Some notes on lateral violence

11 Sep

On Tuesday 9 September 2014 I facilitated a discussion for people of color on lateral violence, as part of a workshop series organised by the Women of Colour Collective at University of Melbourne.  

It was a fairly organic discussion where people brought up a lot of different issues. I won’t recap what anyone shared but some of the broad topics we discussed included:

– different understandings of what lateral violence is
behaviours that make up lateral violence, what does it mean to say “within a community”, who is your community?
– what causes lateral violence
eg internalised colonialism and racism, scarcity of resources and power for a community (or belief that there is a scarcity), racist institutions and media coverage implicitly trying to divide and conquer as well as explicitly pit POC against each other, lack of compassion for different experiences
– lateral violence can involve or intersect with power differentials – whether it’s things like community leadership positions, employment, political control, class, regionalism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia and queerphobia, and more
– internalised racism also replicates hierarchies of colour, culture, class, language, regionalism, who is more ‘backward’, who is more ‘authentic’, who is seen as more representative, accusations of assimilation and complicity, identity policing – there are multiple hierarchies and they play out differently in each community – multiracial “people of colour” spaces also understand belonging differently again
– is it possible then to distinguish when something is horizontal or hierarchical? does this make a difference for how communities respond?
– can we distinguish racism between poc communities from racism between people who are part of the one community, again is this necessary or useful?
– we can become accustomed to a binary lens of oppressor/oppressed – learning how to talk about harm and oppression in other ways is another skill

– ‘lateral violence’ can also be a term that’s used to minimise and brush off important conflicts between people of colour
– the term can be appropriated to shut down discussions
– political and intellectual disagreements between people of colour are seen as “bickering” and “in-fighting” and a reason to deny rights and power while the same disagreements between white voices are seen as “public discourse” and “national debate”
– interpersonal conflicts can be complex to navigate and worthy of being taken seriously
– we silence ourselves in preparation for how disputes will be seen by white people
– when talking among ourselves we might feel we should be able to address racism without always referring to white people – but whiteness is never absent either, even in our relationships with each other

– what are some strategies for dealing with lateral violence?
– refusing derailment and being pitted against each other – take issue with institutions and behaviours not individuals
– sometimes helpful to speak privately to avoid conflict being appropriated – other times it’s important to respond as a group and community, not individualised and isolated
– focusing on personal trust and love can help, so can considering wider political context
– responses should consider duty of care, compassion and kindness
– respect that we have can different experiences without delegitimising each other for them
– in Mick Gooda’s speech (see below) he talks about drawing from culture as a source of strength, identity and confidence in response to lateral violence
– in multicultural and multiracial “people of colour” spaces with no shared culture, can people build solidarity based on political commitment – but be aware political commitment can also be used in lateral violence to attack each other for not being radical enough
– our ways of responding to and resolving conflicts may not look like the methods we see in white-dominated culture – different interpersonal dynamics and responsibilities

A couple of texts:

Mick Gooda focused on lateral violence in his 2011 Social Justice Report as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

He is discussing lateral violence specifically in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and partly in relation to Native Title processes but I think some of the strategies will be relevant to other communities too. There are also lots of other resources in the references.

Andrea Smith talks about the problem of using the idea of “privilege” and confessing privileges, she looks at the example of working together as women of colour within Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and trying to ensure they considered specific issues like settler colonialism, disability or anti-Black racism but in terms of collectively transforming their understanding and practice.

For anyone interested on the topic, Richard Frankland runs workshops on lateral violence and cultural safety, his website says “Cultural Safety is a workshop primarily designed for the Australian Indigenous population but can be adapted to fit other ethnic groups as required”. More info here:


what should white people do / all the kindness I can afford

1 Apr

When white people are confronted with racism, the most common question is “but what are we supposed to do?”

I get it, it’s hard. You’re trying to think about all these things but it seems like you’re always wrong. Like if you’re a white academic and you only write about white Western culture, you’re being Eurocentric and contributing to the invisibility and erasure of marginalised peoples and cultures, but if you write about people of colour and their cultures, you come up against appropriation, exoticisation, issues of self-representation and self-determination.I’m not being sarcastic – it’s hard even if it’s harder for someone else. I appreciate when people are genuinely trying to address racism. And I know what I’m like when I try to think about something that is outside my sphere of experience, that has maybe honestly only just occurred to me: I’m bewildered and overwhelmed and anxious, I have no idea what to do, I want someone to give me all the answers.

But hey, if you’re a white academic, you probably have cultural, institutional power over anyone you research. Or any academic really – and even when you’re writing about marginalised communities you’re part of, you get to choose which representations are prioritised. By virtue of your position, regardless of your own background and identities and ideology, you have power over people. There are definitely better and worse ways to approach that power. But to some extent you can’t “get it right”. There is no perfect, ethically pure use of unethical power. Sometimes you don’t get to be good.

I’m not saying that white people are inevitably racist all the time and there’s nothing you can do so don’t bother trying. But I think the way we’re implicated in systems of oppression puts us in a position where there’s no right act. Trying to break down a system is dirty, messy work. We’re going some place we can’t see yet. We don’t get to be good. We don’t get to be right. That’s not the point.

I was brought up to believe in being correct. And that smarts will get you anywhere. I don’t think that’s true though. I’m trying to unlearn that. Trying to learn to be humble and kind, to be gentle. All the kindness I can afford, always. I know I’ve been saying this for a while now. It’s hard but it’s harder for someone else.

On belonging and home.

12 Mar

Often I feel guilty and apologetic that a lot of the people of colour stuff I do isn’t “real activism”. And there are a lot of social and political changes I’d like to see, and that I’d like to do more work on. Issues around labour and poverty, the criminal justice system, and refugee and immigration law in particular do seem more desperate, devastating and urgent to me than the kind of cultural problems I spend more time investigating, even if the latter might underpin the former.

That said, sometimes I feel kind of bashful when I talk about things like being asked “where do you come from?” like it’s not really important, it’s relatively benign, all non-Indigenous people are from somewhere else, having time to harp on about that sort of thing is based in the privilege of being free from more violent ways of being racialised. But being made to feel unwanted in your only home is a big deal. Having your knowledge of yourself denied and disputed is a big deal. I’m still only at the beginning of unravelling the psychological toll of these “microaggressions” and its impact on who I’ve become. I don’t want to trivialise these experiences any more. The emotional is real, and real politics deals with emotions.

And these experiences have hugely informed my political participation. When I was 17 I did a refugee solidarity action with a friend. When I was 18 I organised a small climate change rally. Both times I was asked by strangers, “what’s China’s policy on refugees?”, “why aren’t you doing something about coal in China” &c. This happens to me regularly at protests. I moved to Australia when I was four years old and I’ve been a citizen since primary school. I have full and equal civic rights, so the “macro” politics of law and government aren’t the issue for me in this instance. It’s cultural and psychological aggression that tells me I shouldn’t participate in the political life of the country in which I live, where I grew up and went to school, where most of my friends and family are, where I hold citizenship and vote and work and pay taxes, of which I understand the most history and politics, by which I am most affected, in which I am most invested. Liberal advocates for refugee and immigrant rights like to talk about the “contributions” refugees and immigrants have made to this country but white Australia only wants immigrants to contribute convenient labour that doesn’t displace white labour, we’re not supposed to be part of directing or defining the future of the country.

So I’m crying on aeroplanes, again. And when people ask where I’m going, I swallow the complications and tell them I’m going home.

Why be happy when you can be interesting?

28 Oct

Slavoj Žižek, ‘Why Be Happy When You Can Be Interesting’ (2 min 11)

For example, let’s be serious, when you are in a creative endeavour – in that wonderful fever, my god, I’m onto something, so on – happiness doesn’t enter it. You’re ready to suffer. 

This is the silliest and most pervasive cliché about creativity but it showed up on my Facebook feed today and it caught my attention because I’m feeling pretty much the opposite of this. I’m done with interesting and ready to be bored by happiness now, please, thanks.

Thinking further: Maybe the relationship between creativity on the y-axis and happiness-suffering on the x-axis is like a negative quadratic function (frown parabola), where creativity peaks with mid-range emotions. Total happiness flushes out creativity and total despair paralyses any endeavour. I’m not sure how to factor time and variety into this graph but they might be the most important factors, because if you’ve been feeling any one thing for long enough, eventually your mind stops responding to it creatively. The best writing about a feeling comes after the feeling.

In the midst of it there’s just the sensation, which is unintelligent and unintelligible. The sensations are all too similar – just a scattering of spaces inside the body in which you feel heat and pressure. For me all emotions are this: heat, pressure, being conscious of a space inside the body in a way that doesn’t make physical sense. Being haunted inside your body, by your own memory or imagination. Probably this doesn’t apply so much for other media and modes of creativity, and maybe not even for other people, but for me with words, when deep in a feeling, there’s just no point trying to tell it. What does it matter if anger sears through your spine or sits heavy under your lungs, dragging down your breath? I don’t know that anyone else’s psyche locates things in the same places; all I know is weight and pain in strange pockets of anatomy means nothing to read.

I’ve been kind of fragile and despondent lately and it makes it really difficult to do any kind of work. It’s like I’m all out of focus except for this hot blur of grief. I can’t concentrate, I can’t prioritise and I don’t have much capacity to deal with criticism or confrontation or failure, all of which seem essential for creative or political work and especially those projects at the intersection of the two, where everything is so tender and profound, so intimate and huge, and everyone seems to be angry at me about something I did or didn’t do, and there’s just so much shouting outside my face that’s pushing up against the noise in my head so the pressure sends cracks down through the lines. All my thoughts noise and contradiction. And if I try to stop there’s the kick of guilt because somewhere along the line I came to believe in this ethic of work and suffering, I came to see work as rent for living and then the payments spiralled out of control into several lifetimes, so in this one I’m just so damn tired. It’s a stupid way to think, and it makes me unhappy and uninteresting. 

So basically I think Žižek is being an arse. I don’t know if happiness is the name of what I want either, though. Maybe I just miss the resilience I had for a little while, which made a lot more things possible. Everything got very tight and small all of a sudden. I feel very small and closed and unable. Something like the feeling you get in an aeroplane as it rises and the air starts to thin. You’re belted to your seat but the ground is falling away, and there’s a rush of noise and pressure, and then all you can hear is inside your own head. You’re supposed to be going somewhere, and you’ll know it when you get there, but in the meantime you’re locked in and all you can do is swallow and breathe.

Review: La Mission (film)

8 Apr

La Mission official posterDir: Peter Bratt, USA, 2009, 35mm, 117min

> Official website

> IMDB entry

Set in San Francisco’s Mission District, the film follows the story of Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt), a  bus driver, lowrider-restorer, and loving father of Jes (Jeremy Ray Valdez), an honour-roll high school student. From the write-up in the MQFF program, this sounded like it might just be the story of this macho guy coming to terms with finding out his son is gay. It was much more than that, and probably my pick of the festival.

There’s a book by Armistead Maupin called Maybe the Moon, and without giving anything away, the epilogue suggests that mainstream media only wants to deal with one issue at a time: disability, race or queerness, you have to pick one and present it in the most normalised setting. To make a story of marginalisation palatable for mainstream audiences, your character has to be the stock-standard hero or heroine with just the one point of difference. La Mission stands against this school of thought. It’s a very layered film, centred around being brown and gay and proud, but also weaving together stories about gender, class, alcoholism, environment, and especially violence, without ever seeming forced.

Che does have a reputation as an O.G. (original gangsta) who is quick to anger and easy to fear, but he also derives respect from his role in the community: as someone who defends his community from the pressures of gentrification, who takes care of his elderly neighbours, who teaches the local youth pride in brown history and culture. His strength is counterbalanced by his tenderness, shown not only in his relationship with his son but also his love for his late mother, his religious devotion, his appreciation of music, and his nervous courtship of his upstairs neighbour — a bike-riding black woman who works at a domestic violence shelter (Erika Alexander). It’s not just the soldier with the snapshot, so to speak.

Once I may have tried to suggest that some traits always read feminine — that fussing in front of a mirror to look sharp, even in a suit, necessarily undercuts masculinity. Nowadays I don’t think that’s the case. For me the artwork on the back of his vintage lowrider characterises this particular portrayal of masculinity:

image of Che's mother with beams of light and text 'a mother's love never dies'

Like a biker’s tattoo, it’s both totally coherent with masculinity, and also absolutely an expression of tenderness. These nuances of Che’s character give you cause to be invested in his redemption after he beats up Jes, rather than just hoping for a clean break between father and son.

I felt the dialogue and direction was very accomplished, especially in regard to the more peripheral characters who were well-realised even when they had little screen time. The scenes between Che’s friends were a favourite of mine. At one point they are hanging out in the garage, and one mentions that his ex-wife was suing him for child support, and is now saying he can’t see his children without prior arrangement. Another of the gang repeats a catchphrase of Che’s, that “women these days are confused”. A third friend jokes that maybe she’s finally “calling you on your shit”. It’s a piece of believable ribbing between friends, and a little hat-tip to feminism in the one deft gesture.

I think this is how the film escapes feeling laboured despite fitting so much into its 117 minutes — there is always something being said in the background, in scenes where usually people are just talking rhubarb while we watch the protagonist’s emotions play on their face. And even when you see Che walking down the street, passing some people who add colour and texture and perhaps foreshadow something of his future, you suspect their stories may be equally worthy of our interest. But it also doesn’t try to be an ensemble piece (which I think can be where many narratives fail if they can’t commit to it). Che’s struggle is central, not because the other stories are less important but because they’re someone else’s. This is how we live, right?

An obvious criticism of the film would be that the plot is wholly predictable. You know exactly what will happen and the film relies on some boring tropes – a found photo, a car driving into the distance – but the strength of the characters and its message against violence (gang violence, domestic violence, homophobic violence) carries it, and I found it a pleasure to watch. For me it shows that the most moving stories don’t have to be the most generic: perhaps it’s even the specificities that make a story real and resonant.

On public conflict.

4 Apr

let’s get it on in public
– Kelis

My lover and I argue often, and often in public. We’re both kind of combative and whatever is the opposite of conflict-averse – trigger-happy, perhaps, or just straight-out aggressive. So a conversation about biscuits can easily turn into “I can’t believe you like white chocolate, that’s the most disgusting thing ever and even worse than your taste in men for example BRUCE WILLIS” and “yeah well YOUR FACE and your mum’s face and your blog’s typeface BOOM ps I hate your dress, it’s not ironic it’s just ugly”.

That’s an absurd example but you get the idea. I don’t think it’s better or worse than other ways to communicate, but for us I think it’s effective, intuitive and pretty fair because we’re evenly matched. I’m aware it can be threatening or at least uncomfortable for bystanders, and sometimes we’ll defer an argument or step inside. I appreciate that there are situations where it’s not fair on other people to make them party to our shouting match, and even if we know it’s all in good faith, it doesn’t necessarily appear so.

But I think there can also be this sort of genteel aversion to fighting in public which I dislike and distrust. It enshrines very specific cultural norms, prioritising values of discretion, pride and composure over passion, vulnerability, and spontaneity. It assumes access to more appropriate spaces, usually private property. And I think ultimately it can be dangerous because it hides away interactions that could sometimes use a witness and the accountability  that provides.

I attended a workshop recently on alternatives to police and responses to conflict. The participants talked about the different situations in which they might intervene, how, and what would help them to take action. I think it’s worth asking whether you have a problem with the behaviour at hand, or with it being in public, and sometimes that’s a difficult question to answer. And of course I know some behaviour is made unacceptable by its context, and especially by being inflicted upon a non-consenting audience.

I want to hear your thoughts:
• If you’re aware of a conflict between two people you know, what would it take for you to intervene?
• Does it make a difference if you witness the conflict directly?
• Where is the line between being a witness to abuse and being subjected to it?

Fissures and friendships: how I became a woman of colour.

13 Jan
Sisters, 1930s Shanghai
Sisters, 1930s Shanghai
(courtesy Natalie Z Drieu)

My article for Asian-Australian arts and culture magazine, Peril, is now up on their website. It’s called “Fissures and friendships: how I became a woman of colour” and it deals with how we come to identify ourselves and each other as women of colour, and what that means. I also talk a little about visibility and representation.

None of my women of colour idols are Chinese-Australian, much less Shanghainese-Melburnian. I notice people of colour everywhere I go, or at least I think I do. I am less colour-blind than ever and maybe more race-blind, now that I understand race as something else, something that isn’t always inscribed on someone’s body, face, name, voice. Finding other women of colour makes me feel stronger. Often neither their bodies nor their lives are like mine. It’s important to recognise each other. I am trying to explain the difference between sight and recognition. It’s not enough to see someone. I want them to look back. I want a conversation of gazes.

I hope you enjoy it as I’ve enjoyed reading all the other pieces in this issue. Peril #10, Skin, also includes an interesting article about Filipino racialisation and interviews with Melbourne comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet and gay Indigenous artist Gary Lee. I’m proud to be part of such a great publication which supports lots of people of colour artists and performers.

In other women of colour news, I asked academic, blogger, zinester, fashionista and bonafide supergrrrl Mimi Thi Nguyen from Threadbared for her 1998 piece “Hair Trauma” which I wanted to pass onto a dear friend. She kindly reposted it for me — if you haven’t already read it, you really should. Such a rich tangle of thoughts about ethnicity, gender, sexuality, subculture, appearance and authenticity. For an illustrated discussion of dyke hair issues, check out Dykes and their Hair, a sweet little zine by Teresa Chun-Wen Cheng. You’ll hear more from me on beauty, fashion and appearance soon.

Also, a while ago I wrote a piece for The Scavenger discussing the ideology behind women-only spaces, and in particular how trans and genderqueer folks fit into play parties for “past, present and future women”. I don’t think it’s very interesting but I thought I should index it here for future reference.

Writing resolutions / In defence of writing and criticism.

9 Jan

Post A Week

I’m going to try for a post a week in 2011 — whether that’s writing to the left at State of Emergency, on living under capitalism at No New Year or about queer hanky code at opinicus rampant.

Because I’m doing it over three blogs I’m not sure if there’s any point signing up for the official PostAWeek challenge, plus I think I’ll be more inspired by the allies on my blogroll than the topics WordPress suggests.

I am so glad and grateful to be writing under these conditions — not alone in a garret or scratching into the margins of something else — but always with this rich delicious symphony.

Let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to write about, or if you’ve set yourself a similar goal so we can encourage each other.

On writing

A few people asked if I had any resolutions for the new year, and I mostly responded with something vague and non-committal. I feel a little ambivalent about setting a writing resolution — ambivalent, nervous and embarrassed.

The most useless thing I do in a week is the one I get paid for, so I am fairly confident that my urge to do something is motivated by something more or at least other than some kind of class myth about economic participation. But I think there is a bit of status anxiety involved in wanting to “make something of myself”, as well as a work ethic which, regardless of its ideological origins, results in feeling like I need to justify my existence by being “productive”. In a milieu that values change instead of reproducing existing systems, this might more likely be called being “active”, but either way it means that it’s not enough to live.

And I guess I think that’s true — that we live in this “state of emergency”, that the need for change is urgent enough to demand everyone works for it — but at the same time I don’t believe we need to justify ourselves or deny ourselves. I don’t like the idea of justification in particular because it suggests compensation — and I believe that nothing we do can compensate for unjust privileges, that we have to abolish the conditions that enable those privileges, and that we don’t have to suffer.

I am unbelievably lazy — given the choice I would never get out of bed — and it’s something that troubles me but also something I enjoy immensely. There’s work I want to do, but I do also really believe in pleasure, believe in its inherent value. When I am doing something I enjoy, I don’t have to produce anything because my own pleasure is meaning enough.

This is somewhat irrelevant, because I don’t enjoy writing. Elsewhere, 30 August 2010:

Drafts are distasteful to me (abject even), if I didn’t finish writing something when I began it becomes waste and I never want to touch you again. I want to love writing more than anything, more than I love fucking, food, dancing, sleep, baths, but always I hate it most of all.

Arrival card to Malaysia - "occupation: writer"

Lying on my arrival card?

In the last year I’ve begun to call myself a writer and critic, more as an invocation than a description. I’m reluctant to say that writing is productive, and mostly I write to provoke reflection rather than action. But I also don’t think it follows that writing is never activism, or that criticism doesn’t make things.

Blackamazon says:

An article does not feed

It does not clothe

It does not donate

It does not hold.

If I write something and you feel it

It may be some skill of mine but the thing that happens is within you

I think that’s true, but if blogging doesn’t do these things then neither does petitioning or performing or marching down the street or spraypainting slogans on walls or having meetings or making zines or speaking at a convergence. Neither does making films or music or art.

Most of the things we call activism don’t directly change entire social and political systems. Most of the things we call activism involve asking something of someone else. If a blogger of colour telling their story makes their friends and acquaintances more aware of racism, I consider that to be more direct activism than having a meeting to organise a petition to ask a politician to put up legislation for more funding for a multicultural television network which enables more people of colour to tell their stories. I think both actions are worthwhile.

As for criticism, I agree it can be unsatisfying – distressing – paralysing. But I think it’s also counter-productive and dangerous to demand that every criticism includes a “positive” suggestion, that negative comment without a positive alternative is somehow illegitimate. Sometimes we need the intellectual space of the hesitation after criticism to imagine an alternative. Or sometimes I would rather risk that emptiness than continue with the current structure.

Anyhow, here’s to a productive year — productive of justice and pleasure.


Leaving you with a poem: “For the Young Who Want To” by Marge Piercy. 3P has the last two lines as her Tumblr caption and I carry it with me as an injunction.

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Against metaphor.

12 Oct

This post is full of offensive, derogatory and potentially triggering language.
I’ve been thinking about inclusive language and trying to be more mindful of my own.

I agree with the premise that language reflects and reinforces certain ideas, and that it’s worthwhile to be more aware of the assumptions behind our usage and understanding (the assumptions that make sense of words and give them meaning beyond their denotative referent; the word’s face value – what might be the first entry in a small dictionary).It’s a project initially motivated by solidarity with self-determination – by wanting to respect how people prefer to be addressed, described or discussed; to respond to their political needs; and to show support for cultural change through linguistic change. And it inevitably extends to questioning the assumptions on which all language relies.

But I’ve found common knowledge and practice around inclusive language in social justice circles to be both too simple, and too complicated.

Inclusive Language 101

The basics of oppressive language are simple to grasp. When you use language that can refer to or that is associated with a group of people or their characteristics and circumstances to mean something else (generally derogatory, but it may not be), you thicken the link between the two: saying “gay” when you mean “uncool” implies that gay people are uncool.

It’s simple to understand with the most overt examples, and simple to change: no matter how accustomed you are to using words like “nigger,” “faggot” or “retard,” it’s not hard to set up an alarm in your mind and find a better replacement.

Often there’s no perfect substitute, no word that’s quite as powerful – but that’s because oppression is powerful and there’s little that can call up so much power, so quickly, as a slur that stands in for a whole history of violence.

There’s plenty of existing discussion about words and phrases that can be hurtful or exclusionary and why you shouldn’t use them. Meloukhia gives a few examples:

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation).  Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

Some of these offend because they are commonly used as an insult but also refer to, or are associated with, a group of people (“cunt,” “moron,” “insane”). Some perpetuate stereotype by associating a group of people with certain characteristics or actions (“ballsy,” “jewed”). Some directly exclude (“biological sex,” using male pronouns as generic). Some embody double standards (“whore,” “shrew”). Some depersonalise (“the disabled”).Some understandings of inclusive language focus too much on the first two types. I don’t want to argue for either rejecting certain words or reclaiming others, and I certainly don’t want to make a judgement about who can say which words, and when. I do want to acknowledge that there’s more to language than vocabulary; more to inclusive language than banning words and phrases.

I want to talk about when language perpetuates unintended associations and assumptions in ways that are problematic but not necessarily hurtful. I want to consider this without calling for a ban, without even asking people to avoid certain phrases or judging them on how they use language. At the same time, I recognise this is an academic exercise: while deliberate language is political, it is not necessarily inclusive, and attempting it isn’t activism.

Beyond Denotation: Against Metaphor

Extending my last piece on analogy, I want to argue against metaphor – against substituting one thing for another, against reaching into the baggage of one thing to enrich or complicate our understanding of another.

To start with an obvious example, blackness and darkness is routinely used to stand in for mystery, fear, or general negativity. Though these associations may exist in many cultures, in mine it also draws on racism.

We use poor to signify lack, but it indicates both the state of having less (“poor people”) and being less (“poor form”).

Disability metaphors abound: a publication which would never refer to people as “retards” or “spastics” is likely to use “blind” and “deaf” regularly as a metaphor for ignorance or ineptitude (“the Government is blind to growing dissatisfaction …” etc). Debt is “crippling” and design is “schizophrenic.”

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag considers late twentieth century discourse on cancer to reveal our time’s anxiety about uncontrolled economic growth and technological progress. When capitalism is called cancerous, how cancer patients experience their bodies, or isolate the disease process from their bodies?

Rape is used as a metaphor for almost any offence or injustice, from colonisation to privacy violations to logging of old-growth forests. Consent is relevant in almost every political conversation – autonomy is essentially consent collectivised – but alluding to sexual assault is unnecessary and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape metaphor’s intersections with oppression; most adjectives can be applied to bodies and people, so the words that describe me (short, young, light) inevitably draw on some other meanings (curt, fresh, unimportant).

Of course, I don’t really want to argue against metaphor. I want richly layered associative meaning; I want poetry. And I know sometimes synonyms are equal, if not independent of analogy, metaphor and association. Language is more complex and flexible than these caveats suggest.

Etymology is not meaning

Inclusive language is naive when it presumes that that a word only means one thing and will always mean that thing. Etymology is not meaning, meanings aren’t always hierarchical, and language changes through time and shapes itself for the situation.

Some meanings pass away: if linguists just hush for a bit, I think people will quickly forget that “bastard” originally meant someone whose parents weren’t married. Now it’s just someone you don’t like, or in Australia, anyone. The modern meanings of “laconic”, “spartan” and “lesbian” are dominant in the anglophone world, and their racial origins are only of academic interest. Historic insults sound so weak to modern sensibilities that television shows like Deadwood use anachronism to get the tone across. The sense of “gay” as homosexual has overtaken earlier meanings such as female prostitute.

On the other hand, accidental associations that aren’t based in etymology may cause offence. “Niggardly”, for example, can be used as a covert racial slur though its origins have no connection to blackness.

Asking people to take responsibility for every possible interpretation of their usage forgets that understanding is a collaborative project between speaker and listener, writer and reader. Intention is no defence, perhaps, but context is part of usage, and misinterpretation is always possible. When we talk about inclusionary language, we need to recognise that semantics is complex, and there’s more than one way to understand a text. We can’t scrutinise how people talk and write without considering how we listen and understand.

More dangerously, sometimes language is understood by reference to the user’s person, or what is known of it — the problem becomes not what but who. I can tentatively agree that members of an oppressed group can reclaim their insults while others cannot. But when irony, good intentions or offence is assumed based on presumptions about the writer/speaker, that means our understanding of language is too simple and too rigid.

Can language change culture?

While I believe that language influences thinking, its effect is subtle and not linear.

Changing language has an impact: using only first names or only family names, gender-neutral pronouns, or even just Ms as a title, can tease out fascinating reactions. Douglas Hofstadter’s Person Paper (an old favourite, and an exercise in analogy) shows that the extend to which English is gendered is quite disconcerting when revealed.

I’m not sure, though, that the structures of a language necessarily reflect much of the society in which it’s used. Persian, Hungarian, Bengali and spoken Chinese all use gender-neutral pronouns, while Arabic, Greek, German and Hindi have gendered nouns as well as pronouns. I think a global, historical survey of the correlation between grammatical gender and sociological gender would reveal, well, not very much.

Everything is problematic

Part of the project of inclusive language is to remove certain words from acceptable parlance. But inclusive language is also about finding new ways to tell our experiences, to express what is difficult to explain, to speak the things there are few words for. On top of that, inclusive language should accommodate many different linguistic styles and capabilities.

In just over a week, I’ll be in China for ShanghaiPRIDE – the second ever queer festival in Mainland China – and I’ve been eagerly brushing up on my Shanghainese. As the only conversations I have in the language are with my parents and teenage sister, my vocabulary is limited to familial dinner table conversation. Listening to Shanghainese rap songs, I’m chuffed to hear all the different words for idiot. I want to learn to swear and I can’t be fussy about inclusionary language.

One of my parents’ nicknames for me as a child was “mo ten”, and because I’m not part of a linguistic community I don’t know if it means “slowpoke” or “retard”. My other nickname was “shior gan du” (which I think translates to “little stupidhead”) and “zi seh di” (which is literally “13 points” but also means silly/ditzy/daft). Nostalgic digression aside, I don’t think I’ll ever have the knowledge in another language to understand the associations and nuances I know in English.

We can pull people up on language that offends or excludes, explaining why we might want to avoid it, but using the wrong language shouldn’t discount someone’s opinion altogether. Inclusive language needs to be one tool to making our spaces and movements more open and accessible, rather than proof of our good politics or an excuse for authoritarian discipline.

If inclusive language reduces everyone to silence, it’s not inclusive. It seems obvious but bears repeating.

More links:

A truncated earlier version appeared in The Scavenger.

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.

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.