Reading Summary: November 4, Intersectionality

In this post I offer a summary of each of the readings for this week, trying to draw some threads of commonality between them. I then offer up three sets of questions for our discussion.

Carbado, Crenshaw, Mays, Tomlinson, Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory

I’d argue that Carbado et al provide a really useful set of touchstones for the other readings. The authors contend that intersectionality is always a work-in-progress. It must be allowed to move from discipline to discipline within academia, it must be understood in an international context of recognition and usage, and it must be extended beyond the case of black women to other races, genders and sexualities (even as the generative power of its emergence from black womens’ issues continues to be foregrounded). They call for an approach that “conceptualiz[es] intersectionality in terms of what [different] actors mobilize it to do”, in the hopes that such an approach (that finds evidence of the scope intersectionality from the ground up) will allow us to then reflect back on the potential of the theory itself.

John Scalzi, Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is?

In this relatively short piece from his blog, Scalzi attempts to communicate the power of white male privilege to his target audience of tech-savvy straight white males by circumventing words like “privilege” and drawing on the metaphor of gaming difficulty settings. I’d argue that Scalzi’s piece is an example of an attempt to explain intersectionality without using any of the terms of the discourse as it was developed (or really, any terms that might ‘trigger’ his readers, from ‘racism’ to ‘sexism’ to ‘privilege’). Scalzi analogizes life as a straight white male to the experience of playing a video/computer game in which the user plays on the lowest difficulty setting. This means he has very low threshholds for “leveling up”, etc: the game is simply “automatically easier to play” for this user. It is possible that users operating on another setting—say, gay Indian male—might advance further in the game than a user operate on SWM. Regardless, the user operating on SWM setting is still operating on the lowest possible difficulty setting there is, and will always have that advantage within the game. In hammering home the import of this metaphor, Scalzi explains that in the “real world” version of this game, no one gets to choose their difficulty setting, and the game is only played once.

Lisa Nakamura, Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital

Nakamura’s piece brilliantly critiques some of the problematic effects of Scalzi’s use of the metaphor of “the game”. First, she explains that this metaphor of the game obscures the fact that structures of oppression are in fact processes of oppression that are continually produced and re-produced by our participation in them. By framing these structures as a static and neutrally-authored “game” (as a computer game is often understood to be), Scalzi unwittingly absolves his straight white male readers of their responsibility in continuing to perpetuate the structures that advantage them and disadvantage others. The metaphor is effective precisely because it allows straight white male readers to abstract themselves from the system. Second, Nakamura argues that the piece re-inscribes the exclusion of gamers who are not straight while males from the realm of gaming altogether, and further contributes to the re-inscription of white males as internet authorities and others as marginalized voices. On the most basic level, Scalzi uses his cultural and technical capital vis a vis gaming to communicate as the member of an “in group” of techie dudes who already see women of color (for example) as “outsiders”. This results in content that reinscribes gaming as a “white spatial imaginary” by hailing technical gaming knowledge like ‘leveling up’ or ‘dump stats’ as the automatic territory of a white dude.

A graphic suggesting that games are often designed with white male protagonists as if others are irrelevant or undesirable, highlighting another way in which gaming is a "white spatial imaginary".

A graphic suggesting that games are often designed with white male protagonists as if others are irrelevant or undesirable, highlighting another way in which gaming is a “white spatial imaginary”.

Lastly, Nakamura calls for scholars and journalists to pay way more attention to gaming space as an extremely important location in which white patriarchy plays out and needs to be further theorized.

Aaminah Khan, Toxicity: the True Story of Mainstream Feminism’s Violent Gatekeepers

Khan takes up a set of recent events in which women of color who have critiqued mainstream white feminists for their lack of engagement with race have come under fire for “bullying”, “toxicity”, “anger” or “meanness”. Khan understands these issues as a matter of the re-inscription of racist “respectability politics” in online discourse and community-building. Through a description of these events and in interview-style soundbites from Dzodan and others, Khan argues convincingly that mainstream feminist practices (which tend to ignore the realities of the racism and sexism) have failed repeatedly to engage with intersectionality, all while purporting to do so. She also highlights the fact that often, WoC have fought against the mainstream feminist discourses of major news outlets and blogs from the relatively smaller platforms of personal blogs and twitter accounts. This illuminates the relationship between capital, power, race, and critique on the internet (a theme which is taken up by Brock et al in another reading, albeit quite differently)

Brock, Kvasny, Hales, Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital

I’ve put the Brock piece last on this list in part because I believe it invites us to take the insights from the previous pieces and look to the production of further work on this topic, and gives us an example of how we might do so. Brock et al argue against the use of a deficit model of analysis to understand black engagement with the Internet. Drawing on Bordieu’s theory of technical and social capital and black feminist theory, the authors analyze the content of discourse on three popular blogs (Jezebel, Racialicious, and Essence’s online site) on the topic of black women and marriage in the United States.

A screenshot of a comment from the Jezebel.com post under discussion, on community and disagreement within online forums.

A screenshot of a comment from the Jezebel.com post under discussion, on community and disagreement within online forums.

Moving away from a deficit model (in which marginalized groups are understood to be incapable of crossing the digital divide), the authors illuminate the diverse ways in which black women actually agentively participate in these conversations about black femininity and experience by leveraging particular kinds of ‘cultural capital’ and knowledge (to pose counter-hegemonic narratives about their own identities and positionalities in response to mainstream narratives. In doing so, the authors reject the notion that underserved groups lack the cultural and technical capital to participate in ICT, and point out that by paying closer attention to the ways in which some online environments do encourage such participation, we might be able to design other online environments to do so as well.

I see three broad sets of questions emerging from these readings:

  • What is gained or lost in the “movement” and transformation of frameworks like intersectionality across time, space, and context (from the initial iteration of Crenshaw et al’s notion of intersectionality to its traces and imprints in John Scalzi’s piece?) How can we helpfully identify differences in the movement of structures of oppression that have ‘migrated’ (as Dzodan puts it in Khan’s piece) from the real world to social media and online discourse, and then back again?
  • What is the ‘line’ between the personal and the structural, and how is this line is articulated, contested, and re-produced in online conversations about privilege and oppression? Here we might think about the way that critiques of oppression are variously understood to be either personal or structural (ie, claims that WoC are bullying white feminists online when they critique them). We might also think about the differences between intersectionality as an identity, as a practice individuals might engage in, and as a dynamic framework for approaching and understanding reality.
  • Lastly, what would it look like to develop further investigations of the ways in which intersectionality is articulated, extended and developed by different groups in different communities online? Can we think of examples (like the Brock piece on black women) of this that are already happening? Relatedly, how could online communities and websites be better designed to allow for such interactions and discussions to take place?

References:

  • Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013. 
“INTERSECTIONALITY: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.
  • Scalzi, John. 2014. “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” Accessed Nov 2 <http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/&gt;
  • Nakamura, Lisa. 2012. “Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming 
Rhetoric as Gender Capital.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. 
http://adanewmedia.org/2012/11/issue1-nakamura/.
  • Khan, Aaminah. 2014. “Toxicity: The True Story of Mainstream Feminism’s Violent Gatekeepers.” 
Accessed Nov 2 <http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/02/toxicity-true-story-mainstream-
feminisms-violent-gatekeepers/&gt;
  • Brock, André, Lynette Kvasny, and Kayla Hales. 2010. “Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital.” 
Information, Communication &amp; Society 13 (7): 1040–59.
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