Before and After Stories: Time and Social Justice

What do narratives about trans* people, fat people, neurodiverse people, immigrants, and chronically ill people have in common? Yes they are all narratives about oppressed groups of people, but what sets these sorts of narratives apart from the narratives we hear about people of color or women? These stories almost always neatly fall into the narrative of before and after stories, with the before identity being the oppressed identity.

We rarely think about time in relation to social justice. Generally we view oppressed individuals as having characteristics or traits that don’t disappear with time. We may think about how these traits fit into categories, systems, treatment, prejudices, and the like, but we rarely think about how they change with time, or how the concepts of change and time are used as oppressive tools by majorities that wish these minorities to disappear. Oftentimes these stories are told as a journey with a movement from bad to good.  The acceptability of these minorities is often tied to time, and where they are in relation to a journey or a movement in time.

Recently I read an article on academia.edu that explored weight loss stories and how fat individuals have subverted the before and after weight loss narrative to empower themselves. In particular, “fat” is nearly always painted as the “before” and “thin” is the desirable “after” status. I was struck with this discussion, because this same narrative is often used in eating disordered stories wherein sick is before and recovered is after. This type of narrative is applied to many kinds of individuals, and could be an interesting lens with which to understand certain tools of oppression and new ways to empower oppressed people. Let’s start by looking at what is common across many of these narratives and how they are used to create binaries and enforce the view of society that certain halves of the binaries are acceptable.

One important thing that social justice advocates often talk about is that oppressed identities are often viewed as something that should change, generally in movement towards the “normal” or acceptable identity. When we speak of the identities I mentioned above, that identity is rarely viewed as the true identity of the individual, but rather it’s seen as a layer that needs to be shed to reach the “real” person underneath. You can see this for fat people in movies like Shallow Hal, or for people who are neurodiverse when you see narratives about the disease “possessing” someone, or that “functioning” is supposed to be the end goal. Oftentimes we don’t hear people tell stories of being this identity in the present tense: you don’t hear “I am anorexic and this is what it’s like” or “I am fat and this is what it’s like”. You hear “I was a teenage anorexic” or “my weight loss story” or even “here is my journey of transition from male to female, but now I am firmly female and no longer challenge the gender binary nuh uh”.

This use of the past tense does a great deal to undermine the experiences of these individuals, because it distances them from their experiences, and paints now as reality and the past as distant unreality. We are told that these experiences don’t persist through time: that it’s “just a phase”, or not enough of who we are to continue to be a part of who we are. Particularly when an individual does change, that process and the experience of change through time are often erased by creating a simple before and after picture that does not illuminate the complex and personal procedure of change. We get a sentence as simple as “I recovered” that erases the growth, the change, and the incorporation of the past into a new identity.

These are not always the stories that individuals with oppressed identities want to tell, but they’re the frameworks that society provides for us and appear to be the narratives that society wants to hear. They require us to give up ownership of parts of our lives, to distance ourselves from what we used to be and to look down on it as miserable or wrong. This means that the ability to claim full ownership of your entire life and to see positive and negative elements across time is a great privilege.

The other element of these narratives is that you’re considered fair game for judgment, pity, and condescension when you’re on the “before” end of the spectrum, and most people assume that you’re trying to reach the “after” end of the spectrum. They view you as unfinished until you change, then they see you as complete or acceptable. If you don’t want to change, you are often labelled lazy, wrong, stubborn or broken. It’s considered tragic if you never change. These views of individuals as simply on their way to something better completely erases the day in day out experiences of time, of change as a choice, or of narratives that don’t fit this pattern. The time that you were “before” is often considered lost, and you don’t get to claim it as your own. Relapse, or change back, is completely erased. These kinds of narratives, and the dominant societal interest in the before and after narrative take away many of our choices and remind us over and over again that we are so unacceptable that we are not even real until we have changed. Our experiences are changed from “lives” into “journeys” without our consent, and we are absolutely not allowed to be in between the two poles. These identities are only acceptable if they’re in the past.

So what do we do about these narratives? Are there ways  to rewrite our oppressed identities as things that persist through time, or to subvert some of the narratives? I think there are, but they require us to be extremely vigilant about when we talk about our lives and how we talk about our lives. It’s important for us to tell true stories about our lives at all points in time. When we have an eating disorder, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are fat, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are transitioning, we need to tell that story as the here and now. But we also need to remind ourselves over and over, and remind each other, that every iteration of us is the real us. You are always you and your experiences are always valid. There is no time when you are becoming yourself. You already are. When someone else tries to paint you as changing, in flux, or incomplete, fight back against that. Remind them that YOU ARE YOU right here and right now.

Stop using the past tense. Talk about now. And beyond that, ask for services and recognition in the here and now, not for the you that you will be. Ask for adequate medical services for yourself WHEN YOU ARE FAT. Ask for respect of your voice and your opinions, support of your struggles and confusions, and good relationships WHILE YOU ARE STILL STRUGGLING WITH YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS. Finally, find ways to rework the narratives. Use a frame that doesn’t have a clean ending. Make your oppressed identity the end rather than the beginning. Parody the narratives that exist a la Judith butler. Claim your identity right here and right now in any way you can.

Our identities are not a step on the path to acceptability. They are who we are. And ya know what? They’re pretty fucking awesome in the here and now. I have an eating disorder. That’s me. Get over it.

Social Justice 101: Color Blindness

blindness

Since the civil rights movement, we as a country have been enmeshed in a struggle to understand how to move forward from our history of race motivated hatred, bigotry, and oppression. Today, many people (particularly those people who are privileged enough to be white), adopt a feeling that if we could all just stop thinking about race and stop judging each other on race, then all these problems would disappear and we wouldn’t have to worry about racism anymore.

 

The concept of color blindness has been around for some time now. This is the idea that we should not even see what people look like, what color they are, but simply treat them as human beings. On some level this is a nice idea. It rests on the desire to put the past behind us. Unfortunately for us, the past is not really gone at all and it affects the lives of every person in the United States today.

 

The first reason that color blindness is an unhelpful attitude is that it ignores the fact that historical prejudices have left large sections of the black population of America in poverty, without jobs, incarcerated, and otherwise disenfranchised. These cycles of poverty reinforce themselves. In a recent book written by Mahzarin Banaji, the concept of modern prejudice was revealed to be more about helping those with connections to you. Because people of color have traditionally been denied connections to powerful institutions, they don’t benefit from connections and personal favors in the way that many white Americans do.

 

In addition to these historical cycles of poverty, color blindness ignores the fact that many prejudices are still deeply held and that race does matter, particularly for people of color. African-Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates than their white peers, and are often given harsher sentences. Things like stereotype bias (the tendency of an individual from a stereotyped demographic to perform more poorly in testing when reminded of a stereotype) can hold back individuals of color by affecting their performance in traditionally white fields like math and science. Subtle types of bias exist that we may deny are even at play. In a sociolinguistic study, researcher Anita Henderson found that hiring managers were more likely to hire individuals who phonetically and syntactically sounded white. John Baugh conducted research which showed that individuals who spoke with an African-American speech pattern were more likely to be denied housing. By promoting color blindness, we ignore the fact that life has been made more difficult for individuals of color explicitly because of their color. We erase those experiences and do nothing to help individuals recover from them.

 

Overall the largest problem with color blindness is that it is passive. The forces that have created the race segregation and discrimination in our country for so long are far from passive. They have been as active as can be in the form of laws, community enforcement, segregation in education, lack of voting rights, and hundreds of other things. Unless we actively step up to fight those things which have served to push a large number of people in our country downwards, we are perpetuating the problem. Sitting idly by while others struggle to get out of the mess that we helped to make for them is the same as continuing to hold them down.

 

As Malcolm X said “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” We need to actively work to take the knife out.

Social Justice 101: Racism

racism

So one of the reasons I decided to start writing up this social justice 101 series is because of the word racism. In the dictionary, racism is defined as “Prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.” However within social justice and sociological circles it is understood that that is not really how racism works, and that racism is a much more insidious and deep-rooted thing than that. What many people term “racism” (or reverse-racism) is extremely different from the sociological concept of racism, or what minorities experience as racism. Calling them by the same name is demeaning to the experience that minorities have of real racism.

What most people term racism, and what the definition above provides could better be called prejudice or discrimination. Racism as minorities experience it and as it is understood in most social justice circles is a systematic kind of oppression. When we use racism as a term in social justice conversations, it is impossible to be racist against white people (at least in the US). Racism as minorities experience it is the lack of privilege that every minority person has by dint of being a minority. White people as a whole are born into this world with privileges: they are considered more trustworthy, they are far more likely to have connections and money, they are more likely to be born into a better neighborhood, teachers treat them differently, they are not affected by stereotype threat, and their families have not had to struggle to get out of the poverty caused by slavery. Racism is all of those entrenched things that make it easier for whites than for anyone other race in our society.

These include overt bias and prejudice. But these also include things like the prejudice against AAVE, things like the fact that neighborhoods that are primarily black quickly lose funding for schools, things like the fact that tests and measurements of success are often subtly biased against people of color, things like the disproportionate number of people of color in prison or the unequal treatment of people of color at the hands of law enforcement, things like the differences in health care access or diagnosis between people of color and white people, things like the expectation of black bodies to be public property, things like accusing hip hop of being sexist but ignoring sexism in predominantly white music…all of these things are things that white individuals will never experience in the same way.

These same arguments are relevant to terms like sexism, homophobia, cissexism, mental health stigma, ableism…any of those terms. Each of these is a systematic oppression and until the oppressed have enough power to systematically oppress the other group, the terms will never make sense the other way around.

For a more in-depth explanation see here: http://urbanviewsweekly.com/2013/02/26/what-is-racism/

Social Justice 101: Intersectionality

intersectionality

So here is the beginning of my attempt to create a backstore of blog posts that I can whip out at a moment’s notice so I don’t have to go through the work of re-explaining privilege or intersectionality or institutional sexism again and again. I’m going to do my best to explain intersectionality in a nutshell, although it is an incredibly complex topic. I’m also going to try to link to a few articles that get into a bit more depth or explain particular aspects of it as well.

SO. Oftentimes when we think about social justice problems we think of them as separate. You might be a feminist, or an advocate for the rights of disabled individuals, or working on race issues, or fighting for GLBT rights. Most often we see these things separated out in the practical work that advocates do (at least partially because it’s really hard to tackle more than one thing at once). But this can also be a serious problem. In feminism in particular, there have been many instances throughout history and today in which feminists use certain kinds of power and privilege to oppress other women: in general, feminism has been for white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class women, and for people who don’t fit those definitions it has been incredibly difficult to gain recognition in the feminist community and have their concerns heard.

And so out of this problem, the concept of intersectionality was born. Intersectionality is the idea that all of our kinds of privilege interact. It’s not a simple question of having privilege for one thing, and then getting part of your privilege pile taken away because you’re part of a different marginalized group. Different oppressions can build on each other, like trans-misogyny, or they can affect each other in really complicated ways (for example being black and having a mental health concern is very different from being white and having a mental health concern). In some cases, even though you have a lack of privilege, you may be using your other privileges to oppress others in the same marginalized category as you (white women do this to black women in feminism all the time by silencing their concerns).

Intersectionality is also about understanding that we exist in a variety of different systems, and sometimes one system is acting on us more strongly than another. For example if I enter into a conversation with a disabled individual about able-bodied privilege and I try to say that I understand because I have mental health concerns, or that it’s just like ____ or say that they’re ignoring my perspective because they’re talking about their own issues, I’ve just effectively used my oppression as a silencing technique for someone else’s oppression. Intersectionality requires a great deal of listening to all kinds of experiences, and yes, even respecting the one black, Jewish, lesbian, trans-gendered woman you know and understanding that her experience of privilege and oppression is different from other experiences of privilege and oppression.

While there is no time in our lives that oppression doesn’t exist for us because we are female or a person of color or disabled or fat or lower class, that doesn’t mean that all of those oppressions exist in the same ways at all times, or that they are pertinent to all other forms of oppression. Intersectionality asks us to examine what privileges we may be using at any given time, and how that interacts with our oppressions, as well as how it can create unique forms of oppression for other individuals.

For some more resources on intersectionality, I suggest Natalie Reed’s blog (although it may be taken down soon, so get over there while you can), or these websites:

http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2009/07/101-thoughts-on-intersectionality-or-why-theres-no-dark-skinned-fat-black-women-on-more-to-love/

http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSDiscussion/comments/p8k1z/effort_intersectionality_101/

http://lipmag.com/opinion/broadening-feminisms-intersectionality-101/