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    Thursday, January 12, 2006

    A Comparison of Oppressions

    Maia on Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty writes:

    ... when Heart wrote about racism and classism, I realised I had fundamental objections to the -ism tag. I think left-wing blogs are particularly likely to use these terms: as well as racism and sexism, it's classism, sizism and able-bodyism, and so reading these blogs has crystalised my objections.

    To be totally clear it's not that I don't think these issues are important. It's that I think the -ism tag makes it sounds like these forms of oppression operate in the same way, when I think they operate in very different ways. I have a similar problem with the term 'identify politics' - I think the movements that have grown up to fight these issues are as different as they are the same. ...

    The problem to me of using -ism words to describe oppression is that the tag has a certain set of implications, they imply that the problem is a problem with indviduals, and they don't imply any analysis of power. So you talk about 'institutional sexism', because without it 'sexism' is assumed to be the act of an individual. You can talk about Maori racism against Pakeha, because there's no assumption that 'racism' or 'sexism' involve power. ...

    The problem with the class system is that people get to live off someone else's work, not just that they make fun of their accents while doing so.

    Meanwhile 'sizism' and 'able-bodyism' imply that we already have an analysis of the body in society, and that it is analogous to the systems of race and gender. I'm not convinced on either point.

    Homophobia and Hetrocentric, on the other hand, do a pretty good job (between them) of describing what is actually going on (although they still have individualistic over-tones). I think rather than using terms that imply that all oppressions work the same way, we should use terms that analyse of how different oppressions actually work.


    Last night I was having drinks with a heterosexual white couple who are friends of mine and a weird conversation happened. The male partner (let's call him "M" and her "F", just to sort of make fun of the upcoming conversation) asked if I'd seen Brokeback Mountain yet. Both M and F loved it as much as I did. F then said, "When I was in college, I was the Vice President of the Gay Club and mostly hung out with gay guys, but I find it really hard to be a part of the gay community in New York City because people are like, 'Oh, straight girl.'" (I'm not going to deal with that statement here, but ...)

    Anyway, she went on to say that she and M disagree on what they find a bigger deal: racism or homophobia. M's blood boils over racism, F's over homophobia. She said, "If you are racist nowadays, people will have none of you, but a gay guy I knew in college got beat up just for being gay. And the sad thing is that it's all about who you love and love is for everyone."

    I responded with the usual, "Ever heard of miscegenation laws? Do you see a whole lot of interracial couples of television and in film? When you do, is it a problem?" I went on to say that I don't think racism and homophobia can be judged against each other because they operate so differently, but both get particularly fraught at a point of convergence, which is sexuality; interracial relationships and homosexual relationships threaten us with an intimacy and particularity. Also, the institutional aspects of these "-isms" differ incredibly in this day and age, which is reflective of the differences in the operations of these oppressions, but also of the differences in the processes and stages of the civil rights movement (along with Black Power, Red Power, and other anti-racist movements) and the gay rights movement (along with gay liberation, AIDS activism, and queer power).

    I also mentioned that a serious difference was this: while it does still happen that people of color are beaten up or otherwise treated violently by whites because of their race, it is often by cops (who are violently empowered by the state), while gay folks are brutalized usually by random homophobic assholes. Why? Because "racism" encourages white folks to see people of color (mainly blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Arabs) as basically "wild animals" and they're not going to try to beat up a "wild animal". Part of the prejudice against blacks and Latinos, particularly but not exclusively men of those racial/ethnic groups, is the idea that they are violent and scary. On the other hand, a sissy fag or a woman (even if she's butch as hell) or any transperson is seen as easy to slap around. The fact that a lot of racist and homophobic whites will physically attack queers (of any color) but not usually(assumed heterosexual) blacks is not any indication of how serious or lively these prejudices are. (Obviously, violence by civilian whites against blacks is far from entirely over though.) I'd be interested to know more about how Asians and Asian Americans are affected by violence and racism in a package, given the particulars of prejudice against them. As you can see, even within a category of racism, racism itself operates very differently against people of different races.

    Let me clear: these are smart (sometimes frighteningly so) liberal folks, but I felt like I had to give them a 101 lecture on not comparing oppressions because, culturally, that has been the only way we've understood them. Analogies and metaphors are useful, but are more literary than literal. PCKim pops up on Big Fat blog with this comment about "sizism" and "racism":

    If you had to read your nationality compared to every ill in the darn world you'd get sick of it, too. I come here about accepting my weight and stopping weight based discrimination. Sometimes I don’t even all of you realize you do this constantly. You need an example of the crap we as fat people go through, drag out the black comparisons for extra punch!

    Usually it’s not about just racism as an example it’s racism against black people specifically that’s used as examples here constantly. It’s like do you want to be reminded that you’re not thin every time you look around. We don’t want to be reminded every second we’re a minority in this country, or how the man stuck it to us. We have sites for that type of thing. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be used sometimes, but can we get a little more creative, sometimes?

    DeeLeigh, I know why it's compared, thanks for the lesson, however I still stand by my statement; everything about how fat people are treated is not comparable to the African American experience. I'm fat and African American so I'm speaking from experience on both levels.


    Indeed, PCKim implies another problem with the comparison of oppressions: the idea of picking sides. I think that for a (firmly-like-M-and-F) heterosexual white person (who already identifies as a feminist) there is a strange picking and choosing of sympathy. And I think it's pretty gendered, as well. Most of the time, the white hetero F will go with the gays and the white hetero M with the blacks. (And I meant to say that fliply and to leave out other races and sexual orientations.) Class doesn't enter in except as a companion to race, which is why I think that Maia's comment to a comment is sound: I'm not sure that calling it snobbery and lack of analysis isn't more useful than calling it 'classism' myself. Except that class isn't allowed establishment as a "real" category; it's almost too tangible and more easily implicates everyone. (For example, M and F above are quite poor, with M growing up that way and F becoming so as a twenty-something starving artist. But that conversation did not come up.)

    Also, it is "racism" that established "oppression conversation" in this country and this means that all oppressions are expected to live up to a "standard" set by ideas of racism. As such, the only way for any kind of discrimination to be taken seriously is to prove that it is as virulent as or more virulent than racism. Which means racism is always being underestimated in order to give attention and credence to other forms of oppression.

    It also makes me think of something I read the other day on Bgay called "The Battle of the Sexes: Why Can't Lesbians and Gays Get Along?" And, if you know My Amusement Park at all, you'll know that Josh Aterovis had me at "Hello":

    Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. We've all heard this little gem, implying that men and women are just inherently different, and that difference extends beyond mere plumbing. It's almost like we're from different planets.

    Nothing like a queer telling you men and women are from different planets.

    He goes on:

    ... Why can't we all just get along?

    I think it was worse in past generations. The women had their hangouts and organizations, the men had theirs, and rarely did the twain meet. I do see improvements, especially in the younger generations, but I still see separation as well. That division bothers me.

    Rehoboth Beach, Delaware is a gay-friendly beach resort not far from where Jon and I live. We go there quite often, especially during the summer. The last few times we've gone to bars there, though, I couldn't help but notice they targeted very specific groups. We went to see a good friend's band, Red Letter Day, play at the Frogg Pond a couple months ago. The Frogg Pond tends to be somewhat of a mixed crowd, but it's known as a lesbian bar and that was the primary clientele. Our last trip to Rehoboth, we went to see a friend perform in a drag pageant at Cloud 9. We saw a lot more dresses there, but they were all on men. The boys far outnumbered the few women present. ...

    These days, our circle of friends tends to be very diverse. As I was looking at pictures from our New Year's Eve party, it really struck me what a varied bunch we are. We had gay men, lesbians, and straight people; couples and singletons; young and old -- all mixing and mingling and having a ball. Jon and I value this diversity; each and every person brings something unique to our lives. I can't imagine it any other way. ...

    Most of the cliques and circles I see others form tend to be almost all-male or all-female.

    This separatist attitude is even affecting the way we talk and write. I recently read an article about the increasing use of the phrase "gays and lesbians" in the media. It used to be that the word "gay" was an umbrella term that included both gay men and women. Some women, however, felt that "gay" had come to be more associated with men and felt that "lesbian" needed to be included as well. Why? Do we really need more divisions within our community? ...

    According to an article on glbtq.com, which bills itself as an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture, lesbian feminists decided to create spaces over which they themselves had autonomy after encountering misogynistic attitudes and practices in the gay liberation movement and anti-lesbian discrimination in the women's liberation movement. These lesbian separatists subscribed to a "radical feminist" philosophy that views gender difference in terms of essentialism. Unlike the liberal feminists of the mainstream women's movement, who argued that gender was a social construction, lesbian separatists contended that the differences between men and women are rooted in nature. Thus, women naturally possessed a female energy characterized by its warmth, nurturing, and pacifist qualities. On the other hand, due to their male energy, men were hard-wired to be aggressive, competitive, and destructive. Because men could not, or would not, ever change their ways, lesbian separatists believed that it was necessary for women to exclude them from their lives.

    Could these beliefs and attitudes still linger today? I'm sure they do, at least in some circles. ...

    It's time gay men and women come together as one. Now, more than ever, we need to be united. Our opponents are working together to ensure we do not receive equal rights. Even the most disparate groups have joined forces to keep us from enjoying equal protection under the law, marriage rights, or even something as simple as the right to visit our sick or dying partners in the hospital. Surely, we have much more in common than these fundamental, conservative religious groups. We certainly have more to lose. We will never win equality unless we learn how to work together toward our common goal.

    It's not just about gays and lesbians, either. We also need to embrace and accept our bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters. LGBT needs to be more than just a ubiquitous acronym. We need to stand together against our common enemy -- bigotry and hatred.

    Yes, obviously men and women are different. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that. But I think it's high time we stop obsessing over our differences and focus on our commonalities instead.


    Now, Aterovis means well, but was apparently born on Asshat planet. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that. I agree that, given the particular goals and accomplishments of LGBT activism today, it makes most sense for all variety of queers to "unite". But, I guess my main question is, why the hell was this piece written? And why is it that lesbians are blamed for every division among queers? It's a little stomach-turning. Sure, the essentialism is bad, but what's worse is that the writer recapitulates the pressure placed on lesbians in the 1960s and 70s: fight for gay folks or fight for women. Did it ever occur to our dear writer that this "make-a-choice" pressure ever steered lesbians away from allying with men who had everything to gain from queer activism back in the day? Also, is it true that focusing on "commonalities" would have truly gained as much for lesbians? Given the economics of same-sex relationships between women vs. men, I think not. I think "equal pay for equal work" (though not entirely accomplished) was a crucial fight to have so that lesbian relationships didn't send all women into extreme poverty in a world that assumed a man's income in each household.

    But my argument, especially in relationship to M and F, goes further: the language and rhetoric we use to discuss forms of oppression (even me, using miscegenation to illuminate my point that racism is as alive as homophobia) guides people down a road of comparison and, eventually (in a way that ascends in accordance with one's privilege) convergence; "discrimination is about hate" and the listing of oppressions, "racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, sizeism, anti-Semitism, and any other oppression I forgot ..." which blurs the particulars (and, as Maia says, the "institutional" nature of each of these) and the true, elemental convergences.

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