Invisible Minorities – Erasure

First things first: I apologise for the unintentionally extended hiatus. Let’s jump right back in: this week’s topic is erasure. Honestly, this is a difficult topic to discuss at any length as it is tough to find anything on minority erasure – the articles have either been themselves erased or never written. This post also comes during Bi Visibility Week, which is an attempt to deal with the erasure of the Bi+ community. So before continuing, I request that you watch the following video by activist RJ Aguiar to set the mood for why erasure is a problem:

Erasure occurs when a dominant, more socially powerful group removes minority individuals from their own narratives. Sometimes this is malicious; however, more often this is done in some attempt to relay a story as palatable to all, thereby removing contextual group dynamics from the issue. To demonstrate, consider the following phrases: “colour-blind” and “gender-blind”. Many claim to be well meaning when they say these – stating reasons like “We’re all human!” or  “I don’t see any difference between us.” This is problematic. As José Medina writes, while discussing active ignorance, “despite their greater access to the facts of life, privileged subjects often ignore the most violent and hard-to-swallow aspects of social confrontation” (The Epistemology of Resistance, 33). In so generalising, our “colour-“, “gender-“, “queer-“ blinded friends and neighbours are stripping minorities of their history and lived experiences in order to sanitise narratives for popular consumption.

There are two types of erasure I want to bring to light. The first is what is most commonly attributed to erasure-proper – namely, outsider erasure. To give an example, outside erasure can be found in the whitewashing of film in mass media. Whitewashing occurs when white actors are cast in non-white roles, for example (and from this year alone): Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange and Matt Damon as a lead character in The Great Wall (while the latter is defended by director Zhang Yimou, actress Constance Wu articulates that this merely perpetuates the “white men = all heroes” stereotype).

The second type of erasure is internal to minority groups, which may initially seem paradoxical. While less common, this also occurs in media like Stonewall. (Director Roland Emmerich, a gay white man, has defended writing white male “Danny” as the lead instead of representing the trans* women of colour who historically led the titular riots, arguing that Danny is straight-acting and thus a “very easy in” for straight audiences.) This second erasure occurs frequently in cases of internalised hatred: a black individual may seek to lighten their skin with bleach agents, or a queer individual may hide in stereotypical gender roles, and both individuals may harshly criticise members of their own communities who do not do the same.

As philosophers of minority, and minority philosophers, we need to be cognisant of these erasive narratives in our writing, teaching, and other daily interactions. We have no idea who may be reading or listening, nor what our (un)intentional statements may enforce when combined with lived experiences. Especially if we want to close the gap within this very non-diverse field; as Miranda Fricker asserts in Epistemic Injustice, when an individual is subject to persistent epistemic insult they can begin to literally lose knowledge (49). We can’t allow this.

Next week I will look at identity itself – both self identification, but also the more sticky idea of other-oriented identification.

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Below you will find the weekly reading list, should you wish to continue on this topic. As I stated in the introduction, there is almost nothing readily available, so instead I have compiled a few media articles regarding the specific films I discussed. I have also included the citations for Medina’s and Fricker’s books – should you wish to expand your library.

Invisible Minorities – Passing and Blending

The topic of “passing” – or, the ability to be seen as a member of another identity group different than your own– is a rather difficult one to articulate. There are people who believe that passing is a luxury that negates all (or most) of the harmful effects of injustice and oppression, and then there are others – who are usually those able to pass – who believe that the misconception of passing-as-luxury creates more lived injustice. My view, as someone who passes very, very easily, is more in line with the latter. While passing certainly does grant some protections, it comes at a cost. First, we have to alienate ourselves from our minority identity in order to successfully pass, and second, we receive injustices from within our own group(s).

Passing occurs in many ways and forms that aren’t always apparent. Even the simple distinction between José and Joe on a resumé gives informal indication that the first applicant may be Chicano while the second is not – even if José submit both applications. Speech patterns can conceal elements of our identities as well and grant “passage” in the majority world. If Alyona speaks “like us” instead of “with an accent”, she can pass during phone interviews in ways she may not be able to during in-person interviews. Likewise, a text resumé can conceal sexuality, disability, and so on.

There is no doubt that passing and blending in with the majority offers privileges – in fact, these occurrences can actually help illuminate exactly just how prevalent and how powerful privilege is. They can also demonstrate how powerful and prevalent the violence towards minorities is; people who pass can hide when situations become too dangerous to be themselves, others can’t. This effect can be compounded if you fit into the majority in other ways (for example: I am male, so I am afforded even more passage than a female counterpart would with the same status).

However, this luxury can be a double edged-blade. Not only does it require active ignorance of one’s minority status in order to employ, but passers can draw the ire of those within our own groups who cannot pass. For instance, I present masculine and speak with a relatively “straight” voice, and as such I am less likely to be targeted than my more effeminate queer male friends. Presenting in such a way is a safety that allows me to pass, but it means I am considered an outsider to queer targeted abuse/assault/phobia – which is not the case. I am simultaneously a target as well as shut out of the discussion.

Passage and blending in can even cause harm to the individual themselves. In order to avoid stigmatisation, people with mental illness may hide, passing as the societal “normal”. But by doing so, these individuals necessarily neglect their own care and treatment in order to maintain the pass. Class passing also involves a necessary harm as the individual must spend what little resources they have on unnecessary or frivolous items in order to portray a higher social status than they can afford to maintain.

Next week I’ll be analysing “erasure”. The plan is to cover both outsider erasure (ex: whitewashing film) as well as insider erasure (ex: ‘gay-washing’ trans* media). A quick note before I go, next week may not be posted on a Thursday as I will be at an international conference and don’t know the internet set up. I will try to be on time, though I apologise in advance if it doesn’t go live until early Saturday.

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As with last week, I’ve rustled up some articles should you wish to continue on this topic. As well, I can always be reached for further discussion at jwadden@ryerson.ca.

(1) The trouble with ‘passing’ for another race/sexuality/religion… – Koa Beck
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/02/trouble-with-passing-race-sexuality-religion

(2) Why I’ve Decided To Start Dressing More Femininely – John Paul Brammer
https://www.buzzfeed.com/jpbrammer/why-ive-avoided-dressing-more-femininely-until-now?utm_term=.yszEmPWp6L&bftw=lgbt#.hoRENP1bJg

(3) Adjusting the Borders: Bisexual Passing and Queer Theory – Jessa Lingel
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15299710903316646?scroll=top&needAccess=true

(4) Stanford historian re-examines practice of racial ‘passing’ – Nate Sloan
http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/december/passing-as-white-121713.html

(5) What Is the Definition of Passing for White? – Nadra Kareem Nittle
http://racerelations.about.com/od/understandingrac1/g/Definition-Of-Passing.htm

Invisible Minorities – A Start To A Series

There’s a certain pressure to being the first post on a blog such as this one, so here’s hoping I do it justice. While mulling over the variety of topics I could write on I was initially overwhelmed – how could I choose one group over another? I mention this because decisions sometimes come across as betraying subconscious priorities. For example, while I fully believe that disability deserves just as much attention as gender, if I choose to write on one before the other some readers may think I care more about the one. That’s a lot of pressure to choose ‘correctly’.

My decision was made for me through several recent events in my life. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I will describe the most recent as it directly pertains to this week’s topic. I was discussing minorities and philosophy with a few strangers, and things were going swell – until I was questioned about why I care so much, or why I choose to focus my personal research on minority experience. Things went well until I was questioned why I feel the need to speak for minorities. I was taken aback and didn’t immediately know how to respond. Full disclosure: I am not visibly a minority. But I am still a minority.

The conversation ended and I was complimented for being a model ally – never to understand the discrimination faced by any minority group, but who nevertheless uses their voice to help amplify others. This caught me in a liminal space: I’m stuck between being a minority and ‘not’ being a minority.

We need to re-examine how we define “minority”.

White, straight, cisgender, ablebodied, etc. men compose the majority of professionals working with philosophy in the Western world. And while some, including many in my life, would argue that’s just coincidental and that the profession is based solely on merit, we need to recognise that this just isn’t true. Those who are interested in practicing philosophy are frequently scared away as they simply can’t see themselves in the role because they’ve never encountered a role model who shares their minority characteristics. This is most obvious with the more visible minorities; less obvious is how this affects invisible minorities. How can a non-neurotypical student see themselves in a professorial role if there isn’t already some representation? What about a queer individual, how can they see themself working in philosophy if queer academics are always relegated out of the field or into an obscure niche?

There are a few problems in this lack of representation, two that I’ll name here are: (1) we can’t expect or require invisible minorities to disclose their status, and (2) the profession, and society in general, is not receptive to such admissions even if the minority individual were to disclose their status.

But, if individuals aren’t required to address their minority status, how can we consider their experiences to be comparable to visible minorities? In short, we can’t. There are fundamental differences between the experiences of all minority groups, so we’re not looking for comparison. A white-passing young professor may find it advantageous to remain silent while battling for tenure in a new department, and given the current make-up of professional philosophy who could blame them? Unfortunately, this passing leads to issues of representation which feed the cycle invisible minorities get trapped in.

If after this short post you’re left with more questions than answers then I was successful. I want this introduction to act as a primer to start my series on invisible minorities.

If you want to see more on this topic, tune back in on Thursdays – I’ll be continuing this series all September. Next week I plan on discussing the concepts of “passing” and “blending in” – abilities that invisible minorities have the so-called luxury of doing.

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Should you want to continue reading on this week’s topic, I’ve listed below a couple articles of interest. Alternatively, feel free to contact me for discussion: jwadden@ryerson.ca.

(1) In the closet: invisible diversity – Reema Patel
https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2011/apr/14/in-the-closet-invisible-diversity

(2) An Invisible Minority – Scottie Thomaston
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scottie-thomaston/an-invisible-minority_b_1146199.html

(3) Deconstructing the Model Minority Myth and How It Contributes to the Invisible Minority Reality in Higher Education Research – Samuel D. Museus and Peter Kiang https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Kiang/publication/229797804_Deconstructing_the_model_minority_myth_and_how_it_contributes_to_the_invisible_minority_reality_in_higher_education_research/links/0deec51e1c1ad6de92000000.pdf

(4) My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse – Ellen Samuels
http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/36712397/Samuels__GLQ_2003.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1472758173&Signature=b2hMiaFdNDfItnfdixP5D3LElYE%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DMy_Body_My_Closet_Invisible_Disability_a.pdf