Tag Archives: intersectionality

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.


Reclaim the Night & Post-Activism

29 Oct

So I was thinking about why I’m not going to Reclaim the Night tonight.

And there’s a bunch of fairly decent reasons: I’ve never been clear on the purpose of the event, more so than for other actions because there’s no policy goal. If the goal is to raise awareness of violence against women, I think it achieves that — within a small community perhaps, but deeply if temporarily. If the goal is to lessen such violence, the impact would be indirect and impossible to measure. If the goal is to strengthen women and feminist sisterhood, I think it succeeds there also. And maybe the answer is all those things, but I’m frustrated with purposes that allow no measure of failure or success.

I would like to know what I’m asking for, and from whom. I would like to imagine and articulate how feminism could engage with known perpetrators of violence, and I’d like to acknowledge that we all have the capacity for violence, while remaining conscious of its gendered dynamics.

I think the name “Reclaim the Night” recalls a tradition I want to respect and uphold on one hand (just because feminist history is precious to me) and radically renew on the other. Here I share a friend’s anxiety at whether it’s ever appropriate for non-Aboriginal Australians to claim space in this manner. I remembering hearing a young non-Indigenous activist calmly disregard an Indigenous activist’s dissent at an RTS during G20 2006 and continue ‘reclaiming’ the streets.

Reclaim the Night has also been anti-trans, and anti-sex worker, in a violent manner. Also I think the name places improper emphasis on violence in the streets, reinforcing the myth that women are most at risk in public space with mysterious strangers, not in their homes, or on the streets but at the hands of police, or in a detention centre, or a psychiatry ward …

I wonder if focusing on sexual violence helps to reveal the gendered aspects, or individualises experiences of violence and obscures intersections. Current definitions of intimate partner violence now incorporate many forms of abuse beside the physical and sexual, such as financial abuse — would broadening the understanding of violence complicate the issues in a way that is necessary or unproductive? If a definition of violence becomes so general as to refer simply to domination, does that just collapse the conversation? Or is consideration of a wider context of power relations inevitable, and integral to a better understanding of what sustains violence?

I want to think outside feminist tradition to explore whether different forms of violence can be thought of together, fought together, or if we need to suffer again through being torn apart. But I don’t want to abstract concepts beyond what is possible either — even if I have already. It does matter that I want what is immediately enact-able, even if I dream on.


But really I’m not sure why I feel compelled to defend my absence, especially given that I think it would be more a show for my friends and “community” than anything with wider impact. More than anything else my absence is because I’m lazy, and because I’m in imminent-academic-doom mode, where I can’t seem to do anything except sitting around in my pyjamas worrying about overdue essays, least of all write them.

Loki reminded me that I’m not an activist anymore, and haven’t been for a while. I seem to have trouble letting go of the label, as much as I started to hate it as soon as I won it. There’s just nothing to replace it though, nothing that says “these things concern me”, without the awful arrogance of -conscious or -aware. But I’m really not an activist, now, certainly not as an occupation, not even as an identity if it means sustaining genuine hope in the future. It didn’t used to matter, really, to fail. Now I’m not sure it matters to try. Burn-out is a kinder term for it, but really it’s just faithlessness, a lack of stamina coupled with the most caustic pessimism, parading as apathy. Between drinks, these things still concern me. But I can’t separate this anxiety from a more general one, and I can’t have my politics pathologised. They’re still precious, I guess. But maybe something like a memory.