Sunday, 16 February 2014

Context Is(n't) Everything

Just found this in the Draft folder. Many moons out of date, and clearly unfinished, but I actually didn't mind my own voice in it, which is rare enough that I'm going to publish it anyway.

So, that Suzanne Moore, eh? She wrote a little article in the New Statesman, and all hell has broken loose. There are accusations of Islamophobia and language policing, there is sympathy from Caitlin Moran and Frankie Boyle, and there are defensive responses from Moore herself as well as the Julies Burchill and  Bindel (two people that everyone wants on their team). There are also a lot of responses from within the blogosphere; some are thoughtful, and some, like this one, are less so.

I think we can all agree that the attempts by Burchill and Bindel are nothing more than disgusting hate speech doubling down on Moore's own exposed hatred of transsexuality. For me, though, it's the subtler support that is the most upsetting.

I don't want to pick on Stella Duffy, but her argument seems to boil down to her feeling sad that she is now scared to say "trans", even though she ought to be exempt from criticism because 20 years ago she wrote a "lovely, loving, sympathetic trans character". She seems to be proud of the fact that she, a professional LGBT-focussed writer (by which I mean LG-focussed), wrote a trans character twenty years ago. Is this like the I-have-black-friends approach? Or its lesser-know cousin, the my-best-friend-in-nursery-school-was-black? As if the longer-ago something happened, the better your claim to progressiveness is. I see where Duffy's trying to go with this, but really she's just highlighting the vast disconnect between how much insight she has into transgender issues and how much insight she thinks she has. That in itself speaks volumes, and doesn't even take into account the fact that Duffy claims to be "the only person [she] know[s]" who has written such a character. I don't even know where to start with that. Suffice to say, Duffy is not the expert that she thinks she is. And perhaps she ought to hesitate before speaking on trans issues, particularly when "speaking on trans issues" means "coming to the defence of an unapologetic transphobe".

Now, for a more nuanced take on the issue, take a look at Pissers vs Wankers: The state of left-wing feminist debate?. I'm going to throw myself into the quoted circle jerk here, and to hell with the consequences. Here's a quote from glosswitch's worryingly relevant post:

"I wouldn’t have known the word “transsexual” alone could offend. I might have used it – I probably have – in a different context. Now I won’t. But if I were called out on it, I might have thrown a strop."

I think the point about this is that although the word 'transsexual' alone is often used in a purely descriptive (although outdated) manner, one's use of it can be something of a red flag, pointing to worrying attitudes towards trans people (almost always, and not at all coincidentally, trans women).

Partly this is because of the fact that it's outdated: generally, if one has engaged with trans issues at all over the past decade, one knows that the word "transsexual" now has a much more specific meaning and isn't used as a catch-all, having been replaced (ish) by transgender. So I generally assume that if someone uses "transsexual" as a catch-all or a punchline, they haven't bothered to engage with current trans issues and debates, which can be (although isn't always) a red flag.

Secondly, Moore's use of it ("a Brazilian transsexual") is indicative of some nasty attitudes behind the flippancy. For me, using "a transsexual" is unpleasant (like calling people "gays" or "blacks"), and the word "Brazilian" simply reinforces the idea that Moore has only one stock image of transgender people, and it just happens to be the most outdated, racist one of them all (bar perhaps going with the Thai version of the same 'joke').

And the point about context is important. The word "transsexual" is innocently descriptive in certain contexts, and is wildly offensive in others. An article about gender and feminism and the beauty myth and anger is not an innocent context for a throwaway one-liner about "a Brazilian transsexual". 

In my opinion, people's ears pricked up when they caught that usage of a word that isn't always on its own offensive, but can be when used in a certain way. Those of us who have to be alert to transphobia may have picked up on those little signals, and prodded a little, and unhappily discovered the seething pit of anger and disgust and condescension that lies beneath. That, sadly, isn't uncommon. It's like hearing the word "homosexual": inoffensive in itself, but often indicative of offensive attitudes.

Context is everything, but some words create their own context, and use of them can be a handy warning that someone is about to blow your mind with their factually inaccurate, morally indefensible "opnions". They'll probably also be quick to tell you that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that haven't you heard of free speech?

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Tim Wise

I was clearing out my old, dormant Facebook account before deleting it, and I came across a few notes that I had written years ago, including this one about Tim Wise's Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. Unfortunately I didn't notice what date this was written before I deleted it, and honestly my first instinct was to roll my eyes and delete it permanently. But then I changed my mind. It's good to have a record of one's own feelings and thoughts, no matter how misguided!

It's not like Tim Wise doesn't make good, relevant points in his book (from what I've written here, anyway), so I'm not embarrassed about the understanding I took from it. I am embarrassed that I didn't even think about the implications of the positioning of a white man as a pioneer of anti-racism, and about the fact that it sounds like I hadn't come across these ideas before elsewhere. 

The worst thing to realise is that Wise's whiteness was so unremarkable to me that I didn't even bother mentioning it. I write about my own relation to racism and my privilege in not having to think about it, but I don't extend that thinking to Wise, in either a positive or negative way. 

I just looked up its publication date and these words are at most 4 years old. I thought better of 4-year-old me. Anyway, here it is, in all its insightful glory.

I read a review of this on one of the blogs that I keep an eye on, and while my tastes in non-fiction tend toward things that I feel more personally about, I felt I couldn't pass this one up. It took ages to arrive (I got it from The Book Depository for about £5 less than it's going for on Amazon) but it was definitely worth the wait. 
I find myself trying to justify my what I said about feeling 'personally' about an issue. There's no justification - racism, racial politics, white privilege and social injustice should be personal to all of us. If I am more interested in reading books about gender and sexuality, that's because I have the privilege of not having to be affected by racism every day. That's selfish, sure, but it's still personal. All of us, of any race, should feel strongly and personally about racism - it is a strong and dangerous issue that isn't going anywhere soon. 
So back to the book. Color-Blind is very US-focused - Wise is specifically interested in what is referred to as the 'age of Obama' and the prevalent American narrative that having elected a black president, the USA is now post-racial. Wise interrogates the drive behind the rhetoric of post-racial politics and so-called 'color-blindness', exposing the danger of such narratives and their likely result of making America more, not less, racist. 
It's a really interesting argument. Wise uses relevant and damning facts and figures to argue that racism is ingrained in American life, and that calling America post-racial is a cowardly and disingenuous move designed to force open and honest discussion about racism into the dark corners of society. Some fascinating research has been done into conscious and unconscious bias. Wise illustrates how bias is often exposed when discussion of the issue isn't present - so, for example, a person is more likely to reveal racial bias if racism as a topic isn't introduced into the discussion. It follows that racist practices in employment, housing, education and health are more likely to occur if there isn't honest acknowledgment of racism, not just between individuals but in policy-making and policy itself. Colour-blindness treats poverty, for example, as a race-free problem which should therefore be dealt with in a race-free way - the argument being that blanket poverty-relief laws will lift all boats equally, regardless of race. But if racism is written into America in the way that Wise argues that it is, colour-blind poverty relief will not be enough to narrow the statistical gaps (in wealth, health, education, housing and employment) between whites and non-whites in America. 
As I've already said, it's easy to dismiss this issue as something that isn't relevant to me, particularly since this book is so US-centric. And it's even easier to read it and say, phew, at least England isn't like that! There goes my white privilege again. It would be really interesting to see a similar study of UK laws and practices. I suspect we wouldn't be as comfortable as we think we are. Regardless of my location and my race, this book resonated with me and made me much more aware of the problems inherent in colour-blindness. 
Anyway. I just wanted to get my thoughts about this book down somewhere, and who knows, maybe someone else would like to read it as well. You can get it pretty cheaply online or, if I like you enough, I'll lend you my copy :-)

Whatever my knowledge of racism is now - and it will be no less irrelevant than it was then - at least nowadays I take my cue from people of colour, and privilege their voices over the voices of people like me. 

I recommend all the voices at the links below as great starting points.
Trudy at Gradient Lair
Red Light Politics (Flavia Dzodan)
Black Girl Dangerous (Mia McKenzie and others)