Anthony Monteiro, professor of African American Studies at Temple University.
This has been a v long-brewing post; I’ve been meaning to make it, or something like it, since 2009. Many thanks to rose_lemberg, Arachne Jericho, sovay, and elsmi for helping me finally get it together in a coherent fashion. Any errors or problems are my doing, not theirs.
We tend to have this idea that categories, like “bird” or “food” (or like “human” or “white”, which is what this is all really about) are like solid boxes. Entities are either in them or out of them, with a clear and unchanging boundary, and everything inside is an unsorted & equal jumble, and everything outside ditto.
This notion gets strongly underscored by our cultures, so it can be hard to … er… unpack. But the fact is, cognitive categories aren’t actually like boxes. They have internal structure, and fuzzy boundaries (which people can draw in different places, and move depending on context), and these things matter hugely in how we think about and deal with oppression.
I’m going to start by talking about research on the category “bird”, because there’s been a lot of it (c.f. Eleanor Rosch's work in the 70s and early 80s, which kicked it off), and it's pretty neutral so it'll be easier/less triggery for people to think about the category structure.
So! The “bird” category has (somewhat culture specific) internal structure. For example, most Americans will agree that a robin is a better example of a bird than an albatross, and an albatross is a better bird than an ostrich. (And while bats are not birds, they are better birds than horses are, and horses are better birds than refrigerators are; so the gradations continue to some extent outside the category boundary).
This internal category structure has a number of cognitive effects/characteristics:
1) If you ask people to just write down as many birds as they can, they’ll list the more prototypical (category-central) ones first. More peripheral members of the category do not come to mind at first.
2) In reaction time tasks where people are asked to respond yes or no depending on whether or not a presented item is a bird, people will press yes faster, with fewer errors, for prototypical birds.
3) The structure that emerges from these two experimental measures matches the structure that emerges if you just ask people to rank birds in order of which ones are the “best” birds. Once you ask people to structure their categories they have really strong, consistent, and replicable intuitions about that structure.
4) People’s idea of similarity is asymmetric: they will, for example, say that albatrosses are more like robins than robins are like albatrosses.
5) People reason from the prototype to the whole category, but not the other way around. So, for example (according to experimental results), people reason that if all the robins on an island caught a disease, the ducks would catch it too; but not vice versa.
6) People’s use of linguistic hedges (really, sort of, technically, etc) is based on prototypicality too. So you can say an emu is technically a bird, but you can’t say a robin is technically a bird.
7) Over time, some characteristics can become more prototypical. Others can’t. The US adoption of the eagle as a standard animal has made it a more prototypical bird; and the hooked beak has become a more prototypical characteristic than it used to be. But yeah, eagles can still fly. An emu is never going to be a prototypical bird.
This is all pretty innocent when it comes to birds! But there is evidence that this sort of category structure is everywhere in human cognition (e.g. people will say 4 is a better even number than 1374.) Now, robins excluding emus from the bird-category, or claiming to understand how emu-ness works because of their experience as robins, might sound like the stuff comic strips are made of; the human dynamics are less funny, and far more harmful to their targets.
So, moving domains to socially relevant categories:
1) Able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian men are considered to be prototypical humans (prototype here = privileged default). So. If you ask people to think of famous people, they will think first of famous able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian men. And their exceptions will normally fall outside this prototype in only one or two ways.
This is how a lot of casual erasure happens. (btw it’s also what’s happening when editors “just happened to think of” a lot of poets/writers/artists who aren’t marginalized, and when poets/writers/artists “just happened to think of” prototypical characteristics to portray.)
2) If someone is not an able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian man, it will generally take people longer to categorize them as human. And the further they are from this prototype the longer it will take to make the judgment. Now, if people take that extra time, we’re probably good; but do they? When they sort resumes / run job interviews, when they’re trigger-happy cops, etc?
3) (horrific examples tw) Consider the structure of the category “American citizen”, which often gets treated as either-or. But the prototypical citizen is white, abled, and Christian (at least). Consider who counts: who gets protected under US law. And consider whose ID gets checked, who gets stop & frisked. Whose mass incarceration and state-sanctioned murder is business as usual. Who gets called “an illegal”, or told to “go back home”, regardless of their actual documentation. Who gets demands for their birth certificate once elected to high office. Whose languages are considered ok if spoken in the US, whose accent if they’re speaking English.
(Non-Americans, when we talk about American privilege, we need to understand that it does not apply equally to all people with US citizenship; it applies only to the people who get counted as “proper” Americans, according to this category structure & the context.)
3b) (Horrific example tw) Where you draw the category boundary can be person and culture specific. Which is okay with birds, you’ll only annoy scientists if you decide an emu isn’t a bird, but what about the category “human”. What about the people who decide that if you’re Black, or disabled, or a trans woman or all three, then you’ve fallen outside the human category and your murderer isn’t really a murderer? The murderers who call their Black victims “it”? The settler laws about Aboriginal Australian people, that only recently categorized them as human?
3c) This also applies for categories like whiteness. Who counts as white depends on who’s drawing the boundary, where, when, for what purposes. I think we do need to talk about which people’s whiteness is marginal/conditional and can be revoked by category-central white people. We can’t do that, however, without also talking about how people in these groups benefit from conditional/marginal whiteness, by mostly gaining white privilege while denying whiteness whenever questions of race/racism come up. I am suspicious of people who will only talk about how their whiteness is marginal when other people are talking about racism.
3d) Obviously I could go on, but consider also the category of English. Whose English counts as actual English? And within that, whose is proper English?
So yeah (3) tl;dr: This is how a lot of active casual bigotry happens.
4) Am albatross is more like a robin than a robin is like an albatross; a queer WOC is more like a cishet white man than a cishet white man is like a queer WOC. Which characters in stories count as “relatable”?
Everyone is expected to relate to a cis straight white anglophone American man. We’re all like them, they’re just (default, category-central) people after all! But they’re not like us. We’re the albatrosses, here. How can the poor robins be expected to relate to us? This is why they think it’s so ludicrous that they should be expected to read about marginalized characters (who are nothing like them!!) but think it’s normal and fine that marginalized people should be expected to read about category-central characters.
Conversely, it’s also why they think they know our experience perfectly well and can talk over us; after all, we’re just like them, except in a few (stereotyped) ways. They’re default people! Unlike us.
5) (Horrific example tw) While people know perfectly well that diseases will spread from category-central members of humanity to peripheral ones, they often don’t realize it goes the other way too. In the 80s, a lot of people thought AIDS was a “gay disease” - it wouldn’t hit straight people! (And bi/pan/polysexual people don’t exist after all, c.f. the erasure caused by (1)). Sooo yeah, they didn’t care, till it did start hitting a lot of straight (white) people.
6) (TERF warning.) Consider how some TERFs say, “Of course I think trans women are women! - Technically. But like, not real women.”
So long as they can make that linguistic hedge in some form - so that they’re not actually expected to treat trans women as fully women, as fully human - they’re fine with it. This is part of how they contradict themselves so blithely without hitting cognitive dissonance.
This is one method of moving the goalposts. Our understanding of categories is fluid and context-dependent, and we shift from thinking about the prototype to the whole category and back more than we normally consciously realize, and we can use the same word, often, to refer to either; and oppressors can use that to pretend they’re speaking in good faith and being “reasonable”, while in fact they’re changing their definitions on the fly to suit their convenience.
7) Consider whiteness again. Within a US context, some groups (e.g. white Jewish Americans) have become more white than they historically were, and benefit from co-signing whiteness. They are still not category-central; their inclusion may still be marginal; but by default, they are now on the inside of the category boundary. Whereas other groups (e.g. South Asian Americans) do not get to cross the line no matter how strongly they buy into whiteness, because Blackness, and therefore darkness, is an exclusionary feature. But what that means, too, is that South Asian Americans do get privileged over other groups, most notably Black Americans, and need to understand that the power dynamics of whiteness do not end at the boundary of whiteness.
For more central but still not default people (both within and outside the category!), aligning with & co-signing the category-center brings clear advantages. That’s not true for people who are always, definitionally, excluded.
I’m going to start my wrap-up by talking a bit about derailing (getting in before defensive-privileged-commentors do so, haha). Often it works by changing the category under discussion – forcibly redrawing the boundary, and thereby changing the center of the category & what’s being talked about. Example that I see all the time: “Trans women are awesome!” gets derailed with “ALL women are awesome!” By making the category “all women”, the derailer does not merely extend the statement to more people. No, by changing the category and evoking the new category’s cisnormative prototypes, they change the subject entirely – recentering themselves and pushing trans women off to the margins.
“Not All Men” works in sort of the opposite way. By creating this hypothetical subcategory of Not-All-Men and forcing attention to it, it derails discussion away from, & attempts to undermine statements about, the category as a whole.
So! When talking to other people, in fandom and outside it, we need to be aware of category-centrality as well as membership. Especially because categories like whiteness are not boxes, but rather spectrums, with a central core of “real”, unarguable members, and an uneven periphery of conditional members, who can get kicked out by the category center as convenient, but still benefit from some or all of the privilege most of the time. Understanding this helps us understand the mechanics of derailing, and the mechanics of marginalization/exclusion done by not-central members to even-more-non-central members, as well as the mechanics that central members use against us all.
If someone makes a meta post and points out racism, misogyny, cissexism, homophobia or ableism, please think before you respond.
- Asking questions is fine - if you genuinely don’t understand why an incident is racist/sexist/homophobic/etc then you can absolutely ask for clarification. Perhaps you didn’t know certain words had offensive connotations, well, when you find out you then should stop using those words, for example.
- But bear in mind it is not the OP’s responsibility to educate you. We’re all here on the internet where resources abound. If you can spend six hours looking at every photo ever taken of your favourite actor, you can take an hour to read up on problematic behaviour and how to stop your own. The internet is where I learned feminist theory, about everyday racism, about how to constructively tackle the homophobia experienced in my own life.
- Asking questions is fine - contradicting is not. Saying ‘this is not racist(etc) because I do not find it so’ DOES NOT MAKE SOMETHING LESS RACIST(etc). You are entitled to disagree, but telling someone they are wrong is not the same thing, especially when you are not part of that oppressed minority. Think of a time when someone has really upset you and the only ‘comfort’ you got was ‘oh it’s silly to get upset, they didn’t mean it’. Did that help you in any way? No, it made you feel worse, didn’t it?
- And please don’t embarrass yourself with the ‘my friend/brother/hamster is gay/black/a woman and they don’t have a problem with it’. They can speak to their experiences, you can’t appropriate them for a ‘debate’. It’s even worse when you take issues that aren’t about oppression and try to equate them e.g. “omg, I dyed my hair pink in high school and everyone treated me like I was gay or something”.
- But let’s say you skipped that advice and reblogged/answered with some derailing bullshit. It happens. Some patient soul comes along and points out why you as a white person(or straight person, etc) don’t get to determine what is racist(etc) over a POC(gay person, etc). Please, if someone takes the time to provide links and resources, read them. If you have questions, keep asking them. It’s how we learn. I’m still asking, I’m still learning.But if I could give one piece of advice to non-oppressed people who don’t understand oppressed people getting mad about things: please understand, this is actually not about what makes you comfortable. I know the rest of society is set up that way, but we have a problem with that, and would like to also feel comfortable, particularly in spaces like this which should be ‘safe’.
I’m sure you don’t like being accused of homophobic language or inadvertent racism, but your offence at the accusation IS NOT MORE IMPORTANT than the actual offence that your words and actions caused.
I’m sorry if you like to think of yourself as ‘open-minded’ and an ‘ally’, and those are valuable qualities when they’re true. They stop being true, however, when someone says ‘actually, I have a problem with what you said, you insulted my race or sexual orientation, even though you probably didn’t mean to’ and your answer is something other than ‘sorry, how can I avoid doing that again?’.
If you wanted expert travel advice about a location you’ve never visited before, you would ask people who’ve been there, wouldn’t you? I mean, if you’ve never been to Paris you wouldn’t argue with a Parisian who tells you that Rue de Passy is a one-way street, would you? No, because they know more about it than you do.
Well, when it comes to discrimination, respecting those expert opinions of people who live with it every day of their lives would be a very good start.
Fandom, read this shit, breathe it, live it. Now. Or better yet, yesterday.
Hipster Racism Runoff And The Search for The Black Costanza by Cord Jefferson @ Gawker
When they look at us, they see strangers.
I was trying to find this quote recently. I don’t think most white people understand how it feels to be thought of as only as a dehumanized stereotype or a token. Never as someone like you who can be relatable and have things in common with you. It’s always a surprise to people online and offline when people find out that I like things that they do, too ; that I’m not just some angry activism-obsessed woman. When people like Lena Dunham say they don’t know how to write Black people, it’s pretty much saying that she doesn’t think that Black people are also fully complex human beings like her. Sure, there are cultural considerations to be made, but it’s ignoring the fact that people of color are diverse and not a monolith, so it’s not like the only girls who are like her are white.
The distinction between groups and individuals, however, is subtle and easy to lose sight of when you’re up to your ears in an oppressive system. Of course women are going to feel and express anger, resentment, and even hatred toward individual men who may not have it coming in just that way or to that degree or at that moment. Of course men are sometimes going to get their feelings hurt or be called on to take responsibility for themselves in ways they may not be used to. When I heard Davis talk about hating white people, and when I’ve heard women talk about hating men, I’ve had to get clear in my own mind about how these words refer to me and how they don’t, and it often takes some effort to get there. And as a white male who benefits from both male and white privilege, I’ve also had to see that it’s up to me-and not to women or people of color-to distinguish one from the other. Too often men react to women’s anger by calling on women to take care of them, and in this way recreate the male-centered principle of the very gender order that women, feminist and otherwise, are angry about."
— Allan G. Johnson (via wretchedoftheearth)
— Lena Horne (via teddytutson)