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.
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.)
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.
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.