To say Keri Gray is excited about Diet Coke’s new [unlabeled] campaign is an understatement. The global carbonated soft drink company is removing the label from some of their limited edition cans to celebrate the launch of [unlabeled], a multi-year platform that will foster conversation about the intricacies of labels in society. Gray is a part of the campaign, as she is a proud disabled Black woman who works with the American Association of People with Disabilities. The 28-year-old knows what it’s like to be labeled by others, and what it’s like to label and even limit herself due to what makes her different.
When Gray was eight years old, an age where she should have been focusing on school, enjoying time with her friends and just being a kid, she was diagnosed with cancer. The then-third grader had been limping, which caught the attention of her parents. After her symptoms were initially overlooked and offered Tylenol by a doctor, a second opinion found that she had osteosarcoma bone cancer.
“I wasn’t really familiar with cancer,” she told me over the phone. “I kind of heard of the word and that people got it, but didn’t know really what it meant.”
What it meant for her was traveling every week to Dallas Children’s Hospital for treatment and missing out on school and on a lot of opportunities to do things most of the kids her age were doing. She was diagnosed in the fall of 1998 and had her leg amputated in the spring of 1999. As a young girl, she received a lot of support from her peers and her community. To this day, she still has the stuffed animals that were brought to her when she was in the hospital. Still, people had questions, especially when she started trying to go back to school.
“They wanted to know, ‘Why are you in a wheel chair now?'” she said. “They wanted to know, ‘What’s going on with your hair and is that going to grow back?’ I remember it being a very big shocker when I got my amputation and going back to school and having this limb that is, for the most part, missing. So in the midst of a lot of support, there was a lot of heavy reactions to what was going on.”
It was the first time she started to feel somewhat different, but it wouldn’t be the last time. By the time she got to middle school, life got a little more real, as she put it. People were starting to date and be attracted to one another, and she was concerned the effects of her amputation would cause her to be left out.
“I remember starting to get those comments of ‘What’s going on? One side of your glutes is nice and full and the other side is extra flat.’ It has to do with the amputation that I had. I had different scars along my body, I had different marks along my body,” she said. “It was just a question of, would anybody ever be attracted to that on a relationship-type level?”
She formed further insecurities by the time she made it to high school.
“There were times where I just couldn’t keep up and I was trying to figure out how to adjust to those different areas,” she said, while still maintaining that her formative years weren’t all that bad. “I had amazing friends. I had amazing, supportive communities, but there were still times where I just noticed that I was very different and questioned my ability to fit in my friendships and my culture.”
Gray knew her reality, but she had preconceived notions about how other people saw her and that reality. She didn’t want to be labeled as weak because of her disability, but rather, she wanted to be labeled a strong Black woman. In her effort to do that, she would avoid scenarios where she might not be able to keep up or where attention would be put on her leg. It took a trip to a summer camp for cancer survivors, and overcoming a difficult obstacle course, for Gray to have the first of many epiphanies about herself.
“I remember approaching the obstacle course and in the midst of me saying, ‘Let’s try it,’ I also kept saying over and over in my mind, there’s no way you can do this.”
She compared herself to other kids doing the course and faced a lot of self-doubt. Thankfully though, she pushed through it, taking off her prosthesis and completing the whole course.
“I just sat there and cried. It was like one of the biggest moments,” she said. “I was in high school and I was like, Keri, how many years have you been living life telling yourself what you can’t do? It just started to trigger all of these moments of me saying, ‘I don’t like to swim,’ because that means I have to take my prosthetic off and people will have to see me that way. Or ‘I’m not really that hot,’ living in Texas, knowing it gets over 100 degree in weather’ and I was out here in long pants and these long skirts. So I remember having that very intimate moment with myself and just being like, what are you doing?”
Having to face herself helped Gray go into young adulthood with less guards up, less concerns and more vulnerability. She now embraces certain labels while shirking the negative connotations of others.
“I absolutely want for everyone I know to realize that being Black, being a woman and being disabled all at the same time is incredibly strong and incredibly amazing. At the same time, it’s okay to ask for assistance,” she said. “It has been a journey to be able to allow both of those things to exist at the same time and never wanting anyone to doubt me or doubt other Black disabled women who might come after me.”
Changing the way she viewed her disability wasn’t something she was able to accomplish overnight. In fact, she calls it a “journey.” Still, she recognizes that she’s come a long way. She no longer holds herself back from situations and even people due to the self-doubt that used to be crippling. That goes for dating as well, because she used to worry that men would be “nervous” around her due to her leg, but it’s been nothing like that.
“I’ve had a number of incredible guys in my life who have just been very open with me and just been like ‘Keri, tell me if you need something. Is this an issue or not an issue?’ They really pushed me in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible,” she said. “I’ve been very, very particular about who sees me with my prosthetic off. Thankfully, just because of growth and the last few years and relationships, I’ve been able to be more open.”
“A lot of it has been me developing and growing and just being like, people can accept me and I need to accept myself,” she said.
That way of thinking is what Gray relays to other young people she works with as part of the AAPD. It’s also what she believes is behind Diet Coke’s [unlabeled] campaign, which she is proud to get behind. Aside from the AAPD, the campaign is also spotlighting people in organizations like GLAAD, (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) HRC (Human Rights Campaign) and the National Urban League. Gray is happy that young people from all of these groups will finally feel represented, and not feel like they can’t do certain things because of who they are or what they have been through.
“I know and I think that’s the reason Diet Coke is doing this initiative, is that they also know that a person with disabilities, a person of color with disabilities, is designed to produce amazing work in this society,” she said. “They’re capable of achieving anything that they put their minds to, but we all need a little more encouragement, representation and support along the way so we can stop doubting any of the reasons of why she should go after what we want.”
“This initiative is incredibly important because we need more voices, we need more representation to tell us it’s okay to wear shorts, it’s okay to go swimming, it’s okay to seek that therapy, and on top of that, you’re amazing and strong, all in the midst of everything that you have going on,” she added. “I’m excited for this platform and I just know it’s going to make a big difference in our young folks that are coming up, and even our grandparents’ generation who still have these same questions about their worth and their value because of labels. I’m excited about this.”
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