Lost in Trans-lation: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Part II

Here follows part two of the amazing epic story, nominated for six Golden Raspberries, and a Grammy for Best Kazoo Solo: Lost in Trans-Lation. The witty title of this series will, I hope, reflect, what focus on trans issues I can provide in the context of our readings. But as you’ll see today, save for one cisfail at the end, there wasn’t much discussion this time around. That said, the connections that exist between all three of these readings: biology utilised to buttress discrimination, power and privilege, and neo-bigotry disguised as liberalism all bear heavily on transgender people in our daily lives and are part of understanding our particular social locality.

There is also the fact that while quotas may not exist for affirmative action, this blog has a quota for a certain number of trans-puns per year. So, bear with me on that. Now, without further ado, the curtain rises on our gallant heroine going way past the page limit of her homework assignment…

The New York Times article “Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show” is an interesting overview of contemporary genetics and the view increasingly common among researchers that race is nearly a wholly political rather than biological question. Clearly, race matters tremendously and as a subject remains one of the critical fulcra on which our histories and cultures remain precariously balanced, and yet race has precious little biological basis: we are far more alike than we are different, in other words. Thus it’s clear, from the statements of many of the scientists in the article and the results of recent research that what makes race matter is entirely social; such power as race has was given entirely by us, particularly by the group of “us” that has historically held more power along racial lines.

The reification of racial distinction was bound to enlist the nascent science of biology in its social legitimation process in the 19th Century, just as the reification of sex/gender differences was doing precisely the same thing. Dr. J. Philippe Rushton’s views on the subject of race are, certainly, very disturbing and seem to chase cultural stereotypes rather than any kind of objective facts, but while many today might balk at his ideas, they defined what was collectively understood to be science for generations. The pseudoscience behind Social Darwinism and Phrenology had great influence on the minds of the powerful for a very long time. The changes now afoot that Times reporter Natalie Angier documents are, in many ways, the result of political struggle as much as new science. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has spoken at length about how science is often shaped by the culture, rather than the inverse.

When the prevailing political winds legitimise overt sexism and racism, science is marshalled in its service and used to justify and reify its existence (“women are naturally more weak or more nurturing, thus they should do x, y, and z” and so on). But in the post-1960s era, overt racism has become more passé and more taboo than it has ever been in the West. This hardly means that bigotry is gone, simply that it has taken another form, which will be discussed shortly vis a vis the third article. But this evolution has seen science follow along to catch up with the culture and at last recognise what people for many centuries have known- that what divides us is of our own doing, largely.

Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege and Male Privilege” is another well traveled read in gender studies classrooms and with good reason. She delineates with clarity what, exactly, white privilege is and can look like with a carefully numbered list of privileges great and small. Her ‘invisible knapsack’ metaphor has passed into common use in academic and activist circles along with her list format, which has been reproduced many times over for several groups. In seeing Ms. McIntosh’s name writ large in textbook after textbook it is hard not to see the veracity of point number nine: “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.” Indeed, she has found several dozen and a kind of immortality in gender studies departments right around the country. There is a certain irony, perhaps not lost on Professor McIntosh, in the fact that the leading paper on white privilege has been written by a white woman. That metanalysis is very material to Professor McIntosh’s point, however, which is that simply put opportunities are not equal.

She may well come under fire from whites for her statements, but there is no doubt that her writing will not reflect badly on her as a white person, nor be seen as selfishness. She herself makes that point in her list. Her ideas will be disagreed with, but she will not be seen as an envoy of whiteness by most of her critics, many of whom are also likely to be of her racial group. If a black author had written this, however, she/he/ze would be more than likely to be accused of bitterness, “reverse racism,” or otherwise simply being too selfish. This ties into her thirtieth point: “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t [one], my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of colour will have.” Among whites (and others as well, frankly) she may be seen as more credible precisely because she is white. This is, in and of itself, another privilege. Despite the fact that she has little to no direct experience of racial antagonism, she becomes an authority on it precisely because she isn’t discriminated against. Hegemonic thinking in our culture presumes victims of discrimination to be “biased” and “angry” rather than, say, experts on the experience with something to teach.

What is compelling to consider is how many of these things tie into male privilege as well. Men will have an easier time finding publishers, men will be taken more seriously when discussing matters of gender, and so on. Men will be construed as less biased on the matter of discrimination against women, whereas women speaking out against sexism will be seen as selfish or otherwise partisan. Membership in a historically marginalised group can often be intuited by seeing if the person’s attempts at reclaiming their dignity are met with cries of group bias. It’s a curious projection of institutional racism, sexism, and so on, that many whites, men, cis people, able bodied people et cetera presume a binary, zero sum system when regarding the progress of marginalised groups. If women gain, men must lose and women will only ever look out for other women whilst trampling on men. Substitute ‘women’ and ‘men’ for any two groups and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of the dominant view of racial and sexual progress.  This is, in large part, down to privilege. The idea that women and minorities should be content with what they have and not dare to dream for more, lest they ‘take something away’ from the dominant groups who have reified their worthiness of that dominance in several ways.

She also identifies small ways in which we reinforce popular cultural ideas about race, such as the fact that bandages are often a colour more closely approximating white skin colour, or that “flesh” as a colour is conspicuously similar to white European flesh whereas darker tones are never called that. She also testifies to white normativity; as mentioned earlier she explicates how she is not viewed as a representative of her race. She may well be viewed as a spokesperson for her sex, which relates to male privilege, but not for white people as a whole. Thus anything she does that is culturally unacceptable for her class, be it showing up late, being unkempt, talking with her mouth full, having a particular ‘bearing’ or body odour, and on will simply not make people stereotype whites in a certain way.

Time and again I have seen and heard from whites who say that many blacks or Latina/os “are like that” because they met a handful that fit a certain stereotype. This segues beautifully into the final piece, which is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s “Colour-Blind Racism.” This piece makes many very critical and important points and speaks to what I meant earlier about the evolution of racist practise in our society. It has gone from being largely overt (a la segregation and explicitly enabled legal discrimination) to covert (nominally equal under the law but not in social practise and elided with neologisms and circumlocutions like ‘political correctness’ and ‘reverse racism’). Professor Bonilla-Silva goes through several ways in which modern racism is executed in a way that grants plausible deniability to its speaker. Instead of appealing to an overtly racist ideology, he says, they instead appeal to the seemingly liberating ideology of liberalism- everyone is free, justice is blind, equal opportunity for those willing to work, and so on. Many white racists use anti-racist language in demeaning minorities now such as saying that affirmative action is racist against whites and does not involve choosing the best person for the job, implying quite firmly that a white man is usually going to be best and that no racism or sexism ever undergirds such choices in hiring.

There is a tremendous amount to be gleaned from Professor Bonilla-Silva’s opus here: the idea that racism can be unconscious, the idea that the ‘lone bigot’ is not the most important or significant reproducer of racist ideology, the idea that there is a ‘New Racism’ that is more subtle and no less pernicious than its predecessor, and more and more. Stephen Colbert, in his satirical character of a conservative cable pundit, often proclaims “I don’t see race!” which is a conscious and often very funny send up of the very mentality that Professor Bonilla-Silva is describing here- which is the fact that colour blindness is simply an excuse to use liberal means to rationalise one’s racist ideas. Put another way, as a scholar of race has said, to be “colour blind” in our society means to be blind to only one colour: white. Thus the obvious privilege exercised by whites is ignored, despite their ubiquitous over-representation in the media, in government, big business, higher education, good neighbourhoods, and so on, whites are more likely to believe everyone is racially equal because the law says they are. This type of racism is not as overt, conscious, or maliciously intended as, say, the racism of the Klan. But the intent and the consciousness are largely irrelevant. The outcome of this collective exercise in delusion is to perpetuate the marginalisation of several million people.

What was especially striking from the interviews of white Americans that Professor Bonilla-Silva conducted was how many respondents seemed both defensive and stuttering, as if grasping very hard for words, their minds in overdrive as they clearly tried to express a racist thought (“all blacks are lazy” et al.) without actually being blunt about it. This is the age of circuitous racism that dances merrily around its subject but does not engage with it directly. Misconceptions about affirmative action also abound. The idea that it’s the law of the land, for example, or the idea that there are quotas (a popular word among several of the professor’s interview subjects), or the idea that affirmative action meant hiring inferior candidates due to race (something I consider another projection of internalised racism/sexism: a privileged person can only imagine the inverse of what is already happening- in this case, that underqualified white men get good jobs or get into good schools all the time by dint of their racial and sexual privileges. Yet this causes precious little outcry among these so called liberal-minded people, even when such incompetence leads to disaster, as has happened in the Middle East and with our financial markets).

Professor Bonilla-Silva’s description of the ‘elastic wall’ created by this kinder, gentler racism is very apt. It allows for the new reification of racism to account for people like, say, Oprah who remains everyone’s favourite black success story (“She makes more money than I will in a lifetime, how can you say blacks are still oppressed!?”). It’s a definition that allows for exceptions, to prevent cognitive dissonance, while still enabling you to say “but most minorities are thus and so.” As mentioned earlier, many of these whites extrapolate from experience with a few black citizens to stereotype the entire group as lazy wastrels who are only holding themselves back. This is what is meant by a marginalised person always being made to represent and be responsible for the image of their group in a way that privileged people simply aren’t.

A final note, however, must be made. From Professor Bonilla-Silva’s description of one of his interview subjects: “Thus Henrietta, a transsexual schoolteacher in his fifties, answered…” It was beyond disappointing to see transphobia rearing up again. All of the other interview subjects were described as men or women, but Henrietta becomes “a transsexual” full stop, and is quite apparently misgendered. It is important to consider her words along the other racist statements made by the other white interviewees naturally, but no person’s immorality should excuse transphobia. Like the new racism, transphobia is very often a subtle exercise in the reinforcing power of hegemonic ideas and language. Like Judith Lorber, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is in a position to know better.

Comments

  1. I’ve run across some transphobic writings in my own studies and it just amazes me that someone writing about struggles with discrimination and class can turn right around and lash out against someone different from them. You don’t refer to someone as “an African teacher” or “a handicapped teacher” without acknowledging other aspects of who they are, so why is it okay to de-humanize transsexual men and women?

    What really struck me in your article though was the concept of marginalized people representing the group as a whole. This is something I’ve struggled with ever since I transitioned. I was young when I started and had a very easy time. Everyone accepted me and now when I “come out” to people it means I’m informing them I’m transsexual and not the assumed cissexual. I’m hyper-aware that from that moment on, anything I do in front of that person will represent “transsexuals” as a whole. I’ve heard the most transphobic compliments during this time, such as, “You look just like a girl.” Not stopping to think that I look like one because I AM one. I’m suddenly considered an expert on gender, identities and transitions. I am expected to answer any and all questions they might dream of, otherwise I’m just being “too sensitive.” It’s maddening, but I try to educate as best as I can so I can make the journey easier for the girls behind me.

    • Hey there, thanks for this insightful comment and welcome back. :)

      I agree entirely, of course, and to the credit of my professor he mentioned this BS even before I got a chance to do so. But even then I had to make clear why saying “a transsexual” could be problematic. When you say “a woman” and “a man” to describe everyone else and then “a transsexual” your identity becomes what Frantz Fanon would have called a marked identity. You’re othered. Being trans is a part of who I am and always will be, but so is being a woman.

      As to your second paragraph I think we all have those experiences, yes. There is, whatever one does, a tremendous burden to ‘put on a good show’ and to act a certain way so that cis people can see how awesome trans folk really are, yes? Even now I feel almost compelled to come out to my class as if to say “yeah, the woman making all those eloquent speeches? She’s trans.” And I know it’s deeply problematic. You want to be a “good example” but at what cost? Your own safety? What precious little piece of mind you have?

      People from all marginalised groups are keenly aware of people who make them “look bad”- which if you notice is not something that overly concerns certain others. Most white cis men are not terribly concerned with how George W. Bush is not a ‘credit to the race’ or whatever. Bush’s massive failures don’t hurt any other white politicians in their bids for power. But when you have a marked identity there’s a keen awareness that no matter what, you’re an ambassador for your group. If you fail, you run the risk of tarring your fellows.

      It isn’t easy.

      And the “you look like a girl” thing is nonsense. It’s closely related to the “oh, I couldn’t tell!” Such ‘compliments’ are deeply complicated and conflicting; I have to write about that some time. Our ability to “pass” is deeply tied to our ability to survive in this world, and so regardless of what we may say or do it is in some capacity desirable. I myself still fight hard against image issues that come from a patriarchal and transphobic culture, and find myself- despite my radicalism- seeking the compliments of cis people and men. It’s a terrible pattern I’m trying to break out of, and slowly and surely it’s working. But it takes a very long time from the “click moment” to get to a point where you’re no longer beholden to such things.

      But when one says “I couldn’t tell” it’s as if they’re saying a trans person is supposed to look a certain way, that a cis person could- with their implicitly superior power to define- know a trans person on sight. This is also something I’ll bring up in class. But it’s an ugly idea lardered with a lot of nasty connotations. It belongs to a group of statements that are categorised as kinder/gentler bigotry- such as expressing pleasant surprise that a black person is “articulate.” It sounds like a compliment but it indicates low expectations and hateful ideas about what a ‘normal’ black person ought to be.

      Anyhow, I know I went on long but thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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