arise, as Boseman was no doubt aware of. If he had shared this aspect of his life publicly, would he have been offered the chance to deliver the performances he was best known for? Or would discussion around his disability have overshadowed his work as an activist? When you consider race and disability discrimination intersectionally, it isn’t hard to understand why Boseman may have chosen to stay quiet about that side of his life.
Rather than use his death and the lives of other disabled people as motivation for menial tasks, it is important for non-disabled people to ask questions around discrimination based on disability. Why is it that people are inspired by disabled people just for living? It is because of a universal belief that being disabled is inherently bad; that to live with disability makes you exceptional. When times are hard, and the work is piling up, people can always turn to disabled people and realise “hey, it could be worse”. For many of us, it isn’t our disabilities that make life difficult, it is the societal response to them. Of course, we adapt and endure, and often exert more energy on tasks than non-disabled people, but our lives would be a lot easier if a number of social boundaries were removed. The stigma surrounding disability can make it more difficult for us to become employed, complete education, and experience things that come to non-disabled people easily. A lack of education around disability, and its prevalence, continue to make the world inaccessible to many – this has to change.
Disabled people do not exist to be objectified for your inspiration. Rather than congratulate us for living, commit to making our lives easier by educating yourself on our experiences, and working against ableism. Chadwick Boseman should be remembered for more than just living with a disability; he deserves to be commended for his acting, activism, and attributes.