Tag Archives: privilege

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)

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On femme shame and feminist solidarity.

6 Feb

This has been my summer of femme: I’ve been fairly consistently made up, dressed up, and chatted up as a super girly supergirl. And I love that, I love playing princess and twirling my skirt and drinking tea with curled pinkie. I think I make it clear that it’s not all I do, but I do love it.

But I’ve met a fair few people through kink in the last several months, who’ve never known my history of more eclectic gender display, and with whom I haven’t really discussed politics at all — which might not sound so shocking but really it’d been years since I’d met any substantial number of people outside of activist circles, with whom I couldn’t readily assume certain values. Instead I’ve been trying to assume the best of people, and mostly I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

There have been instances where I’ve been uncomfortable, though, and realised that my arguments aren’t prepared for dominant culture, that I rely on the terrain of a particular discourse. When I launch my rhetoric leaps without this, they start shaky. Sometimes I don’t start at all — without a community to back up calling someone out, without recognising that as a specific cultural intervention and being able to call on all the strategies and wisdom that involves, it’s just too scary.

Being a young, thin, femme woman who fucks men means that men talk to you like you might agree with what they think of other women, who they think aren’t you but who you know may as well be you — who you will be, one day. It’s not enough to call yourself a feminist, to provide your alternative viewpoint somewhere further down the conversation. You can be horrified, but most likely your horror isn’t palpable, because that’s not what’s on his mind. You have to say it: This upsets me, this is unacceptable to me. But often I don’t.

It’s not just men, either — I’m no less devastated by women who deride all the ugly/old/fat/butch women on the scene. But either way it’s a feminist problem, because people rarely talk about men like their only worth is their fuckability. Not that men don’t have to grapple with that, but that there’s something outside it for them. And obviously (again again) I don’t have a problem with people having physical preferences, but there’s a difference between saying what you like and saying how you think other people should be.

[ Aside: I find it strange (and frankly, hilarious) that people assume that I’m only attracted to women who look like me, especially when those people are men trying to get into my bed. (If that theory holds, it won’t work for you, mister.) I have fucked people double my age, double my weight, a foot or more taller, and with hair in entirely different places. But also my femme identity depends on that being an option, not a requirement — if you take away the intentionality, you take away all my pleasure. ]

So maybe I should say here, because someone might read it: I will always, always take the side of the woman you scorn. I will always empathise with her, even if it seems we’re categorically different, because I know we’re serialised the same. Even if I’m silent, even if I sleep with you anyway, I will mourn the moment later, and feel ashamed.

Afterthought (10 April 2010)

I just read this interview with Jaclyn Friedman, ‘Fucking While Feminist’, which seems pertinent. She says some really transphobic things, but I do like the idea of the various tests, like applying the Bechdel test to internet profile interests.