Not all questions have clear answers. Sometimes, there is no “right” answer. Sometimes, every “right” answer carries a little bit of wrong in it too.
This is especially true when we take a feminist approach informed by intersectionality; a feminism informed by the knowledge that privilege operates in a multitude of ways, that different types of privilege and different types of identity interact in different ways that aren’t necessarily quantifiable. We can however, observe the way that privilege and identity operate in our different cultural contexts. We can acknowledge that the cultures we inhabit deprive many individuals of the right to speak and act on their own behalf, that the identities of many individuals and peoples are written out of cultural narratives produced by those with privilege, by those who are in a position of authority.
Part of the reason it’s so important for people who occupy particular privileged positions to just shut up sometimes is because it’s impossible to escape that privilege: because no matter how good one’s intentions are, that privilege is embedded in the structure of the language that we use, it’s embedded in seemingly innocuous cultural assumptions, and simply by speaking, if we occupy that privileged ground, we reinforce that privilege.
It is impossible, however, to not speak all of the time. We may be silent on certain topics, recognising that our own privileges mean that speaking at a particular point would lead to appropriation of identity or the marginalisation of voices that have been silenced all too often. But we also have times when it IS appropriate to speak. There are times when we are discussing our own marginalised identities, where we do not occupy a place of privilege; it is good to speak then. There are times when we can speak up against others who share our privilege to highlight the way that certain types of language or certain assumptions can hurt people; it is good to speak then.
The thing is, though — even at those times, even when we are speaking on our own behalf, even when we are asking others to address their own unexamined privilege — the privilege that we DO have is still active, and it’s still being reinforced in a myriad of ways. Even if we are extremely careful about our own language, about our own gestures and our own assumptions, we are operating in a cultural context where the langauge, gestures and assumptions of others reinforce that privilege.
And that is where we run into what I like to call “the squishy bits”. These are the areas where we have to acknowledge that there is no “perfect” response to every situation. That some, or maybe all, of the solutions we adopt to address some forms of privilege will inevitably reinforce other types of privilege. That sometimes people can end up feeling more marginalised as a result of these solutions.
For instance, to use an example that applies to me personally: There has been a lot of excellent discussion in the feminist blogosphere about the use of ableist language and the need to address this. A number of people have addressed the terms “crazy” and “insane”, as they are used in general discourse, suggesting that their use adds to the stigma of mental illness. Last year, I was diagnosed with depression. And I realised that there were times, during my depressive episodes, when I was crazy, when the chemistry in my brain simply wouldn’t allow me to think in the way I had previously considered “normal”. Yet, I also found that the use of the terms “crazy” and “insane” in general discourse was hugely comforting to me. Rather than an appropriation of my experience, I found that the way these words were used made me feel like my crazy times weren’t something I needed to keep away in a little box — they were simply part of a world that doesn’t always make sense, that doesn’t always operate in a neat, well-ordered way.
But this, does not, of course, invalidate the experiences and feelings of people who DO find those terms problematic — it just means that we’ve run into a squishy bit. An issue on which there is no single “right” answer that can address everybody’s experiences. There is no Great Objective Moral Truth here. There are simply different experiences, people who experience the world in different ways, and the need to recognise that there aren’t always going to be perfect ways of acknowledging those differences.
That is NOT, however, to say that we should just give up and stop trying. We most definitely should continue to seek out the best ways of addressing privilege, of minimising marginalisation, and allowing the voices of all to be heard — particularly those voices that are all too often NOT heard. It does, however, mean recognising that sometimes those voices will not be in perfect harmony — and that’s okay. It means that sometimes we can’t have rigid rules on the right type of language to use and the wrong type — and that’s okay too. It means that it’s complicated.
It’s supposed to be complicated.
Addressing the squishy bits is difficult, and it very understandably often takes up spoons that many people don’t have to spare. Fail is more likely to occur in the squishy bits. But, so is conversation and dialogue that might not occur otherwise. The squishy bits are where people ask questions that they might otherwise be afraid to ask, questions they feel they should know the answer to, but don’t. Sometimes these questions are a function of unexamined privilege, and sometimes they are asked because the person does not have access to certain types of privilege — and sometimes it can be both at once.
And those conversations that we have in the squishy bits — they are important conversations. They aren’t always safe conversations, and what makes them unsafe for some people and not others can’t be easily defined. The squishy bits are where we talk about differences between things like cultural appropriation and cultural integration, and why sometimes neither of those terms are appropriate. The squishy bits are where we talk about why something can be simultaneously empowering and damaging. The squishy bits are often uncomfortable. There are no rules for dealing with the squishy bits — not permanent ones, anyway.
There is no one right way of dealing with the squishy bits — we all address them differently. Sometimes we do better than at other times. I’d like to ask though, how do you, Hoydenizens, deal with the squishy bits in your own life? What are some examples of squishy bits from your own life that you’ve struggled with (if you feel comfortable sharing)? What do the squishy bits mean to you?
Categories: Culture, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, language, Politics, social justice, Sociology
A really thought-provoking post Beppie. I love your term for this complexity – “the squishy bits” and the way that you have emphasized that sometimes we won’t find one true answer and that this kind of unresolved complexity is ok, and also that where there is no definitive answer sensitivity is required from all participants.
I also love that you brought this topic to a big feminist blog for attention, I think in many ways most of us have found this notion too difficult to tackle and yet it could really do with some discussion.
There are lots of words I have dropped since learning about various offences and priveleges – starting with ‘spaz’ when I was about 12 and a doctor friend explained how wrong that was – all the way up to last week when a friend told me to stop using “Indigenous” because actually most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hate the term.
But ‘crazy’ I have looked at again and again and I have kept the word. I feel an ownership of that word because of certain aspects of my family life and childhood that I choose not to discuss and I like that the word is used so widely across contexts, that it describes so many experiences and characteristics (both positive and negative) – for me it is disarming.. However, I think I am probably a lot more careful these days about using it because I am so much more aware of those people who find the term objectionable. And I am very glad they took the time to let us know that on the blogosphere so I can be a little more sensitive to them.
”There are lots of words I have dropped since learning about various offences and priveleges”
Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to personally reassess my use of language, and try and help others do the same – for example people using the word “retard” to describe someone with whom they don’t ideologically agree, and come up against “if some people like using it, it’s a legitimate use of language”
Argh, just, argh.
Another conversation where I thought privilege cut both ways was one I had last night about whether the Doctor who won the Nobel Prize for his work on IVF was justified, since the opiner thought that IVF was “self-indulgent” and a “first-world problem” and couldn’t believe people chose that option.
Problem is, when it comes from someone who isn’t infertile, that opinion is in and of itself a display of privilege. It’s easy to say “IVF is self-indulgent” when you can be secure in your fertility; it’s easier to say it when you won’t be the cause of depriving your partner of biological children. It’s a privileged position to opine from. You will never be personally tested on it.
It’s also easy to say “why don’t you just adopt a poor baby without parents” without ever having had to look into it; the cost, the prohibitive rules, the length you wait, the ethical issues of removing a child from it’s culture…..
Long comment shorter, privilege is a multi-layered beast. Trying to avoid “privilege” is impossible, because you cannot be all things, all problems, all disadvantages. And acknowledging that no position can be applied to all scenarios is a privilege we should all exercise.
I am constantly running up against my assumptions that there is a ‘right’ answer. Usually the right answer is (according to my assumptions) whatever the worst-hard-done-by person says. But that’s 1)a hard thing to quantify 2) a recipe for ‘race to the bottom’ arguments (no, I grew up poor!) and 3) not always right.
It’s scary, no question. But I’m with you – it’s important to let it be scary sometimes.
Beppie, great post.
I’m finding that inquisitive seven year olds have a way of putting their fingers right on the squishy bits and I’m having to say “because I said so”. I’m also finding that I’m not as good on this stuff as I think I am. Sadly I am also still surprising myself with my first reaction of real life situations and real people, often in a bad way.
A great post, Beppie. Both thought-provoking and a little mind-bending. My difficulty is that whenever I’m mindful of this concept of privilege (which, truthfully, is not always) and its impact on how I am heard and perceived, I get bogged down in murky apologism. But I love the ‘squishy bits’… the depth and breadth of conversation and argument that can be had in the squishy realm is fabulous!
This is something I’ve found that’s sent me running and hiding from a number of discussions. The idea that because one person lacking in privilege says A is wrong, it Just Is, and that’s that. My mind has always leapt immediately to the person lacking in precisely the same privilege, who says NOT A is wrong. How, then, am I expected to behave? I know that intellectualising has its own problems, but once I’ve found a logical inconsistency, I can’t ignore it.
On a personal level, it’s cultural appropriation that I find myself utterly bewildered by. While I completely understand certain cut and dried examples, such things as Yoga, and traditional dance leave me very unsure. I do belly dancing, which has been decidedly appropriated and changed by the West, but I’ve always learned in schools run by Egyptian women who think this is cultural evangelism (or something – perhaps just sharing the things about their culture that they love?). I don’t know how to resolve this. I potentially cause harm to those whose hearts bleed at seeing their traditional dance appropriated, or I potentially cause harm to women whose hearts sing teaching their culture and make a living out of it.
So I dance because I love it, I tend towards a love of the more traditional (and Egyptian) versions of the dance, and I run away from discussions where people declare there is a Right Answer, because I can’t see one.
Thanks Beppie, awesome post.
This is something I’ll have to investigate further. I’ve been using “Indigenous Australians” more often recently becuase I didn’t think it carried the same connotation of mono-culturalism as “Aboriginal” tends to amongst white Australians. I will definitely try to seek out more opinions on this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this in particular lately, because I think that the “trying to help others do the same” part is where we can really run into a lot of problems. While I am quite willing to excise words from my own vocabulary when I learn that they hurt others, I am very uncomfortable in asking others to do the same for a variety of reasons that all involve “squishy bits”.
For instance, when you have ableist words that are used widely in general discourse (the well-known example of “lame” comes to mind), you do end up with a lot of people who HAVE disabilities pertaining to that word who don’t have a problem with using it — and as someone who does NOT have any disabilities described by the term “lame”, I don’t feel it is my place to say whether or not someone with those disabilities should use that word. And, of course, it is also wrong to put someone in a position where they would need to “out” themselves as a person with a disability in order to justify their use of a word.
I also know that a hyperfocus on using the “correct” language all the time makes some people feel quite marginalised from the feminist blogosphere; indeed I know several women who all identify as disabled in different ways who feel unable to participate in discussions on ableism in the blogosphere because they don’t perceive ableist language in the same way as many feminists currently do. In at least one case, I know of someone who feels that the hyperfocus on not using ableist words actually exasserbates her disability.
YET — and I want to stress this — this does not in any way mean that women who say “in order for this space to be safe for me, in order for me to be able to speak up here, I need to know that these ableist terms aren’t in play”, are in any way wrong. Of course it is not wrong to point out that certain words have the power to silence voices. It is not wrong to create spaces where those words aren’t in play, and it’s not wrong to ask that others who are committed to intersectionality and addressing ableism (or indeed, any other sort of *ism) also create spaces that are safe.
So, as I hinted before, my personal way of dealing with this is excising a number of words from my own vocabulary, but ultimately, I don’t call anyone out if they DO use these terms, except in a few instances (and there’s probably a whole blog post in distinguishing between when I do speak up and when I don’t). I know this isn’t a perfect solution. I know that passive acceptance is often taken as support. But there is no perfect solution here. And really, I think we need to take all different sorts of approaches, depending on our different perspectives and personalities, without insisting that any single approach is the only “right” one.
Yes, I tend to take this approach too, and yes, it does often end up going to not-productive places. Yet this approach stems from a really important acknowledgement that marginalised people DO need to be able to define their own experiences of marginalisaiton. I think that the hidden danger here, is for well-meaning privileged groups to continue to treat any particular marginalised group as monolithic — thus leading to the assumption that there is one “right” answer. But sometimes we DO need to act as though there is one right answer, because otherwise, people won’t get heard when they need to be.
Me too. 😦
I confess, I really struggle with this too. As you say, there are some very cut and dried examples, but there are a lot of times when I find myself wondering if something is more a matter of cultural sharing than cultural appropriation. And there are no rules to determine where one begins and the other ends. There’s no magic formula to apply here.
I also find notions of linguistic appropriation really problematic, in terms of certain groups claiming words as their own. I do get why this can be a really powerful thing to do (because usually, when we assume that a term is not “owned” by anyone, then it belongs to the dominant paradigms, which marginalises so many people), yet I don’t really think that there is anything we can do to stop words becoming part of a broader cultural discourse, and also, is it possible that when words ARE adopted in a broader cultural sense can it actually sometimes be a sign that marginalised groups actually are being incorporated into dominant cultural paradigms. I do worry sometimes, that focusing on NOT appropriating terminology actually stymies certain implicit cultural dialogues, in which language is passed back and forth, in which the evolution of language can be used as a vehicle for positive change.
But that doesn’t change the fact that cultural/linguistic appropriation can also be used to make marginalised groups invisible, or to suggest that priviliged people are somehow authorities on the lives of marginalised groups.
@Beppie I think there’s also a big difference between whether people are using “lame” etc etc self-referentially or not; that sets up quite a different dynamic.
I think that the hyperfocus on correct language, and the very particular way in which conversations run in the ‘sphere – you said a bad word! I’m calling you out! there’s my activism for the day – reflects a superficial engagement, particularly with disability rights. But people seem to take not using a word anymore, or “calling people out” on their usage, as allywork or whatever, and that’s where their engagement stops where they could be focussing on more substantive issues. You know, actually engaging with the underlying factors that make words (potentially) hurtful. It’s a way of paying lip service to being intersectional a lot of the time, I think. And as you say, this kind of focus has not-good impacts on actual disabled people. I’ve had to defend a guest blogger at Feministe who used crazy self-referentially in a context in which her use of it was getting weaponised in a broader attempt to delegitimise what she was saying… using “you said a bad word!” as a trump card seems to me a pretty disrespectful way of approaching disability politics all in all, especially in contexts in which it’s being used to derail other discussions or cast a bad light on every other thing a person is saying. Disabled people as props! What’s been really frustrating for some of us at FWD/Forward is that people tend to link to entries in our Ableist Word Profile series as one of those trump cards in such discussions – which involves ignoring the dotpoints at the top that say things like ‘this series is not about ‘telling people which words they can and cannot use’ or that you ‘don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist’. Speaking of which, this is something that is becoming really interesting for me as a moderator at Feministe: I’m trying to be conscious of this dynamic and point out not that people said bad words!!1! MODPOWERZ!!1! but point out that I found a usage personally hurtful. I think that undercuts the depersonalising, moralising, monolithising narrative.
Just my two cents on some of my experiences. 🙂
I think there is really only one solution when it comes to labelling Aborigines – teaching ourselves, and more importantly ALL our children, who they are.
At school, we teach the people’s stories, but not their history or their identity. When we’re learning the states, and the explorers and the rum rebellion, we should also be learning the names of the peoples. In fact, we could ditch explorers entirely – after all, their names are plastered everywhere – but I see no signs telling me I am now entering Eora land.
If the population at large could take a reasonable punt on a person’s identity based on where they live, and even more importantly, recognise and understand when, for example, someone says she is a Gadigal woman, we’d be a lot closer to being able to treat people with respect. You know, we might call people who they are, instead of some vague general term because we are utterly clueless and find their real identities unfamiliar and confusing.
Oh – which means I need to do this, I’m equally clueless, and have been aware for a while that I need to know and understand much more than I do.
Ariane and Beppie, you might both be interested in this (NB: pdf).
And I agree with Ariane:
I’ve been trying to put that into practice for a while.
As for the other things that have been raised, I’m still trying to actually put a coherent reaction into words, other than “hear, hear!” 🙂
Yeah, totally — and the thing is, we can’t always know whether or not someone is using the word self-referrentially, and it’s not our place to ask. Hence, my discomfort.
Yeah, totally. It’s as though mastering the language becomes a matter of suspending critical engagement. I also think that this issue becomes particularly “squishy” with relation to disability because disability itself is something that has no clear boundaries. While I think that if you try to define any marginalised group, things get a bit blurred around the edges, this is particuarly so with disability because it has so many different manifestations, because it’s a group that most people will be part of at some point in their lives, because some people experience permanent disability and for others it’s temporary. As a consequence, I think it’s much more difficult to see, in a clear way, that there are certain types of words that belong to disability.
I think that many of us, when considering ableist language, automatically attempt to apply models that we have learned when dealing with other *ist language. For instance, when dealing with racist language, it’s quite clear that there are certain words that people who are not of certain racial groups (especially white people) should not use, while these words can be positive when used self-referrentially by members of non-white groups.
But there are so many reasons that this model doesn’t quite work with disability, and I think it relates to the fact that for most people, racial identity is something we are born with, and usually it doesn’t change. Of course, there are cases where people discover their racial heritage later in life, but even then, on a cultural level, it’s framed as the discovery of a fact that has always existed. With disability, we have lots of people for whom it is an identity they were born with, lots of people who become disabled throughout the course of their lives, lots of people for whom it is a transitive identity…
(As I’m typing now, I’m wondering if the reason that it’s so much easier to get people to accept “retard” as ableist and to agree to stop using it is because cognitive disability is something widely perceived as being permanent, whereas “lame” can refer to temporary disaiblities as well as permanent ones — people feel more ownership of it and more reluctance to let it go because it refers to something that a lot of people have experienced personally, or expect to experience at some point.)
Anyway, the point of all this is, I don’t actually think it’s always possible to determine that someone is or is not an ally as far as disability is concerned, by whether or not they use certain types of ableist langauge, in the same way that can be done in relation to other marginalised groups. For instance, I think it’s pretty safe to say that a white person who uses the n-word is not an ally, and a straight person who uses “gay” as an insult is not an ally (even though ally work certainly runs much deeper than the language that we use).
I’m not sure that we can say the same thing about a TAB person who uses “lame” in general discourse, and certainly I personally would not say that a non-mentally ill person who uses terms like “crazy” and “insane” is a bad ally — because I actually find that really helpful. (Obviously, however, using any of these terms in a space where one has been asked not to use them it totally wrong.) The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that addressing ableist language (and it IS really important to address it) really does require this squishy space — that we actually need to develop a squishy model for addressing it.
(Also, FTR, I do think that FWD does address this squishiness in the ableist word profile — I in no way want to disparage the wonderful work being done there.)
YES. Or if we must talk about the explorers, talk about them in terms of the different lands that they invaded when doing their exploring. Instead of “John Oxley discovered the Hastings River”, we could have “John Oxley entered into the lands of the Biripi Nation”.
Lastly — there is SO MUCH to discuss here. I’m thinking that it’d probably be good to do a “squishy bits” series, where we can hash out many of these issues?
I’d love a “squishy bits” series – sounds great.
I’ve got no authority at all on this subject, but I’ve been using “first Australians”. Sure, it’s problematic but it works ok in the context I usually use it (arguing with members of the White People Hooray Brigade). I’d also like to update my glossary on this subject.
Beppie, when my friend pulled my up on ‘Indigenous’ (very politely, I must add) she also sent me an article to fill in some of the blanks. It was called “Reverend is correct: ‘Indigenous’ must go” by Les Ridgeway Snr, Worlmi Nation Elder and Aboriginal Family Historian . I tried Googling it in order to link here but it is not on-line. I have it in .jpg format and can email you (and anyone else interested) with it?
”While I am quite willing to excise words from my own vocabulary when I learn that they hurt others, I am very uncomfortable in asking others to do the same for a variety of reasons that all involve “squishy bits”.”
I take the point, and it’s something to think about, but I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to squash the instinct to really, really dislike someone using the word “retard” being used to compare someone like my darling Downs Syndrome uncle and Aunt to someone they despise. I’m not sure there’s much that would make me excuse that.
Then again, I won’t know until I know.
@blue milk I would love a copy of the article.
@Keri I absolutely agree, and I do try to call out the term ‘retard’ as much as I can, in fact. As I’ve said, there are no hard and fast rules here — it’s just that I do find that the process of calling people out is often very squishy. At
the same time though there are times and places where calling out IS the best thing to do — and I’m sure there are times when I remain silent although I should not.
Thanks for that link — I’m sorry that I missed your comment in the mod queue for such a long time.
Thanks for that link, JoTamar, I’ll add it to the collection of bits I found today. It’s kind of depressing how much harder it is to learn and remember these unfamiliar names now than it was when I was a kid. I’m thinking of buying the map of countries and sticking it on a wall here somewhere, to try to make at least the ones local to us familiar so that next time someone takes the time to tell me who they are, I will be able to remember. It’s so shameful that we can grow up in this country and not know this.
My mum has a map of the Aboriginal nations up in one of her bedrooms, the kids have always been fascinated by it. Really should get a copy for home too.
If you find out where to get a copy, would you be able to share it with us here? It definitely sounds like a lot of us are interested. 🙂
Will do. I think Mum’s came as a freebie with a newspaper or magazine many moons ago, so that’s no good as a lead!
Here it is, Beppie: http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/asp/map.html
For a pdf: http://www.decs.sa.gov.au/corporate/files/pages/aboriginal_aust/ab_aust_full.pdf
No worries 🙂
Now, let’s see if I can get myself in the mod queue again …
I, too, would love one of those maps. I am ashamed to say that I’ve never thought of asking them before, even though every time I see one I spend as long as I can looking at it.
In the meantime, I did a bit of a google. This seems like a pretty good online reference. And here are some from the DET which can apparently be printed (they include Sydney, NSW and Australia-wide maps).
And – AHA – you can purchase a wall map here.
Postage is $10 for 1-3 items, so if anyone who thinks they might actually see me (hmm, maybe it’s time for another HAT Sydney meet up?) wants to go in together, I’m happy to order a bunch of them. Let me know: my email address is my secondname.firstname [at] good old gmail.
Oh, Ariane, snap 🙂
Ooh, thank you, both!
I love the idea of doing a bulk order. I was actually thinking of arranging a Hoyden meetup for the marriage equality rally in Sydney on November 27th.
I can’t make it that day 😦 I have family commitments which, ironically enough, revolve around a wedding anniversary.
But I’m still happy to do a bulk order if someone can meet me (or pick them up from me at work) a few days beforehand.
@bluemilk – I wouldn’t copy of said article!
I’m about to teach a group of Yr 10s some Australian history. It’s really important for me, for reasons listed above, to put the experiences of Aboriginal people at the centre of the story, and emphasise their perspectives and their voice. Said as a non-Aboriginal person myself. I grew up knowing so little, and I think it sucks that these experiences and perspectives are so invisible in mainstream Australian culture.
There’s as many people who dislike the word “Aboriginal” as there are who dislike the term “Indigenous”. It’s a pretty big discussion within the community.
I guess it just indicates that we aren’t a monolithic group, and that it’s always best to ask someone’s preferred terminology.
On this last issue, could I ask where the limits of the term Koori properly fall?
Koori are Aboriginal people who traditionally hail from tribal areas in NSW and Victoria. The actual word roughly translated just means “people”, and it comes from (I think) Awabakal language.
Indigenous people from areas outside Koori country do not like being called Koori.