Tag Archives: identity

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.

Defining femme.

9 Aug

Essin’ Em at Femme’s Guide asked how we define femme, both our own femme and femme in general. It’s not easy. She locates the essence of femme in a certain kind of sass, saying

We give it out when we feel invisible, showing people that we have our own identity and please stop grouping me in with the other straight girls/women here, thank you very much.

Ulrika Dahl in Femmes of Power calls us “proud, fierce and intentional” (p 20), and that resonates with me. Though obviously it’s not exclusive to femme, I think intentionality is crucial.

Intent makes femme queer. And having sex with men, even cis men, can’t un-queer that: I am somewhat frustrated with queer femme identities being defined against heterosexuality. Invisibility sucks, but so does hating on straight women’s femininity, not to mention the implied biphobia and transphobia. If femme stands alone and doesn’t depend on a femme/butch opposition, femme writers need to stop centering our identities on our choices of partners. (I think oppositionality is hot, by the way, so long as the binary doesn’t pretend to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive.)

That said, femme is relational, if not oppositional. I’m not sure how to characterise the relationship of femme to either gender identity, presentation or position without limiting it in ways that exclude others, but I feel femme is oriented, in some way, towards femininity, whether it takes it apart, make it up, or fakes it real loud. And regardless of how much femme might reject traditional femininity (aesthetically, culturally and politically), I think for femme to be anything more than an overwrought but underthought excuse for my outfit despite my politics, femme has to be connected to femininity — to defend the feminine (1) in all its guises, even those that don’t appeal personally, rather than denying all association with whatever femininity isn’t queer, isn’t subversive, isn’t self-conscious (2).

If femme is conscious, that consciousness is rooted in the kind of feminism that questions the values of a masculinist culture, that asks us to rethink the worth of all that is called feminine and effeminate (3), and dismissed and diminished for it. Femme consciousness asks, why is architecture more serious than fashion, who decides what is public and what is private, and when will people stop asking me what I get paid for and let me tell them how I love?

So for me, femme is a collective cultural resistance; individually, something like risk-aware consensual gendering. And as Jeanette Winterson often says, “what you risk reveals what you value”. Femme is often framed in terms of what you put on (pearls and lipstick, heels and hose) but I think it’s more about what you take off — a certain kind of armour (4). Sass is not the same as bravado. It shares while it resists. Femme wears its heart on sleeve, and such gestures are not high maintenance, but often high risk: not only of invisibility, but also everything that femininity risks, whether or not it’s consensual, whether or not it’s intentional.(5)

I wish I could buy back the woman you stole

– Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Y Control”

I think femme is always extravagant, because femme is always expensive. Femme costs as much as I can afford, all the strength and flexibility I can afford, all the softness and forgiveness I can afford, but I’ll spend it. It’s worth it, and I want to be generous. I am trying to be generous. As generous as I’m greedy. This is femme for me.

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.