All the “-isms” and Why They Matter.

“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”

– Scott WoodsScottWoods2748_small

This quote has spent the past several days circulating among my Facebook friends, and it in combination with some internet infighting has made me really want to address the understanding and use of “-isms.” Racism, Sexism, Cissexism, are all examples.

(It’s somewhat unfortunate that the above quote regards racism, because that is the one “-ism” that doesn’t follow the sort of language pattern I want to discuss. But, the description of the term as it is can be applied to most any “-ism.”)

There is an important actual and linguistic difference between individualized and institutionalized marginalization. Individual marginalization has terms like misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, etc. It refers to the ways in which a person or discrete small group of individuals are hateful to another. The “-isms” refer to institutionalized, internalized, ways of thinking and behaving that marginalize others without any conscious intent to do so. Here are some examples:

If a man tells a woman he’s going to rape her because she refused to accept his romantic advances, he’s a misogynist. If a person with no ill will toward women honestly believes women are “just different” and that’s why women are often less successful in science and math, they are being sexist.

If someone calls a trans* person a “trap,” or a “tranny,” they’re being transphobic. The fact that people actually feel the need to legislate the use of “correct” bathrooms because they’re really concerned about how genitalia align with bodily functions, they’re being cissexist. Or, for a more “polite” example, when every fucking interview with a trans* person crashes and burns because the interviewer asks about the interviewee’s genitalia, those interviewers are being cissexist.

Waving a sign that says “God Hates Fags” is homophobic. When a gay couple gets married and everyone legitimately wonders who’s going to wear the dress vs the tux (no matter the gender of the couple), that is heterosexist, though in this case the term more frequently used is heteronormative.

Telling a polyamorous person that she is “cheating” on her husband with her other partner(s) is polyphobic (I’m not 100% sure that’s a word, but it really ought to be). When filling out a medical form regarding sexual history, and there’s only one space for a “primary” or “main” partner, that’s monogamism.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, racism is more difficult to parse out because there is only one term. If someone calls a black person the n-slur, they’re being racist.The appropriation of the cultural mores of another race because you think it’s fun and will make you cool, is racist. The prosecution of drug charges that results in an overwhelmingly black prison population, is also racist. The differences in behaviors and intentions all just have one word, and frankly throw my whole argument out of whack. But, it wouldn’t be the English language if a few words didn’t follow the rules.

The upshot of all this, as with any of my commentary about marginalized groups, is to check your privilege before you say something. No, you might not be transphobic, you might not be homophobic, you might not be polyphobic or misogynist or a hateful person of any sort. But, the insidious thing about “-isms” is that they can thrive without hate. They can be perpetuated without malice or intention. As Woods states, “It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.” Whether or not we “like” black people, gay people, women, etc., we still view those who are different from ourselves in particular ways that can very easily become marginalizing.

If you are not a member of the particular marginalized group you’re discussing or interacting with, you’re liable to fall into an “-ism” trap because that’s just the way we’re brought up to think. Woods refers to this trap as a vast ocean we’re floating in, “a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it.” The privileged perspective that gives rise to the many “-isms” is an integrated parts of our lives that we have to consciously and constantly resist in order to truly support those who are not privileged in the same ways we are.

This last bit about “in the same ways we are” is important. A lot of people think they can’t be marginalizing because they are marginalized. Being poly does not make you magically a queer ally, being trans* does not make you immune from racism, etc. Every group carries unique sets of privileges that allow them to marginalize other groups. 

There are already a lot of resources addressing how to deal with privilege and be a true ally, and I don’t think I need to become one more. The simple point I’m trying to make is that a lot of us think that just because we aren’t hateful people means that we automatically do not marginalize others, and that’s simply untrue. Not being hateful is a solid baseline, but to work our way out of the deeply ingrained “-isms” that teach us what is normal and what is other, is an ongoing and difficult process. Though, I would argue, it is a necessary one to be an actualized person and full member of humanity at large.


Preferred Pronouns – Asking a Hard Question

One of my pet projects in my silly little queer poly feminist sex-positive life is to deconstruct ideas of politeness, and thereby better understand why we treat people the way we do, and whether some attempts to be “polite” are actually undermining our abilities to be better people.

As always, I’m leading in with a big grand statement rather than just telling you what’s on my mind. As the title suggests, what is on my mind tonight is preferred pronouns. Knowing which pronoun to apply to a particular person is primarily a relevant concern for the queer community, but it should be an issue for consideration among all American English speakers. (I don’t know a damn thing about etiquette or linguistics in any other cultures or languages, so I won’t even try to speak to them [Haha, speak to them! See what I did there?])

It’s becoming an increasingly accepted practice among the queer community that when you meet a person who is not blatantly masculine or feminine – or, in many circles, when you meet anyone at all – you ask him/her/ze/them for his/her/zir/their preferred pronoun. If you somehow got on my blog and don’t know what I mean by that, here’s a for-instance.

I’ve just met someone at a party. It appears to me that this person is biologically male, but this person is wearing a dress and makeup. The individual is introduced to me as Robin. Robin’s gender is ambiguous to me, so I say to Robin, “Hello Robin, it’s very nice to meet you. What are your preferred pronouns?” Robin then tells me he, she, ze, they, or some variation. Sometimes a person will even tell me “I don’t care.” This discloses to me Robin’s chosen gender identity, thus preventing me from making incorrect assumptions and being offensive.

With me so far? Good.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

For a long time, I had trouble accepting this custom. When I was growing up, I would have people ask me (or ask my friends) “are you a boy or a girl?” as an insult. I was never particularly androgynous, even at my most pubescently awkward stages. Yes, I admit, I often wore men’s jeans, and by the end of 8th grade I had a short haircut. But my figure was never terribly angular, in the typically masculine way. So that means that “are you a boy or a girl?” really meant, “you’re a very ugly girl.” And I didn’t enjoy that.

Additionally, asking someone for their preferred pronoun made me uncomfortable because I was raised to understand that even if you aren’t trying to be mean, asking someone “are you a boy or a girl?” is rude. And the reason that it’s rude is because you’re telling this person that you can’t tell his/her/zir/their gender just by looking. And, here’s the payoff, not being able to judge a person’s gender by sight is a bad thing. Thus, you don’t ask.

Well, I’ve reached a point in my life where I understand that gender is not a binary, that people don’t have to fit into an either-or world, and that even if a person wants to live in a concrete male or female gender identity, it doesn’t have to present itself through typical masculine/feminine visuals. What that means is that to look at a person and not be able to judge gender right away is not a negative reflection on that person. When I see someone and I can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, neither or both, it doesn’t mean that person is failing at his/her/zir/their gender by being visually ambiguous. And therefore, asking someone about preferred pronouns respects his/her/zir/their personal choice to select a gender identity, and expresses my willingness to accept that identity, no matter what it is.

The important difference, I think, is that I’ve developed the understanding that gender identity is a choice. And by that I am not trying to invoke nature/nurture arguments, but simply to say that it doesn’t matter what a person looks like, or what kind of genitalia that person has: whatever identity a person discloses to me, that’s the truth.

Edit: I was looking so hard for this image when I wrote this post last night, but wasn’t able to get my hands on it. This has been the best visual aid for gender identification that I’ve ever come across. No, I didn’t create it, and unfortunately I don’t know who did or I’d be happy to give appropriate credit.270873_168099213351707_1010752796_n