Imani Barbarin is ready to have those conversations. You know, the ones that make people uncomfortable but are necessary for growth? That means conversations about white supremacy, ableism, and pop culture.
Barbarin, who’s a communications manager by day, has over 100,000 followers on Twitter as @Imani_Barbarin, and over 150,000 followers and 6.4 million likes on TikTok, where she makes videos as @crutches_and_spice. As a disabled Black woman, she uses her reach on the platforms to post stories about discrimination against people with disabilities, marketing and social justice campaigns, and racial justice.
Barbarin, who has a master’s in communication from American University in Paris, thinks of herself as a guide to the topic rather than a teacher. Often, she’ll start with a personal anecdote before connecting it to a larger social or political issue. In a video about how the CIA and MI6 actively recruit disabled people, she started with her memory of wanting to join the CIA, then widened the lens to talk about how the CIA employed disabled people because they’re often invisible. But, she reminded viewers at the end of the video, “Disabled people can be imperialists, too.”
Although Barbarin might not think of herself as a teacher, she is teaching: Watching her expertly and wisely navigate what essentially are lesson plans wrapped in humor, honesty, care, and accessibility feels like watching a new type of education. And the short-form formats of TikTok and Twitter are well-suited to her style.
“I’m a girl, so one of the things that I learned very quickly growing up was that people were going to cut me off when I spoke,” she told VICE News. “So I had to make as much impact as possible with a limited amount of words. When I try to say things, I try to do so in a way that is digestible for people.”
Even professors are teaching her videos in their classrooms, and her followers are using her hashtags to launch discussions and form community. The pandemic pivot to virtual, she said, made her even more accessible to people.
“For me, it really comes back to community. I love the moments when I’m able to meet people and talk with other disabled people. I want to listen to what they have to say because I alone cannot understand each and every complexity. They help me make sure that when I tell our stories, I get it right. My community is my lifeline.”
Barbarin grew up in the suburbs of Philly, where she was a Black disabled girl surrounded by white kids. “A lot of white kids. As anyone with an [individualized education plan] understands, especially if you’re Black in the suburbs. I went to an all-Black church and an all-white school.”
As a kid, she loved watching movies with her father, and was obsessed with action movies, Harriet the spy, and the Olsen twins movies franchise (me too). She even told her parents she needed to visit the same resort Mary-Kate and Ashley did in “Island in the Sun” (again, me too). She loved Mary Higgins Clark’s books. Though her affection for the series is tainted now, she loved the Harry Potter books so much that when she went to the hospital for four major surgeries for her cerebral palsy, she carried them with her in their own separate suitcase.
I understand that deep, complicated love of pop culture firsthand: Like Barbarin, I spent a lot of my childhood looking for pieces of myself in white-centered media and spaces. Some of those experiences inform how Barbarin makes videos now.
In a recent TikTok video, in which she broke down the ways white people treat solidarity with BIPOC as optional, Barbarin explained that if BIPOC don’t ask nicely, white people can and do revoke that solidarity.
“White people never miss an opportunity to remind you that their solidarity with you is optional,” she said. “If you’re not nice while asking for it, they have the option to tap out. Racism for them is a special interest; racism for you is your life.”
But the magnitude of her audience and reach also bring pitfalls. Trolls have doxxed her, harassed her, and called her racial slurs and other sordid names. As a Black woman on the internet with any visibility, one of the first things we learn is that there are very few safe spaces for us that include anyone who’s not also a Black woman. The content Barbarin is making is important because it gives others the opportunity to learn and grow, but it can also put her in danger. She identifies as a Black, disabled, and queer woman, and being explicit about those identities can provoke a negative response.
Despite the dangers of being Black, disabled, and queer in public, Barbarin shows no signs of stopping. She recently signed with a talent agency, and said her dream on-screen role would be in an action comedy alongside Megan Mullally.
And it’s not like her identity is optional. “It’s important that people see and affirm me as a Black disabled woman, because I have to move about in the world as such. By not recognizing those things, people are either isolating me or putting me in danger,” she said.
“People who have never had to place qualifiers in their identity have never had to form community to survive. People love to believe they aren’t defined by our identities or what we present to the world, but by the same breath with which they decry labels, we are able to find people who share ours.”
Tune in to REVOLT or VICE TV on Saturday, June 19th at 12:00pm ET, to watch the Juneteenth Town Hall & Celebration special encouraging young changemakers to exercise their political rights.
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