Invisible Identities, Part 2: The Default Human

So, I’ve talked about how the notion of the invisible identity is problematic, particularly through the framework of my personal experiences of being “invisibly” disabled and non-white. Now to the flipside of invisibility.

Certain characteristics exist in the societal consciousness as default traits. That is, a person is a man unless they’re pointed out as a woman (how many times have we all heard ‘woman lawyer’ or similar?) Disabled people are unexpected, out of the norm. The coming out process doesn’t exist for straight people, because everyone’s assumed to be straight until it’s made clear they’re not. While non-white people are described according to their race (‘the Asian man’), white people are described according to specific physical characteristics (‘the blonde man’). These are the default humans, and we are assumed to be so unless we are otherwise. It’s a strange phenomenon, really: these identities are represented so often, in so many contexts, that we don’t even describe them anymore.

It’s also curious because so few of us are that default human, white, cis, abled, middle class and so on. The default human is really quite far from being usual.

What the invisibilisation of privileged characteristics does is to invisibilise the privileges that go along with them. Straight people had to be told that they, like gay and lesbian and bisexual and pansexual (and more!) people, had a sexual orientation too, rather than just being “normal”. Race is so often approached as something only non-white people are concerned with. Abled people are regular people, and disabled people are wrong and bad and tragic. (If you think that disability is some kind of flaw located in an individual, please learn about the social model of disability.) It’s the reason for the assertions that ‘cis’ is an insult rather than simply a neutral term used as a replacement for ‘normal’ in describing non-trans people. There has been a great deal of reluctance and resistance on the part of the privileged to put a name to what they/we are. This is because doing so legitimises the idea that they/we exist in a specifically privileged state rather than just being the default, the norm. You name the thing, you make it real.

Here’s what I guess I’ll have to call a worked example, for lack of a better term. I’m told it’s particularly rude in the US to describe someone in terms of race. I’m sure you’re familiar with why “colourblindness” is a bad approach to anti-racism, but it’s worth recapping. “Not seeing” race – oh, hello, there’s that visuality thing again – does not make us all happy and post-racial. “Not seeing” race just makes sure we’re all launched right back into default white culture, because not mentioning difference erases our histories. And of course white people’s differences aren’t mentioned, because their cultures are assumed as default. When white people acknowledge their cultures, that is: there’s a tendency for white people to say they’re uninteresting, or they don’t really have a culture, because they do not perceive that their cultures are everywhere. All of which is not to mention that using “colourblind” in relation to anti-racism discourse appropriates the experiences of people who are actually colourblind. So erasing difference just reinforces racism, where we could be acknowledging difference as present and right and ours. The default human idea doesn’t work because none of us are. And it tries to make most people not exist.

Again, this has some icky effects on those of us who can be read as having an identity we don’t. Because I can tell you, being read as something you’re not? Can hurt like anything. I have experienced having my background erased as intensely threatening and hurtful. This often takes place in white spaces in which white people feel okay being racist because, hey, it’s only us white people here, right? I have had to listen to people question whether it’s better to be disabled or dead, and have sat through it, terrified, because these people, who previously seemed perfectly charming, are confidently questioning whether my community deserves to exist. And at the same time as I’m being misread, I have guilt, because sometimes I cultivate a white, abled image for safety or comfort.

Knowing how harmful default assumptions have been to me, I am trying to not assume them of other people. This is difficult in the extreme, because we are so trained to make assumptions about people’s identities. Something I’ve heard a bit from people who don’t fit the gender binary is that if you aren’t sure, just ask. I’ve not yet brought myself to do so (and I’m sure far from everyone would be comfortable with that) and rather wait for cues as to someone’s identity. Being uncertain is both frustrating and liberating: boxes aren’t just for sorting, they’re for boxing us in. A little ambiguity makes things more interesting, and less painful for those of us with invisible identities.

But now that I’ve made a good effort to stop assuming default status, I’m trying to stop assuming identity more generally. I’ve taken to describing white people as white, just to point it out and sometimes observe the cogs turning in someone’s head. I’ve mostly overcome trying to fit people into boxes of queer or straight. (Except for the cute ones.) I realised it wasn’t so important that I figure out someone’s identity if I was just having a chat with them in a line or some such. If I don’t need to know, I don’t need to know. Someone else’s comfort is more important that the satisfaction of my curiousity. This is particularly true for the people who don’t fit into boxes so neatly, or for those who wish to keep their identity under wraps. For instance, I myself am regularly nervous about being outed by careless friends about my disability status, because I often can’t afford to lose the credibility and respect passing as abled gives me.

I think it’s an interesting exercise to try and perform. If we’re not so certain anymore, how do we relate to each other? I think a good thing about this lack of certainty is that it requires you to relate directly to a person, discover their identities, rather than you putting assumptions onto them and deciding their identity for them. So while I’m still likely to read that person waiting in line with me as a white, straight, abled woman in her late thirties, sometimes I catch myself, or look back and think, maybe not. Maybe humanity is just more complicated than that.

[Cross-posted at ZatB and FWD/Forward]

51 comments for “Invisible Identities, Part 2: The Default Human

  1. catfood
    December 9, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    *nod* to all of what you said here, Chally.

    I really am that Default Person, and it’s fascinating to observe how people react when I’m made somehow not-default.

    I’ve fallen out of the habit, and I should try to cultivate it again, of referring to white people as white, as in, “So there were these two white guys on the bus talking about football and yadda yadda.” Default People wonder why the hell I’m specifically referring to the people in the story as white. Even non-white people wonder that. But it’s awfully common for a white person to say, “So there were these two black guys on the bus….”

    I used to play basketball regularly in a group where I was the only white person, and incidentally by far the oldest. One time in particular a teammate, a black man, yelled out “Pass it to the white guy!” and everybody stopped dead in their tracks. Another black man called that teammate racist. I couldn’t help laughing, because all along the players had been referring to me as “Black T-Shirt” or “Glasses,” like my whiteness wasn’t the most screamingly obvious thing to distinguish me in that group. But oh no, you can’t mention the race of a Default Person, that’s racist.

    People are so funny. Anyway, I’m glad you’re helping to make these invisible identities visible. Thank you for that.

  2. December 9, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    The process of “othering” has such a hold on us that we end up often resorting to the practice when we’re trying our best not to do it. It serves a function in a linguistic sense, but we take it beyond anything that utilitarian. The tactic has been used to divide us over the eons and like you have discovered, it’s going to take a concerted effort on everyone’s part to un-condition us from what is really a societal habit more than anything.

  3. December 9, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    That is, a person is a man unless they’re pointed out as a woman (how many times have we all heard ‘woman lawyer’ or similar?)

    I don’t want to derail the thread, but I feel this is a bad example because it highlights presumed gender roles rather than presumed gender identity. It’s just as common to hear the qualification “male nurse” or similar when talking about a job/role that’s “traditionally” performed by women.

    Apart from that one little nitpick, though, I think the points made about invisible identity are well made (including regarding women – the fact that “women’s issues” are seen as a special case where men’s concerns aren’t, speaks to the truth of that).

    I especially like the last 2 paragraphs. Most times, we just don’t need to know cis/trans, gay/straight, etc. in order to get along, have a conversation or just hang out for a bit. Still less so in most cases for everyday business.

  4. December 9, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    My husband and I were in Provincetown, and I asked the man at the motel desk where we might hear some good music. He called to a woman in back asking where a ‘straight’ couple might like to go. We were really amused, because outside of Provincetown we’d be the ‘interracial couple.’

  5. Tomek Kulesza
    December 9, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    “Knowing how harmful default assumptions have been to me, I am trying to not assume them of other people. This is difficult in the extreme, because we are so trained to make assumptions about people’s identities.”
    “But now that I’ve made a good effort to stop assuming default status, I’m trying to stop assuming identity more generally”
    I’m afraid that’s not possible, when taken to extreme. There is so many possible and actual characteristics, that it would take awfully long time and high-awareness state of brain to not make assumptions. Cognitive heuristics are there exactly to make day-to-day functioning easier, or even possible. And add to that the fact you need actual knowledge of alternative to not assume something (hello, should i stop assuming that the person i’m chatting with is a human and not uplifted chimpanzee already ;)).

    That said, i think when there are actual reasons, ugly consequences, oppressive heteronormativity, like in your examples, it’s worth the effort. And it’s nice excercise in general, for openess. And it’d be nice not to automatically judge our norms as better when faced with unknown. But assumptions in general are unavoidable, i’m afraid.

  6. December 9, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    Hence ‘trying’!

    Thanks for your comments thus far, everyone.

  7. P.T. Smith
    December 9, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    I’m new to some of this stuff, as my only studies in gender/feminist areas came from two college profs delightfully slipping it into whatever English course they taught, and I’d never heard “cis” before I started visiting here, so is it really considered insulting by some people? If I’m not opening too big a can of worms, what’s the reasoning behind that? Because it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. I could see how it could be used as an insult, but it doesn’t seem to be part of it’s main meaning, or how I’ve seen it used here. The idea of the term makes lots of sense to me and I’m glad I’ve learned it.

  8. Manju
    December 9, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    “These are the default humans, and we are assumed to be so unless we are otherwise. It’s a strange phenomenon, really: these identities are represented so often, in so many contexts, that we don’t even describe them anymore.”

    I don’t see whats so strange about it. Certain characteristics stand out because they’re unique. As a kid I as always the Indian kid, as there were no Indians around at the time but me. If you go to India, you’ll be the American, or maybe westerner or white. No Indian identifies other Indians as such b/c that’s the norm.

    So there are male nurses but female nurses are just nurses. white rappers, nba players, boxers, but no one bothers with the black qualifier, though it wasn’t always that way. Bam’s a black prez but W is just prez. I probably shouldn’t say this but I know there’s a gazillion people reading this thinking like me: “Whats the big deal?”

  9. R. Dave
    December 9, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    I’m not sure I really accept the “Default Human” narrative, as I think it confuses “default” with “majority”. The vast majority of people are, in fact, heterosexual and cis-gendered. Most don’t have a disability. Most lawyers are men and most nurses are women. In the US, most people are white and most are at least nominally Christian. And so on. I don’t see what’s so unreasonable about recognizing those facts and building them into the assumptions and decisions we make about the world around us.

  10. December 10, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Manju: Well, that’s the thing. I won’t be the American, or white, because I’m not either, as I’ve mentioned many times in this post and the previous one. In making assumptions, based on what you expect to encounter in this environment, you erase my identity. That’s the big deal.

    R. Dave: Again, what’s so unreasonable is that it erases the marginalised in favour of those privileged majorities.

    Seriously, can people read the posts properly before responding?

    • December 10, 2009 at 12:12 am

      Seriously, can people read the posts properly before responding?

      Oh you dear idealistic girl.

  11. Andrea
    December 10, 2009 at 12:13 am

    Oh please, there is no way to argue with what Chally wrote. One of the key concepts is naturalization, because only by making assumptions such as the ones she highlighted seem “natural” can ideology really operate. And naturalizing just means making structures seem invisible because they look like truth rather than like structures. And R. Dave, I can’t help but notice that when trying to re-conceive the “default” as the “majority” you conveniently left out women and people of color. Because they are also left out of the default human. So in actuality, if the default human is, as Chally says, a straight, white, cis, able-bodied male, that person is certainly not the majority if you agree to include all of the categories, rather than just the convenient ones.

  12. Hana
    December 10, 2009 at 1:58 am

    Is that really how you talk to your readers?

    “Seriously, can people read the posts properly before responding?”

    I think he read it, despite the AWFUL amount of tl;dr going on here. He posed a good question, and you had a bad answer.

    Seriously, can you try to help people understand before you flip?

  13. December 10, 2009 at 2:00 am

    P.T. Smith, I couldn’t pick just one link, so here are the results of my google search for ‘cis insult’.

    Oh you dear idealistic girl.

    I know, I know, expecting basic courtesy is too much in this world. Which was kinda the point of the post, I suppose.

    Andrea: And class, and oh so many things. Just because a particular identity is in the forefront of one’s mind or has the power majority doesn’t make people with that identity the numerical majority.

    ETA, as Hana posted while I was drafting this: Yeah, I do expect people to read posts, and as all the relevant information was in there, I don’t think either of those commenters did read properly. If you find my post so incredibly tl;dr, nobody’s making you read, but don’t use that as an excuse for not liking my answer or discomfort with the post or whatever’s going on there. I didn’t flip, I requested that people read before responding and not erase my identities when doing so, which is perfectly in line.

  14. December 10, 2009 at 2:25 am

    If you think the post is “too long, didn’t read”, the why the sodding hell are you commenting on it? o_O

    Moving on to more relevancy: It’s really really hard to turn off making assumptions about people. I catch myself doing it all the time no matter how good my intentions are. (For example, the fact that I’m vaguely surprised at seeing the picture of someone online and discovering that they’re a POC because I unconsciously expected them to be white is an obvious function of privilege.) Probably to some degree it’s an ingrained trait – have to be able to classify things as “threat” or “friend” or “food” or whatever. Which certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth trying to avoid forcing people into mental boxes. Hm.

  15. December 10, 2009 at 2:28 am

    Considering that Chally’s post was basically explaining why there is a problem with thinking “what’s the big deal,” I think her request that people read the post thoroughly is a fair one (if idealistic). Yea, it’s long, and I’m sure people have other things to do, but then don’t comment until you’ve fully read the post.

    Engaging is wonderful and the reason a lot of us blog in the first place. But engagement implies that there is a fair exchange going on.

    • December 10, 2009 at 10:58 am

      Considering that Chally’s post was basically explaining why there is a problem with thinking “what’s the big deal,” I think her request that people read the post thoroughly is a fair one (if idealistic). Yea, it’s long, and I’m sure people have other things to do, but then don’t comment until you’ve fully read the post.

      Seriously. Sorry if it came across as glib when I said she was idealistic for hoping people would actually read her post before they responded to it. I am constantly annoyed by the same thing — people who assume they know what you’re going to say or what you’re saying, so they just jump in. It is not asking to much to say that people should read and THEN comment. And should comment in response to something you actually wrote.

  16. xands
    December 10, 2009 at 2:34 am

    My mind is a bit sleep-addled and I might just be bitter–you see, I’ve been having to deal with the whole “erase my identity” thing pretty much since I started university. And so I read your first Identities post and this one and really all I can do is just nod. Uh, for example my white friends even my parents like to downplay or totally erase my racial identity–the joke here being that I’m black and it’s pretty hard to miss. A lot of the time over the net it comes to a shock to folks that I’m actually black and female. Gender, sexuality–I’ve been thinking about it recently, I write fiction and I realize that pretty much up until last year I wrote the “default”–white, able bodied, male (sometimes female) and it’s led to an identity crisis of sorts…it isn’t fun…

    But anyway, despite some non-readers I’ve been really interested in this series and thank you for posting on this topic.

  17. December 10, 2009 at 2:43 am

    Yes to everything in the post and especially to what Shiyiya said. I think the mental boxes is a part of getting by socially without having to engage too much. It’s pretty easy for a more privileged person to put someone in a box that is “other” so that you don’t have to engage with your own privilege. It allows you to just say things like, “that accessiblity issue is something that people with disabilities deal with, not me” and you can continue being blissfully ignorant of the way the world fails people with disabilities. It’s not intentional or conscious, it’s a function of privilege.

    Using the above example it doesn’t really matter whether people with disabilities are in the minority in your particular group or not, progressive people should at least *try* to unlearn that behaviour to prioritise marginalised voices.

    (I hope that all makes sense.)

  18. Manju
    December 10, 2009 at 3:17 am

    “Manju: Well, that’s the thing. I won’t be the American, or white, because I’m not either, as I’ve mentioned many times in this post and the previous one.”

    Sorry. I didn’t really have you in mind personally when I wrote that, though thats how it came out. I was thinking about the default person, and how that person would be otherized in a different context.

  19. December 10, 2009 at 3:53 am

    All right then, no worries. In that case: this post focusses on marginalised identities in particular that are invisibilised by people with non-marginalised identities, rather than assumptions about identities in general. Having those identities in particular erased means the erasure of history and experience (including of being marginalised) and the fact that there is privilege on the part of the unmarked group. That’s why it’s a big deal, in a way it isn’t for the default person.

  20. Bonn
    December 10, 2009 at 4:18 am

    I’m white, but in this country that is not the default. And I don’t match the default “foreigner” in the sexual department–not male. Most white foreigners here are men.

    Assumptions are made about my sexuality (easy! hooker!), my character (clown), my intelligence (stupid) my education (un), my hobbies (partying!), my diet (pizza and hamburgers), my language abilities, and so forth. People say the oddest things to me about what they “think” Americans are like. They ask the most condescending questions. And then we are public property. Want to grab my boobs? Touch my hair? Steal my glasses? Yeah, apparently that is all okay. (And if you’re male, prepare to be asked how big your cock is.)

    I’m also a criminal, noisy, likely to run home without paying bills, more likely to shoplift, more likely to murder you or steal your bicycle. When locals want to pin the blame on someone, they say, “A foreigner sold me those drugs,” or “I saw a foreigner in the area.” That doesn’t always mean any particular race. All foreigners are the same, anyway. White, Asian, black, whatever. We’re all dirty. Which is why it’s okay to refuse to let us rent apartments or charge us MORE money to rent apartments.

    But remember, racism doesn’t exist here, because only one race lives here. (Don’t think about that one too hard.) And people have told me I can’t experience racism because I’m white. Even in a country that has never had imperial rule where most people are NOT white. I’m basking in white privilege or something. I’d like to see a little of that, if they’re going to insist that it exists. Perhaps I could use it to get a credit card or not get stared at every moment of every day or treated like a human being once in a while and not asked inane questions. Or I could get cheaper rent since rental agencies can actually list “does not accept foreign tenants” on their listings. Instead I pay more for a place that’s friendly to foreign people. But no no no, no racism here. None at all.

  21. December 10, 2009 at 5:06 am

    I think putting people in boxes is not just habit, it’s a major function of our brain – pattern matching and creating templates for dealing with the world. By far the most efficient way to do this is to create a default a note the difference. It’s a good chunk of how our brains process information.

    I’m not defending this process, just explaining why people don’t just find it hard to break – they (meaning me too) react defensively when told it simply isn’t a good way to deal with people. It works so incredibly well in the short term and for yourself, it’s hard to let it go, and it seems incredibly counter-intuitive unless you really think hard about it.

    I find it so hard to make myself stop it – I usually find my brain offering to change the template, rather than not use it.

  22. December 10, 2009 at 6:13 am

    When I first began using the handle Jesurgislac it was because I had just had a really, really bad experience on a big online forum where someone who had taken against me had googled my handle (which was then closely related to my real name) and was posting pics of me to the board, while someone else (who had started out angry with me, and who lived less than 50 miles away) was threatening violence against me if he ever saw me. This was nearly 10 years ago but it’s not something I’ve forgotten: I invented the handle Jesurgislac and resolved to give no personal information away at all – not gender, not sexual orientation, not location.

    Quite rapidly, I discovered I was assumed to be straight, white, American, and male. I am white, but apart from that…

    …at first, after the bad experience, this was sort of comforting: nobody could find me because nobody knew who I was! Then it got weird, and I did at last out myself as a British lesbian. I had to do it a couple of times before it stuck, though.

  23. makomk
    December 10, 2009 at 6:44 am

    Chally: A lot of the Google results in respect to “cis insult” are the result of one particularly high-profile example over at Pam’s House Blend. Looks fairly typical: a cis guy complaining that being labeled as “cis” is offensive and wanting it to be treated as the default, followed by other cis people backing him up. (Plus some classic silencing tactics, including the tone argument…)

    The reason this was so high-profile is that Pam’s House Blend is a popular liberal blog that was – and still is – widely considered feminist. Despite this, the blog owner backed the side who thought “cis” was offensive, and banned everyone who called them on it from commenting. As far as I know, she never changed her mind, either.

    It’s a good example of just how nastily insidious this phenomenon is. (Also of why quite a few trans women either don’t call themselves feminists or don’t participate in the feminist movement much, though that’s off-topic. Same with women who aren’t white.)

  24. December 10, 2009 at 8:46 am

    I’d like to address more fully the point made by Manju and R. Dave about “default” versus “majority”, because as someone with training in mathematics I have wondered how much majority population factors into construction of default population.

    For instance, if we accept the commonly-used figure of 10% of folks are gay, then there’s a strong selective pressure towards assuming until proved otherwise (that is, taking as the default setting) that any given individual is straight – because you’re 9 times more likely to be right than not.

    The fundamental flaw in that attitude, as expressed by R. Dave in particular, is that there is no need to make any assumption at all about someone else’s sexuality; when dealing with someone individually the information is only relevant if you are a) planning to ask them on a date (or have sex with them) or b) planning a “norty” night out together and want to choose appropriate “norty” activities. When dealing with people en masse, it is dumb to assume ALL of them are straight: in fact, if there are ten people within earshot then (again using the 10% estimate) the chances are better than 65% that at least one of them is gay (barring other factors of selection for the audience, of course). Incidentally, the tipping-point at which it becomes more likely that there is a gay person there than not is at 7 people present (approximately 53%). So, mathematically, using a “default human” model to address any audience above a very small group is folly, because of course “gay” is not the only minority group in town. If we factor in deafness as well, then the probability that there are is at least one deaf person in an audience of 10 is around 1 in 5 (and of course, there’s a certain probability that person could be the same as the gay person if zie is there).

    All of which happens long before we get to the question of “woman” being defined as “other” and “man” being defined as “default”.

    The other point, which was covered quite well in the OP, and has been discussed since in comments, is that the causes of “default human” assumptions aren’t all that important. What matters is the effect it has on people. Being non-default and therefore “invisibilised” (to use the coinage of the OP) makes one vulnerable as an individual and collectively as a group because it’s assumed you don’t exist, and if you are revealed to exist then it means you have no meaning or validity because your concerns are not “real” concerns that matter to “most people”. This ties in to Chally’s remarks about erasing of history and experience.

    So, it is a huge deal indeed.

  25. P.T. Smith
    December 10, 2009 at 9:04 am

    @ Chally

    Thanks for the direction. I still don’t see the reason in the objection to cis, but only in the same way I don’t see the reason in the objections to your post here. Cis works better for me than anything I saw thrown around as other options in those links.

  26. December 10, 2009 at 10:32 am

    @Bonn: Is there a link to this forum from or something? Do you really expect people here are going to pat you on the back about those nasty Japanese*?

    I have NO sympathy for you. White foreigners get a huge amount of privilege in Japan. White teachers are massively privileged over Asian-Americans and other POC Americans when it comes to jobs, because it’s assumed they know English better. You people don’t really care about racism in Japan, which predominantly affects non-white people anyway, you just exploit it to play Oppression Olympics and attack people of color in America. Now that your Japanophilia has worn off and you realize Japanese aren’t going to bow and scrape to you and instantly accept you, because they’re actually complicated and flawed human beings, you’re better off leaving as soon as your contract expires.

    (or, perhaps, Koreans, though I’m guessing Japanese).

  27. watson
    December 10, 2009 at 11:12 am

    @Bonn – cry me a fucking river. I get treated that way in my own country because I’m not white, and a woman. I was born and raised here in the USA. Yet people constantly make assumptions about my sexuality, my character, my intelligence, my education, my hobbies, my diet, my language abilities, etc. I could go on for days about things like: I’ve had landlords renege on apartments because when I show up to sign the lease, suddenly the apartment is unavailable (even though everything was discussed and confirmed by phone and email), with comments like “You don’t look like how you sound on the phone.” Or getting stopped on the street by cops for walking in my own neighborhood. Or how I’m treated as easy access any time I’m in public, no matter what the situation, even in a Brooks Brothers suit on the way to the office. I could go on…

  28. P.T. Smith
    December 10, 2009 at 11:50 am

    What the hell just happened here?

    Bonn provided what I read as a direct example of the problem with assuming the default human, and did in a manner that might help the supposed default human go “oooohhh.” And in reaction, she gets called, with absolutely NO GROUNDS, a racist, playing the Oppression Olympics (followed by someone actually playing the Oppression Olympics), a Japanophiliac….what the fuck?

    I think I’m quitting the Internet. Even sites I like, that have a lot of good, thoughtful stuff on it reguarly send me into fits of believing that people are absolutly incapable of talking to each other…

  29. DAS
    December 10, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I agree with the post in general, but I am not so sure about your point with “the blond guy”. We European-origin types do tend to have a wider variety of hair-colors than people of other origins, so we get used to using hair-color as an identifier (to the extent that when faced with ethnicities that are primarily raven-haired we stereotypically say “they all look alike”).

    Catfood’s point in the first comment is also interesting. As a post-doc, I lived in a predominately African-American apartment complex (being a post-doc, my nickname was “the professor”). Whenever I was at a BBQ I would inevitably see someone gesturing toward me and asking “who is the white guy?”. Perhaps more interesting is that my whiteness “disappeared” when another identity was made for me: e.g. the response would not be “he’s the one they call ‘the professor'” or “turns out he’s engaged to a Black girl” … it was always “oh, he’s not white, he’s ‘the professor'” or “oh, he’s not white, his girlfriend is Black”. Since I am about as white as they come (pink-skinned, blue-eyed, red-haired, likes polka music ;) ), I found it interesting that suddenly, under certain circumstances, I became “not white”.

  30. December 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Look, yes, everyone automatically categorizes people. There are biological and psychological reasons and methods that are too much to get into right now w/o completely derailing so perhaps we’ll leave the why and how to another post and just start from there, ok?

    But the fact of the matter is that it’s possible for people to learn how to back off of those labels. While your initial reaction to somebody might be to start checking off what boxes they fit into, you can stop yourself in the process or after the fact. Now, you use more brain power in order to do that, so you need to be invested in trying to get to know the person rather than the boxes.

    That’s what makes discussions like this so important. Because the “what’s the problem” reaction is what we’re socialized to have, so we need to be reminded of the fact that there are real people inside everyone whether we know it on a conscious level or not.

    So if you did have that reaction, please pay closer attention than you would normally. And even if you didn’t, try to really sit with what’s being said because even if you don’t realize it, your brain needs the reminder.

  31. December 10, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Nice piece, Chally. On a personal note, I’d like to add that I don’t think there’s a setting in which the default body is more literally true than in med school. Not only is most of “evidence-based medicine” based on evidence taken from the male body, but studies that do incorporate other groups are largely utilized to improve the health of white male bodies. I had somewhat of an expectation of this prior to starting, but it’s quite stunning just how constant and literal the white, abled image cultivation is.

  32. DAS
    December 10, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Another question is what are people with “non-default” identities supposed to do about it? Is it appropriate for us to try and establish communities or even nation-states in which our identity is the default identity or is such self-segregation ultimately backwards and wrongheaded?

    And what if people of non-default identity X do self-segregate? Should people not of that identity then complain about this self-segregation and demand that people of identity X not treat themselves as “default” within their own community?

  33. December 10, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    You are so right.
    For years, I have been trying in writing classes to get students to think about the ways they use language re: race, gender, orientation. It’s most often a hard sell.

    Your post also reminded me of how so many people say they are having ethnic food! Same thing – what food isn’t ethnic?

  34. Jadey
    December 10, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Over the last year or so, I’ve taken on a personal project to alter my frame of reference of the world around me by (as much as is possible) cultivating an awareness of *when* I make assumptions, *what* those assumptions are, and then challenging them, similar to the exercise you describe, Chally. Obviously this takes some spare mental energy, which I don’t always have, and I do often slip up and forget, but it’s like building any habit — the more I do it, the less I have to think about doing it.

    For the more visually oriented, I try to think of it as the mental equivalent of an athlete taking a ready stance — knees slightly bent, senses perked, ready to move in whichever direction is required. Okay, a little more relaxed than that, but similar. It doesn’t mean creating new defaults, but just being more flexible from the start.

    I’ve heard people make arguments that it only makes sense to base assumptions and expectations on most likely scenarios — it’s more cognitively efficient. But the human brain is capable of efficiently automating all sorts of supremely complex behavioural and thought patterns (hello, driving!), and it can be trained and re-trained.

  35. Jadey
    December 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    @ DAS

    I don’t think that the recognition of the fallacy of “default” identities necessitates segregation by identity. At the very least, everyone’s identity is incredibly complex and encompasses a vast range of identities (e.g., the same person have identities as male, gay, poor, Muslim, educated, Dutch, masculine, black, athletic, middle-aged, conservative, able-bodied, and so on.), and no two people necessarily have the same exact set of identities, because we are all different and lead different lives. It’s just that sometimes some of one person’s identities are taken for granted and others are made especially salient, depending on the circumstances, and there are patterns to the salience of identities that reflect oppression. But the problem isn’t in the identities or the possession of different identities — it’s in the structure by which we perceive them.

  36. Katie
    December 10, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    @Bonn – your comments really come off as derailing and Oppression-Olympics-esque. This conversation isn’t about your problems as a white person in Unspecificied Country that People Claimed Has No Racism. Your attempts to make it so have the effect of recentering the discussion around white people/privileged bodies once again.

  37. P.T. Smith
    December 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm


    Thanks for that. I think I have a bad habit of following derails just because they are so infuriating. I agree completely with this response to Bonn, the style and content of the previous just annoyed me too much to do anything about it. I think what Bonn was trying (I think) to do, but did so poorly, with no elaboration, was trying to give an example that would set privileged people onto a path towards understanding the problem, or perhaps more accuratly, towards understanding that there is a problem, and that we can’t understand it’s damage so we should listen when people who can discuss it.

    The example I’ve come up with – and let me be clear, I know this is not the same thing, and I am not trying to say “I understand, I know what it’s like – is something I encounter fairly often. I don’t share the mindset of a “guy’s guy;” but if I’m hanging out with a random group of guys, coworkers, whatever, there is an attitude that often comes up, an attitude towards women, towards any difference really, or just about how we should be behaving in our own personal space. I’m not explaining this well, but I suspect people have an idea of what I’m talking about. This attitude isn’t something I share. They, however, are assuming “Default Human.” Specifically, Default Man. I have to either stand up for my different attitude, and depending on the group the ease of doing so and possible responses differ; or I let them overwrite my personality based on the default assumption, making me part of that.

    Again, I know that this isn’t the same, isn’t even close, but it is a way of assuming that overwrites my personality, and there are people here who don’t seem to get what a massive problem that is in the ways Chally discussed, so I’m attempting to come up with some small comparison that is relatable, hoping they can then realize the gap between that overwrite and the overwrites that matter so much more, and are so much more difficult to correct.

  38. person with a disability
    December 10, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I’d just like to mention that I vehemently disagree with the social model of disability. I suffer from two significant (and invisible) disabilities: epileptic seizures and genital hypersensitivity. The seizures cause me significant pain from headaches and muscle problems. They also create a risk of serious physical injury or even death. The second makes it essentially impossible to engage in sex acts that involve my genitals, because touching them is painful rather than pleasurable. These problems have nothing to do with society’s failure to adjust and everything to do with my suffering from medical conditions that need treatment.

    This is not to say that the social model of disability has no validity, but it is completely contrary to my experience and the experience of many others.

  39. December 10, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Oh dear, person with a disability, it’s sounds like you’ve been encountering those social modelites who don’t take into account impairment, and I’m sorry for that. I think the social model has a lot more merit the way it’s mostly used: taking into account one’s impairment as well as disabling factors in society. It’s a lot more useful that way! :) Does that help at all?

  40. Jay@racialicious
    December 10, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    And in reaction, she gets called, with absolutely NO GROUNDS

    I don’t think there’s exactly “no grounds” for it. Bonn seems to have set up a straw-antiracist to knock down. She also seems to think (mistakenly) that white privilege means that you’ll get an advantage every single time every single place everywhere. But that isn’t what that means, and it can get tiring explaining that to white people who insist that because of that, everything is super equal and PoC have nothing to complain about.

    Moreover, being “public property” in that instance is also a function of her being a woman on top of her being white.

  41. December 10, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Bonn seems to have set up a straw-antiracist to knock down.

    Yes. Also, she fails to take into account that models and ideals of racism as we understand them in some countries (like US, Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe) do not apply the same way in other parts of the world (I am thinking, for example, Asia). I know she didn’t name a country specifically, but I can apply some of her examples to some of my own experiences in Korea, but it isn’t what I would call a result of racism, or reverse racism (because despite my appearance I am non-white, but I do garner a heap of white privilege because of assumptions) or whatever. Racism exists in this part of the world, believe me, but it doesn’t apply in the same way that it does to us in the West or Australia (from what I have heard, not living in Oz myself). It is far more nuanced than that.

    Also, there are heaps of ways that being a Westerner has been a huge privilege. My English skills are in high demand so I am constantly being asked to tutor children (which is illegal under my status here), I feel that I am treated better than some other people just because of that status. I still feel the sexism… but that is a whole ‘nother comment… Another comment still would be accessibility for the disabled. Seoul knocks some stuff of the globe, and really falls behind in other areas. But, again, you have to look at that stuff from a different point of view. It isn’t always as easy as comparing it to our own understanding of how things work in our own country/culture.

  42. December 10, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    err…i meant to say something along the lines of “reverse racism, which doesn’t really exist”. Feel free to make up something that makes sense, and imagine that I cleverly included it. I don’t have the mental spoons to do so now.

  43. December 11, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    @Bonn – your comments really come off as derailing and Oppression-Olympics-esque. This conversation isn’t about your problems as a white person in Unspecificied Country that People Claimed Has No Racism.

    I think that’s incorrect. It seemed to me that Bonn was simply reminding us that White Male Etc Default is actually Something Else Entirely Default in different parts of the world.

  44. Manju
    December 12, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    “i meant to say something along the lines of “reverse racism, which doesn’t really exist””

    My understanding of the more sophisticated construction of this argument is that its not so much that reverse racism doesn’t exist, but rather reverse systemic and/or intsituional racism doesn’t exist, since the latter types neccesitate power differences while the former, if it is recognized as racism at all, is merely individual prejudice.

    The problem is, in the context in which Bonn is speaking, is the premise (power differentials) on which the theory “reverse racism doesn’t exist” even there? She is an ethnic minority in a largely homogeneous and patriarchal culture; one of the wealthiest nations on earth that at one time succumbed to fascism, brutally colonized other nations and attacked the US, which of course is a sign of a more than a little jingoism within the aforementioned culture; which in turn stereotypes white westerners as having a lower IQ, loose sexual mores, and value education less.

    So forgive me for rolling my eyes at the notion that being seen as good English teachers amounts to a massive privilege, especially since we don’t even know if Bonn is a native English speaker.

    Methinks the reason her comments hit a nerve is she problematized power theories of racism. Progressives often have trouble dealing with POC when they step outside the identity of victim.

  45. Tlönista
    December 12, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    And at the same time as I’m being misread, I have guilt, because sometimes I cultivate a white, abled image for safety or comfort. […]

    If I don’t need to know, I don’t need to know. Someone else’s comfort is more important that the satisfaction of my curiousity.

    Yes. As much as it twinges to be thoughtlessly, instantly misread—I have been pried at, and it goes right to the core. For them, race or ability is not a big deal. For me, it is deeply personal and there is no simple answer.

    It’s such a common tendency, to be uncomfortable with ambiguity—I know I am, often, and I’m ambiguous myself. It’s hard to get over.

    As for the derailing:

    Methinks the reason her comments hit a nerve is she problematized power theories of racism. Progressives often have trouble dealing with POC when they step outside the identity of victim.

    Er. Many of the people objecting to Bonn’s comments are, in fact, POC.

  46. Manju
    December 12, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    “Many of the people objecting to Bonn’s comments are, in fact, POC.”

    Yes, but the point is they’re progressives.

  47. December 12, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    And progressive POC love to be victims?

  48. December 13, 2009 at 10:27 am

    My understanding of the more sophisticated construction of this argument

    … oh, eff off, will you? That was really unnecessary.

    And, to be sure, I’d rather converse with people who have an intuitive grasp of important concepts than people who can rationalize their bigotries with surface sophistication.

  49. December 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    What was Manju saying that could be described as bigoted? I read a thorough and reasonable summary of facts about a nation and that nation’s history and structure.

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