Friday, April 25, 2008

Invisibility

Cross-posted at XXBlaze

A huge topic in Feminism is the claim that minorities and women are invisible in our society. The default "human position" is male. When reading something in which the author is not specified, the average American assumes that the author is male. If the author is female, of color, or homosexual, we praise it as a "fine piece of work by X minority". In short, a white man can publish a book and be praised for his contribution to academia, while a woman, person of color, or any other minority is primarily identified by that minority specification, not their accomplishments. Their contribution is something that belongs to a collective, whereas a white male's work is attributed solely to him, not to his unstated group membership.

Being a Feminist, I abhor when the majority subconsciously classify the words of a "minority" as representative of that minority group. It creates this sort of "otherness" in which we are all hyper-aware of race, gender, and sexual orientation because it seems to be known as the most important facet of one's identity.

However, when this identity is not stated, we simply assume that someone is a straight white male. Perhaps we might think the tone is sufficiently feminine, and then we consider that the author is a woman. Unless a piece of literature specifically alludes to homosexuality, race, or religion, we assume that the author is heterosexual, Christian/Atheist, white, and usually male.

I, just as much as the rest of you, am equally guilty. I subconsciously make distinctions of "otherness" when reading something by a woman, a homosexual, or, for instance, a Muslim. I make insensitive comments even about my own gender unknowingly because I grew up in a society that counts privelege and many different bigotries as a standard part of socialization.

What I really do not like about the mainstream Feminist movement is that it ignores a lot of these intersections of privelege. We do discuss issues that affect all women, but I have noticed that when we discuss relationships we always seem to discuss them in the context of heterosexuality. Among other things, we generally do not touch issues facing South American women or Middle Eastern women, or concentrate on the inequities facing a "stay at home Mom" or a particularly poor woman.

More than anything, however, I notice the assumption of heterosexuality. As a bisexual female, many of the discussions in the context of heterosexuality do not apply to me at all. A huge portion of my identity is not covered by mainstream Feminism, although I do not think it is by design. The pursuit of a feminist relationship between two women is not absent of its pitfalls. Absent, however, from the usual columns on how to craft a feminist relationship is any mention of homosexuality, polyamory, or transgenderism.

I only thought of this recently because of the discussions surrounding Amanda Marcotte's racially offensive illustrations in It's a Jungle Out There. Privilege very often results in a subconscious prioritization of issues. I see that many feminists place women's issues above racial issues and gay rights frequently. It is not appropriate to demonize the privileged, because we all are in our own way, but it is useful to point it out.

I suppose then that this is my two-bits. I would like to see a lot more about gay issues under the Feminist umbrella, not only because both are important to me, but I think that it is instrumentally important that Feminists remain cognizant of all types of priviledge, especially those types we might unknowingly further.

For what it counts, I suppose this is a bizarre sort of post that I write more as a minority than a majority. Considering my educated whiteness, this is a rare state for me. The fact still remains that when I write, I do so knowing that all of my readers assume that I am heterosexual. This is both a blessing and a curse. One day, I hope that my invisibility as someone who is not heterosexual will be obsolete.

6 comments:

JPR said...

You make some pretty good points here, and I do agree that there seems to be a pretty major bit of reverse gender/race discrimination (which, in my view, is still discrimination... do you know how hard it is for me, as a white male, to get the type of scholarships you see getting passed out to "minorities"? I think that's probably some kind of illegal... base it on income or merit or whatever but not what you look like...). Anyway, kudos on most of it.

I think the issue of assumption comes down to how the human brain is wired, though. If you try to understand a situation, you can't just create a mental image from the ground up for two reasons: 1) there's often not sufficient information to do so, and 2) it just takes to darn long, and to marginal benefit or return on invested time. If somebody's written something (and this gets back to your first point), it doesn't matter who they are, what they look like, or who they like having sex with. It's either legitimate thought, or it's not. And if you have to imagine a picture of who wrote it, it shouldn't matter who that picture looks like, since they're irrelevant to the topic at hand. If they're not irrelevant to the topic (ie, writing about a war, which side you're writing from can influence your POV), then that "default" image can and likely will be replaced by the true one. Does having an image of a heterosexual white male in my head when I'm reading an anonymous piece of work make me a sexist racist? I don't think so. It just means I identify with straight white guys more than any other general classification of person. This shouldn't be a surprise; I am one! Does it mean I don't like/tolerate other people just because of what they are? Not at all, unless they identify a closed-door policy toward educated debate as part of themselves.

But that's a whole 'nother question, as they say.

Kandee said...

@JPR -

A part of the privilege is not seeing how history has played into current beliefs about 'reverse racism'. The playing field is not level. In an attempt to make it so, things have been created for minorities and women, such as scholarships, in hopes that they will be recognized in an arena that generally makes them invisible.

This is not about human efficiency. It's about a system created through colonialism that has prioritized the needs of white heterosexual males above all else. Our culture has reinforced this credibility and advantage. Being unable to see how things are imbalanced (and not a cause of one's own doing) is a part of that privilege structure. Not having to confront your race and be defined by it is also a part of that structure.

What I like about this post is the author's ability to identify the trickiness of privilege and at least try to navigate around ingrained socialized assumptions in order to see how herself and others are affected by these dynamics. That allows her to move past 'tolerating' others.

JPR said...

@ Kandee-

"The playing field is not level." Nope, I never said it was.

"...in hopes that they will be recognized in an arena that generally makes them invisible."
Precisely. I'm not arguing for increased visibility of anyone, especially white males. I'm just disappointed that we seem to be shutting out some great minds just because they're not minorities. Just because you're a white male implies NOTHING about whether you can afford school, need research grants, etc.

It looks like you missed my point completely. I'm not capitalizing on "tolerating" others. Maybe my wording was a bit off. Sorry. It's about mental images, and whether an assumption matters, and if so, in what contexts. Going back to the original post, "a white man can publish a book and be praised for his contribution to academia, while a woman, person of color, or any other minority is primarily identified by that minority specification, not their accomplishments". You see it all over the place. If we just had a little more gender/preference/race anonymity, published thought would be the one criterion by which people would be judged in the academic world. Interestingly, that's the whole point, to advance knowledge. Not to "advance knowledge gained by white men/black females/lesbians/straights".

In short, defaults are great, especially if they are changed when appropriate.

Kandee said...

JPR -

Thanks for clarifying.

I understand your concern about merit in scholarship awards. If they were to remove special scholarships, such as the ones awarded to minorities, then we should also be examining sports scholarships and academic achievement scholarship.

Academic achievement has been linked to socio-economic positioning. The more time you have available to study minus the distractions of financial and family concerns, the more likely you are to receive good grades. There was also another study done that showed some of the world's most successful people did not receive good grades in college/university. So why then should we be awarding scholarships to those who have the opportunity to study instead of considering that some have to work while putting themselves through school? Especially if good grades are not a predictor of success? Some kids beat the odds, but the fact is, there are odds. Same goes for recreational sports. Not every child has access to those extra-curricular activities. Why should they be rewarded for playing sports? And what about degree-specific awards? Why should I be in political science to be awarded a scholarship? Discriminatory, no?

My point is, there are many other criteria, alongside race, that can be questioned if we were to evaluate 'fairness' in scholarship awards.

As for your point on gender/race/sexuality anonymity in authoring, I can see that it would serve us better to be neutral, but we have to consider that anonymity removes the experiences behind the story, which is also valuable. The problem is this society places far too much value on some people over others to be truly neutral.

That being said, there's enough space on this planet for both your view and my view to be shared and heard, without one dominating the other.

Thanks for engaging in this discussion.

JPR said...

@ Kandee-

"...then we should also be examining sports scholarships and academic achievement scholarship. " I agree completely. Guess my realm of awareness, as a kind of hyper-nerd, excludes me from the sports arena, but that's absolutely right.

"....Discriminatory, no?"
Almost. I think there's still an element of choice here. If schools want to pay you X amount of dollars to play on their sports team, so be it. As far as I'm concerned, that's still a job. Same goes for musicians and orchestras, et cetera. What I suppose I'm trying to get at here is that yes, there are other factors besides race that should be looked at. However, many of those have to do with personal choice. Did I choose to be involved in sports/music/academia to a greater extent than others? And if I had a poor socioeconomic standing, this is an issue separate from race. You'll find there are poor whites out there right alongside poor blacks, Mexicans, Italians, Asians, etc. Converse is true, there are those from all ethnicities that are rich.

Let me apologize for something: I believe I simply assumed that there would still be need-based scholarships/grants available alongside merit-based ones. In fact, there are. Of course, it's an imperfect system. Kids still have to work though college, yes. And there's always room for improvement there.

So therefore, since I believe I do ramble a tad, I shall again summarize the above. Aid should be given based solely on merit and need. And yes, merit should include talents like music and sports. Why? Because there should be rewards on investing in those fields. Because without it, classical music would die (the side-course in many intellectuals' mental buffet) and the Cubs would never win the world series.

As a few closing remarks, I concur with yours. And while I think nobody here is trying to dominate, I also appreciate that there is still sufficient respect to debate and discuss like civilized people, for the advancement of all.

Kandee said...

JPR -

Well said!