Tag Archives: race

Against analogy.

23 Aug

A less academic version is on The Scavenger. 

We understand everything by reference to something else — or at least, language demands that we describe everything in this way. Politically, analogy is a really effective and intuitive way to make an argument and provides a ready shortcut to sympathy for your cause. It can also be lazy, inaccurate, inappropriate, and even oppressive.

Some analogies are obviously farcical — the suspicion people have towards the wealthy, for example, is rooted in entirely different motivations than the disdain people have towards the poor. Modern liberal thinking offers discrimination as a metonym for all oppression, with prejudice as its cause and individualisation as the solution. But while prejudice is arguably problematic in its own right, discrimination is only one aspect of oppression. (As a start, others might include erasure, marginalisation, fetishisation, tokenism, appropriation, exploitation, segregation, assimilation …)

But discrimination, with its assumption of of original equality thwarted by individual prejudice (rather than systemic inequality which requires active resistance), is the most popular and persistent understanding of oppression. And it lends itself nicely to generic policies that supposedly protect a myriad of identities and positions, always power-evasive in its language, as though, for example, discrimination “on the basis of sexual orientation” is as likely against heterosexuals as against queers.

The discourse of anti-discrimination reinforce a notion that all oppressions are similar. And while I may well agree that different types of oppression are equal, I think that analogising one to another stunts our knowledge of either. I’m as guilty of the practice as anyone, if not more, and it is so much easier to compare something strange to something familiar than try to explain it in its own terms. But I also think it’s vital to understand any type of oppression in its historical, cultural and social particularities.

Within radical activist communities, there’s some awareness that eliding another’s experience to your own can be oppressive in re-centring your own position. But I want to fight even my own tendency to explain different oppressions and privileges I experience in reference (rather than in relation) to each other. In thinking about oppression, I want to discriminate more.

Perhaps because the most violently overt forms of skin-colour-based racism are fairly widely recognised as unacceptable, race often seems to be the default point of reference for all oppression. Even putting aside the fact that racism varies in every country, at any time, for each specific racialised group, as well as members of any racialised group in conjunction with other factors in their lives, racism generally has characteristics and conditions that aren’t applicable to other oppressions.

This isn’t about hierarchy. It’s about specificity. Three very crude examples:

  • One reason classism is not so much like racism because while your racial identity might change across cultures, within a society an individual’s racial identity is usually stable throughout their lives, though they may be positioned differently day to day. Individual class mobility being greater, most people are more willing to understand class as a (relative, temporary) position rather than an (essential, immovable) identity.

     

  • One reason sexism is not so much like racism is that intimate, affectionate, companionate relationships are expected across gender boundaries and often considered a key site in which gender is contested and patriarchal power asserted. Intimate, affectionate, companionate relationships across racial boundaries are often imagined instead as proof of equality, in the sense of evidence rather than test (which might be more appropriate).

     

  • One reason heterosexism is not so much like racism is due to how the individual relates to the family and society at large. Most people have family members who are similarly racialised, and if not, race rarely needs to be disclosed or announced in the way that various queer identities are. The experience (or rejection) of personal disclosure situates the subject differently in relation to sexuality, compared to race or gender identity which is assigned.

     

 

Recently I’ve heard several arguments comparing the oppression of non-human animals to racism, criticisms of that analogy as racist in itself, and responses calling that criticism speciesist. I am openly speciesist, but I don’t think the criticism necessarily was — though I am a woman and a person of colour, and comfortable with both experiences, I prefer them not to be analogised. Additionally, I think there’s a multitude of reasons why people of colour might resist being compared to animals which don’t rely simply on disgust at being associated with animals because animals are inherently unequal to us.(1)
The most important reason, for me, is that self-determination is vital to my understanding of interhuman oppressions. While animal rights activists may seek to protect a way of life for animals that includes minimal interference, this isn’t comparable to self-determination. All animal rights activism requires some degree of members of the oppressor group speaking for the voiceless and oppressed, in a way which would be inappropriate for an ally of any oppressed human. In their attempt to compare human oppression of animals with racism, these activists glossed over an essential aspect of the oppression in question, which is a factor in how it is maintained. Animals are not only denied agency, but their agency is unrecognisable to us; it does not and cannot translate to our political and social language. I don’t think the dissonance between animals and humans is comparable to any difference between humans. 

Another analogy that caught my eye recently was in Tobi Hill-Meyer’s article on transmisogyny, where she says:

When people who are attracted to women and have met only a few trans women announce that they would never date a trans women, that’s transmisogyny. (Think about it, if a white person announced that they’d never date a black woman, especially if they had only met 2-3 black women in their life, we’d name that as being influenced by racism.)
I’ve said elsewhere that I think
you don’t get to say you’re attracted to women when you’re only attracted to people assigned female at birth, or gender-normative women, or women with cunts.
When people say they’re attracted to women, but mean cis women, or say they’re not attracted to men, but mean cis men, that’s transphobia. Certainly. But gender is also widely accepted as not only a legitimate criterion for sexual preference, in a way that little else is, but privileged as the primary axis of orientation. So transphobia is pretty different to racism when it comes to sexual preferences, given its particular relation to gender. 

In any case, people announce racialised sexual preferences all the time without it being called racist. People talk about how they have a thing for redheads, or blondes, or brunettes; how they think pallor is elegant or freckles are cute; even how they love skinny white boys(2). Apparently, as long as you articulate your preference as something more specific than white, the racial dimensions of your preference are excused or dissolved.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t ever analogise, or that we shouldn’t ever try to build broader theories. I just want to think deeper before jumping to analogy, to tease out the differences and honour the particularities, to work on knowing something as itself.

References:
1. I really liked Stuff White People Do’s post on the central metaphor in To Kill a Mockingbird (comparing a black man to a bird). I plan to discuss metaphor further in my next post.

2. So there’s this thing where people talk about thinking skinny white boys are hot like it’s real radical. Sure, conventional beauty standards favour muscle and tan at times, but nowadays fashion at least is all about the Hedi Slimane silhouette and in any case it doesn’t look like fat brown men are going to be trending any time soon.

On nationality, class and linguistic privilege.

21 Jun

I have substantial linguistic privilege. I moved to Australia at an early age, I’m good at learning from the kind of lessons that teachers are used to teaching, and I went to a very ritzy private school in Melbourne. Plus, I like language and it fascinates me so I put a lot of time and energy into it. Consequently, I read, write and speak in ways that our culture values highly. When I don’t sign my name or explicitly identify myself, I’m read as a upper-middle-class white man — meaning, my writing style has prestige and no marks of gender or race.

I try to be aware of this privilege, and to use language in ways that are clear, accessible, inclusive and appropriate. I won’t give up ‘jargon’ entirely, because I think there are concepts around oppression and injustice that ordinary vocabulary can’t adequately represent,1 but I’m always happy to explain or rephrase things. I’m not authoritarian about punctuation, spelling and grammar, and I am learning how differently people can express themselves, and how to understand that.2

These days, my speech sounds just like a native Australian English speaker. As a voracious reader and the eldest child (and for a decade, the only child) of for-the-most-part non-English-speaking parents, I learned a lot of words from written text, so until quite recently there was always a portion of my vocabulary I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Many of these words were fairly unnecessary anyhow (“clandestine”, “fecund”, “quixotic”) but also I had to think of coffee to remember that “cough” sounds like “coff” and not “cuff”. A much heightened version of this experience is common to many international3 speakers of English — being better at reading/writing than speaking/listening or having a lot of vocabulary but not knowing the pronunciation or even having Standard English in terms of grammar and vocabulary and everything but just having an accent.

When I was studying linguistics, I was pretty frustrated that descriptive and prescriptive understandings of language (describing ‘standard’ use – how a language is usually used – rather than prescribing ‘proper’ use – eg how grammar teachers think it should be used) just pitted class difference against national and ethnic difference. For example, “you’re a doctor, ain’t ya?” is considered Standard Australian English while “you doctor, isn’t it?” (common phrasing in Singapore and Malaysia) is not. As “ain’t” originated as a contraction for “am not”, technically the former is no more correct than the latter — ‘proper’ usage would demand “you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” — but the ungrammatical usage of native Australian English speakers is Standard, while that of others is not. Ethnic differences within a country could fall on either side, it seemed, but I quit before I found out.

So when native English speakers demand that I write less academically, especially when they have had a similar education but just prefer a more casual style, I flinch. I don’t think my English is harder to learn than yours. The dictionary meaning of specific words is much easier to look up than the implications of various idioms. I understand prestigious styles are intimidating in ways that non-prestigious styles are not, but within subcultures non-prestigious styles are privileged too, and no less inaccessible.4“Femme revo love FTW” is just as impenetrable as “intentionality is radical” to the uninitiated. (Perhaps.)

But more importantly, the circumstances under which I achieved my linguistic privilege make me fairly reluctant to relinquish it. I learned to talk like this by prioritising English over my first and second languages, in which I have no literacy and a very low level of comprehension. It’s not exactly true that I gave up one for the other, but I did learn English under pressure of assimilation and when people now tell me I can’t express myself how I like in English, it makes my sense of loss much more palpable. I can’t talk to my grandparents any more, and all I have to show for it is writing like an upper-middle-class white man. Language is steeped in love and pain, pride and anger.

I want to make a commitment to clarity and accessibility when I am writing for a broad audience, especially in work against oppression.5 But I want others to make the same commitment, and it means more than just cutting out academic language. It means writing across generations, across cultures and subcultures, and in ways that are easy to pick up, if not immediately obvious.

I’ll be talking more about inclusive language in upcoming posts, focusing on analogy and metaphor.

Notes

1. Julia Serano, discussing the term “cis”, says

it sounds like jargon simply because most people are unfamiliar with it. [...] Our ideas/thoughts/concepts/beliefs are very much constrained by the words available to us. If we didn’t have the terms heterosexual, heterosexism and heterosexual privilege, those of us who are LGB wouldn’t have the language to describe (and thus challenge) the marginalization we face because of who we sleep with. If we all just spoke “plain English” circa the 1950’s, where do you think we’d be these days with regards to sexual orientation-based discrimination?

Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia also says: “‘Academic’ is a way of dismissing us for evolving a vocabulary of our own”.

2. Silentmiaow’s videos really changed how I thought about expression: ‘In my language‘ and ‘If you can do X, why can’t you do Y?

3. I say “international” rather than “English as a second language” (ESL) because English is a first language for some of these speakers; rather than “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) because I don’t like “diverse” as a euphemism for “other”; rather than “non-standard” because the ways of speaking I am referring to are standard in some countries. But “international” is inadequate too, as some Indigenous people who speak English as a second language might have the same experience, as well as other ethnic minorities who have been in a country for generations. It’s all a bit more complicated than I made it, but I do think “Standard Australian English” is tied up with ethnicity, race, nationality and the idea of who is “native” to a language, which is less simple than it might sound.

4. The idea of “inessential weirdnesses” as defined by Class Matters seems useful here. The article talks about how alternative cultures can be more baffling and alienating than mainstream cultures for someone who is outside of both (in this case, it’s alternative professional middle-class culture versus mainstream professional middle-class culture, but the same could be said for young anarcho punk slang English versus prestige English).

5. Dense academic text will still appear on this blog, because I post things that are written for elsewhere, and besides, according to WordPress statistics no one is reading this.

> Read earlier draft (without footnotes)

Continue reading

On affinity.

2 Dec

I don’t enjoy being fetishised for my race. I generally don’t enjoy being racialised at all. But I get it if you like straight black hair and smooth bodies — that’s alright, I have certain preferences around physical attributes too; probably everyone does to some extent.

I’m much more put off by those who fetishise “Asian culture” and assume that will connect with me. I’ve lived in Melbourne since I was four. My intellectual inheritance is very much Western. I’m not westernised. Culture is never native, but Australian culture (including Asian Australian culture) is naturalised to me. My aesthetic, moral, political and intellectual values, as some kind of critical theory grrrl punk or whatever, spring from and struggle within a Western genealogy. Not that there’s nothing similar within various Asian cultures, or that similar strands there are necessarily imported. But when I say counter-culture, it’s counter to the dominant culture in my life.

My family has been through the Cultural Revolution followed by transnational migration, so I’m pretty aware that even the cultural practices I think of as Chinese are often unique to my family. Migrants from any country adapt their traditions to their new context. Besides which, culture is rapidly evolving in China itself too, as it is everywhere in the world.

When I first started identifying as a person of colour, I was so struck by the depth of my affinity with my new-found peers, I forgot for a moment how that affinity was constructed — as a very specific, strategic, deliberate political project. As Iris Marion Young might put it, we were a group that arose through a common intention in relation to our serialised condition – but the series itself is not already a group.

I’ve had friends and lovers from different backgrounds, and there’s no rule for what makes a strong connection. Two people may have “a lot in common” in terms of experiences, but it’s how we understand and respond to those experiences that creates affinity. Some of the most extreme instances of cultural dissonance I’ve experienced have been with people who have a very similar background. The fissure between our identities and thoughts was so much more dramatic from having been produced out of such like experiences, the same trajectory suddenly diverged. And there are people I’m really close to because we’ve been through a lot of the same shit. We have this camaraderie which is so precious to me. It’s precious because it’s rare, and it’s rare because it’s a potent mix of similarity and solidarity — of experience and desire. The intersection of culture and subculture, seriality and intentionality is what positions me as a queer POC feminist, rather than a pansexual Asian woman, or a radical democrat.

For others, overlaying culture/subculture on seriality/intentionality won’t be appropriate. Many subcultures are founded around aesthetics, and people won’t consider their moral and political desires as situated in or in any way related to their subculture. While I can identify the former independently of the latter, and certainly it’s refreshing to speak to those with similar values who are outside these subcultures, my own subculture is very much a community of political intentionality, and I think locating my values within it helps keep them fresh and fighting. I’ve been grappling with a lot of subcultural resentment lately, but I have a lot of appreciation too. Behind the bandannas, black jeans, faux-hawks and glitter, sometimes there is some real serious support and solidarity.

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