You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘privilege’ tag.

Yesterday I re-read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” [PDF hosted by AAAARG.ORG]. The first time I read it was when I was starting to think about what it means to be post-gender, but I have to say that this re-reading was so much richer and full of interesting stuff than that first reading could ever have been. My context has been strengthened and my own thinking has become more sophisticated, as well.

One of the things that means a lot more to me now is Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a being who does not strive toward totality of theory, or ultimate all-encompassing explanation. Something I have struggled with has been this demand placed on me, especially as a public face of trans advocacy, to come up with some nugget or essence of what it is to be a transgender person. I guess there isn’t a kernel that some fundamental “trans-ness” can be boiled down to.

And maybe that is part of what resonates so strongly with me about this anti-imperialist critique of feminism. Unlike other critiques of feminism I have read, Haraway identifies a very particular characteristic of most feminisms (and most -isms, really), especially of the radical variety. Haraway writes

The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction.

And I think this gets at something very important about what it means to me to be a transgender person — many cis people tend to read into my self-identification an attempt to resolve the apparently irreconcilable contradiction between man/woman, whereas I think putting the weight of such a reconciliation on an individual is basically harmful and sort of, well, imperialistic. It is the use of a differently (and intentionally) gendered body to negotiate a certain gendered social reality that has come to be thought of as oppressive.

I suppose ultimately what excites me the most is the idea of an ideological system that is content with its incompleteness, that being a cyborg or being post-gender (post-human) is about a kind of becoming as opposed to a being. It seems to me that this is about shifting lines of definition, not just of oneself but also of one’s society and social categories, regulations, and expectations.

In attempting to formulate a cyborg politics, Haraway asks, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective — and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” The rhetoric of both socialism and feminism don’t give room for incomplete, in-process identities. An in-process identity requires an affordance for what Haraway calls “polyvocality.” I think Haraway’s critique of Marxism and feminism is on point in ths way — and why feminist theorizing about transgender bodies and identities has a historical tendency to be screwed up. I don’t think that transgender selves or any semblance of totality.

On the contrary, I tend to think if there is anything at the core of trans-ness, it is a joyful expression of “permanently unclosed” identity if I’ve ever seen it. What feminist theorists get wrong about transgender selves and transgender bodies, then, is trying to squeeze a process (i.e., a temporal metaphor) into a spatial metaphor of categorization. I think this idea needs a little working out, especially since our understanding of time is spatially mediated, but the point is you cannot make a process or even a series of relations into a category because it is ongoing, open-ended, destabilized, and generative.

Trans people are the ultimate cyborgs. “Our” postmodern identities are predicated on an acceptance of the partiality of our perspectives and selves, even as a collective. I also think that in “our” constant contemplation and manipulation of language, “we” live Haraway’s “struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication.” She even goes so far as to say that this struggle is a subversion of “the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so [subverts] the structure and modes of production of Western identity.” (emphasis mine)

What I’ve learned in the past year or so is that the struggle for postcolonial identity, transgender identity, and a complex conception of multiple overlapping identities is a matter of struggling against exactly that structure. Complex multiple identities — at play in both the theorization of the postcolonial self and the transgender self — make it impossible to theorize about a totality of people. Who, after all, are the “transgender people” of this world? Who are really the “subaltern”? Who do we intentionally or accidentally exclude by naming these things?

Haraway’s critique of feminism translates directly in this way to (my) transgender critique of feminism. Re-reading this in light of everything that I have learned in the past two or three years was a total joy. I am sure I will be revisiting many of these ideas soon, hopefully a bit more rigorously. Thanks for playing!


It only took me an hour to get through the entire voting process.  Down at my polling place, there was a carnival atmosphere: at least a dozen of my friends were there around when I was there, and we had sparklers and candy and there were high-fives for everyone.  We hung out with the Democratic voter assistance volunteers (one of whom was in all of my philosophy classes last year) and drank coffee and talked about the election.  Spirits are high.  People are counting on this.

But in Ypsilanti Township, people are waiting three or four hours to vote.  In Miami-Dade, people are waiting upwards of five.  It is excruciatingly clear that we are privileged.  Not only did I only have to spend an hour at my polling place, I had the option to hang out and meet other voters.  Economically underpivileged people, especially people who work bit jobs for hourly wages, don’t have that kind of luxury.  Especially when you consider that wait times are considerably longer in underprivileged areas, you can’t help but think — this isn’t an explicit poll tax, but it might as well be.  If I were working 60 hours a week and living paycheck-to-paycheck, I couldn’t spend three hours waiting to cast my ballot.  If I were making just enough money to make rent and were living on food stamps, I would honestly probably choose making my money over voting.  And even if I had the chance to plan ahead and sock a little extra away for November (some people still can’t do that), my employer might not be so cool with me taking off.  I’m enormously privileged as a college student living in an upper middle-class community that 1) I can take time out of my day to vote and 2) there are plenty of volunteers in my area to staff my polling place.

I am not-so-secretly ashamed of myself for not volunteering in Ypsi Township.

I’m also really excited that people are using the internet to give voting social capital.  While the white oval “I Voted” sticker that is on my messenger bag is pretty cool, it’s nowhere near as exciting to get involved on Facebook.  Logging in this morning, I was presented with a running count of every Facebook member who has voted.  I changed my status to the automated message from the Causes application (I was recruited by a friend, and have recruited two so far).  The sheer numbers — nearly a million people used the Causes application to change their statuses simultaneoulsy at midnight, over 2 million have reported voting already — is something that makes it thrilling, not to mention unifying.

This is cool and everything, but how can we better use social networking tools to galvanize young people?  I kind of wonder how many people would have gotten their hands dirty with this on Facebook if it weren’t such an important election to us?  I hope we immediately start working on ways to motivate people in the future.  Social capital is remarkably valuable, and also remarkably easy to come by on the internet.  So long as you have a critical mass of users who are participating, others start paying attention.

And using online social capital to get out the vote is one thing, but it still doesn’t answer a fundamental question: how do we reenfranchise the disenfranchised?  What about the voters in Ypsi Township, in Detroit, in Miami-Dade County?

I don’t think it was as truly shocking as many people seemed to think it was when danah boyd blogged about the class divide between users of Myspace and Facebook.  I think it’s a significant divide, though, and I think that many critics of danah’s work were more given over to how she wrote rather than what she wrote.  And, as someone deeply committed to social justice as well as an internet evangelical, I think we owe it to ourselves to break this down a little bit more.

Talking to a co-worker who grew up in poverty in rural Alabama was pretty enlightening for me: she hadn’t had access to a computer until she was in her late teens.  Though there’s a class divide between users of Myspace and Facebook, what proportion of young Americans don’t have regular access to a computer and the internet?  I think it’s important that they do, but people in my place seem to forget that free (and I don’t mean cost-wise, because it’s not actually that hard to locate internet access you don’t have to pay for, so long as you live in an area with a decent public library) internet access to youth is something that isn’t yet taken for granted in many places in this country.  It’s remarkably emblematic for me of the privilege we experience as academics.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most kids who come from impoverished backgrounds, have parents who did not complete high school, and/or Spanish-speaking-only households generally only have internet access at school, which is hardly free.  Though it’s reassuring that some 92% of public school classrooms have internet access, what’s the quality of that access?  How fast is it?  How free is it?

I know that I have made a grave assumption in the past that internet usage is ubiquitous enough to carry the kind of revolution that I envision.  I think that I have been coming to terms with my privilege — NCES notes that many more youth with parents who have parents with post-graduate degrees and don’t live in poverty have internet access both at home and school — coming from my financial and eduational background.  While I still think the internet is the future, and I think that it is the last great hope for democracy in the world, it worries me that, while only 54% of Americans reported using the internet in 2001, the government and big telecom are already taking steps to restrict what should be weird and free.

Do we have a responsibility as economically privileged members of society to keep the internet free for those who are still newcomers?  What can we do to increase computer and internet literacy in impoverished areas?  How can we teach young people who don’t have consistent, free access to the internet the value of information?  I think this is clearly an educational problem, and the solutions, like the solutions to problems facing impoverished school districts, are not easy.  A first step is the provision of new, good computers and courses that encourage the use of the internet.  Unfortunately I feel like many of the people in my age bracket who are interested in education don’t seem to have an eye and a knack for the internet, and those who are technological evangelists like myself are more focused on research and academia than the hands-on work of spreading the technology we love to places which cannot afford it.

I think, though, that part of the reason we’re not so invested in this distribution is because we don’t talk about poverty in the United States.  The One Laptop Per Child project, for example, is focused on providing computers to poor children in developing nations.  And while OLPC has an admirable goal, who’s working on access to computers in the United States?  And, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds projects to get more computers and steady internet access into public libraries across the U.S., I doubt that just computers and community-oriented literacy courses are going to change the way youth in these areas interact with information technology.

So: what do we do about this?

Today, Laine told me a story about sitting on a bus to Ypsi in rush hour.  The bus was packed — 52 people, mostly poorer students or hourly-wage workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck.  En route, a BMW roadster decided to make an illegal U-turn and was clipped by the bus.  There was minimal damage to the BMW’s front bumper, but the straight, white, wealthy couple in the car flipped a shit.  Though the bus was packed with people on their way home from work, and the BMW just suffered cosmetic damage, the couple demanded the bus stay and wait until police arrived so each passenger could testify as a witness to the accident, ostensibly so the couple could get legal and financial reimbursement for their sufferings.

The situation these people were in is very interesting.  Clearly, the upper-class white couple saw it as their entitlement to get testimony from witnesses so that they could get insurance money for the damaged bumper.  It’s not as though this isn’t uncalled for: I’ve exchanged insurance information with people in fender-benders where neither vehicle nor occupants suffered any visible damage, just in case.  The bus passengers weren’t so interested in the outcome, of course, and I can imagine more than one sighing and rolling their eyes at the insistence on police reports.  But interestingly enough, it wasn’t the bus passengers who lost their cool being delayed on their way home after a long day of work.  It was the BMW driver and his partner.

It’s surprising, as Laine pointed out, that two people could feel so much entitlement that they would hold up overy fifty others on their way home to partners, possibly children, dinner, and hard-earned relaxation.  I pointed out that the passengers on the bus, being members of oppressed groups in society, probably didn’t see it as their entitlement to take matters into their own hands and demand to be taken to their stops.  She pointed out that it was weird that the people who had control in the situation, though, decided to flip out instead of keeping their cool and dealing with the situation like adults, whereas the bus passengers chose not to show any sense of feeling wronged when their bus home was delayed for nearly an hour for the police to arrive and take testimony.

I don’t think this is the case.  I think that calling groups with privilege and power in society agents is a misnomer: the rich couple in the BMW had just as little choice in their reaction to the situation as the bus passengers.  To the point, they expect — and are expected to — react to situations like that with a sense of entitlement, a sense of self-righteousness, and the know-how to get what they want out of others, especially members of oppressed groups.  They don’t have the agency implied by the name.  They are not making or doing anything: in fact, their not-making and not-doing is characteristic of their social privilege.  Certainly there is an extent to which they have the “choice” to change their actions and stand up against the unjust expectations of society and act like adults, but there isn’t as much of a choice in the fact they’ve been socialized to react that way, and that their experiences may be limited just to an upper-class, straight, white one.

My point is this: I think that calling social groups that have privilege and power agents is misleading, and blames them for their lack of experience and socialization.  This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be held accountable in these situations to realize that they are not the only stakeholders in an outcome, nor are they the only ones affected by their decisions.  But it’s hard to hold someone accountable even to know what they don’t know when their experience is limited just to their social identities.  Largely groups that hold a great deal of privilege are very insular.  I want to argue that they don’t have any actual agency in this situation, and others like it.

Attribution of fault is different from holding individuals accountable.  There is no reason to attribute fault to these specific individuals, but we can and should hold them accountable.  Their reactions in this story were clearly self-involved and rooted in a privileged-class sense of entitlement for the world to pause and take care of them.  Unfortunately, I doubt that without anybody pointing this out to them, the couple in this story didn’t learn anything about the effects of their actions other than getting an insurance settlement to have their bumper repaired.


twitter me