Monday, January 09, 2006

My problem with -isms

I've already written about some of my reactions to this post on Alas, but when Heart wrote about racism and classism, I realised I had fundamental objections to the -ism tag. I think left-wing blogs are particularly likely to use these terms: as well as racism and sexism, it's classism, sizism and able-bodyism, and so reading these blogs has crystalised my objections.

To be totally clear it's not that I don't think these issues are important. It's that I think the -ism tag makes it sounds like these forms of oppression operate in the same way, when I think they operate in very different ways. I have a similar problem with the term 'identify politics' - I think the movements that have grown up to fight these issues are as different as they are the same.

First lets do a quick history of the words. The term 'racism' was coined in the 1930, and a resonably standard dictionary definition looks like this:

1: the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races
2: discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race
Sexism was coined by the feminist movement in the 1960s, and obviously based on the word 'racism' (I've seen documents from the late 1960s when the term 'sexism' was footnoted and explained). It became widespread at a time feminist theory and analysis was in its infancy. All the other terms have come into use more recently

The problem to me of using -ism words to describe oppression is that the tag has a certain set of implications, they imply that the problem is a problem with indviduals, and they don't imply any analysis of power. So you talk about 'institutional sexism', because without it 'sexism' is assumed to be the act of an individual. You can talk about Maori racism against Pakeha, because there's no assumption that 'racism' or 'sexism' involve power.

So, to me, neither 'racism' or 'sexism' really describe what's going on. In New Zealand I think the term 'colonialism' is more useful to describe relationships between Pakeha and Maori, because it's more specific. While in America the term 'white supremacy' is often used.

The use of terms like 'classism', 'sizism', and 'able-bodyism' just exacerbate this problem. To me, the term 'classism' implies that the problem with class is discrimination, when I think any analysis of class has to start with the extraction of surplus labour. As I said on Alas: The problem with the class system is that people get to live off someone else's work, not just that they make fun of their accents while doing so.

Meanwhile 'sizism' and 'able-bodyism' imply that we already have an analysis of the body in society, and that it is analogous to the systems of race and gender. I'm not convinced on either point.

Homophobia and Hetrocentric, on the other hand, do a pretty good job (between them) of describing what is actually going on (although they still have individualistic over-tones). I think rather than using terms that imply that all oppressions work the same way, we should use terms that analyse of how different oppressions actually work.

I find I'm writing more about language far more than I would have expected. I think there is a link between precise language and useful analysis. If we're not quite sure what's going on, it makes it a hell of a lot harder to explain it.


  1. I think the term 'classist' is actually really useful in restricted circumstances - in particular when talking about some privileged left-wing activists and the way they regard people outside of their immediate social group.

    Some activists appear to regard people from poorer areas in NZ as the heart of the problem - they eat the 'wrong' food, they overconsume, they are thought to be the source of discriminatory behaviour etc etc.

    There is no issue here with the theft of profit, it's pure snobbery and lack of analysis. I think the best way to sum that up is classism - which at least introduces the notion that there is something called class to the argument.

  2. I'm not sure that calling it snobbery and lack of analysis isn't more useful than calling it 'classism' myself. But I do think the problem is if the list becomes racism, sexism, classism, sizism, able-bodyism etc.

  3. I've been reading US material on 'white privilege' and 'white supremacy' and couldn't see how to make that work when organising and educating in NZ. I agree that the tag colonialism fits better as the dynamic here between Maori, and Pakeha and Tauiwi. Although, since there is insitituional racism in NZ against Asian people for example getting work or the way particularly Asian students have been treated in terms of English language programmes in secondary schools, how does that fit in to colonialism?

    Do you see problems in terms of power relations between men and women also relating to colonialism? Sorry may be I'm a bit dim today, but could you clarify what you're saying?

  4. Meanwhile 'sizism' and 'able-bodyism' imply that we already have an analysis of the body in society, and that it is analogous to the systems of race and gender.

    Could you please expand on this a little? In particular, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "an analysis of the body in society."

    Excellent post, btw - exactly what I needed to read right now, actually, for some thinking I'm trying to do about anti-fat bigotry and how it relates (or doesn't relate) to other oppressions.

  5. John I do see relationships between men and women as shaped by colonialism, but only in the sense that gendered norms change to reflect the economic needs of society. Also a racism ususally shapes the gender system (especially when it comes to sex and sexuality).

    Amp - I'll attempt to clarify, although it's not 100% clear in my head. I would say that fat and disability were situated in your body, in the way that gender and race are not (even though there are bodily manifestations of both). So to analyse fat and disability we have to analyse the role of the body in our society, and what other things (such as gender and race) influence it. I don't think I know enough about how this works to compare it to race and gender (and as I said I don't necessarily think race and gender are that analogous).

    As I posted on your blog, I find it very hard to look at at fat issues except through a feminist framework. For me, and the women I know (whatever size they are), fat, and fear of fat, is very much tied up with our experiences as women and to seperate an analysis of fat from that would make it harder to analyse what's going on.

    It's not that I don't make these comparisons sometime. I once had a long argument with someone about what the university should do with some inaccessible houses it owned and were currently used for classes. I didn't really having a problem with them selling them, because I didn't think the university should own inaccessible housing. The person argued that they should be turned into student housing, and that it didn't matter if these houses weren't inaccesible for people with disabilities, as long as there was some housing that was accessible (and there wasn't really - but that was another issue). I found this argument rather bothersome, for some obvious reasons, and an analogy was a good way of pointing that out. But I was trying to make a specific point, and wouldn't want to generalise further.

    To go back to your point on your blog I actually think blackface and fatsuits are very different, and those differences are interesting and important. To just say 'fatsuits are like blackface', is, for me, to ignore what's going on.

    Probably clear as mud.

  6. "In New Zealand I think the term 'colonialism' is more useful to describe relationships between Pakeha and Maori, because it's more specific."

    Is the above statement trying to claim that all Pakeha have a colonial relationship over all Maori? This would make more sense if it said "the term 'Colonialism" is more useful to describe the relationship between the New Zealand State and Maori". Though even this is considerably general and limited.
    Though I prefer the word "imperialism" to "colonialism" as imperialism is a more general term. In 2006 many people and countries suffer from Imperialism without actually being colonised.

  7. Nick what it meant is that I don't think that racism is a specific enough word to describe the interaction between Pakeha and Maori in this country. The main connotations of 'racism' are discrimination. I don't think discrimination is enough. I think colonialism helps describe some things that racism doesn't. I wouldn't (and didn't) universalise that to cover all interactions

    I generally prefer specific language to general language. I think the more precisely we describe a situation, the better we can understand it.

    It's only through writing this blog, that I've come to understand how much this matters to me. I've found myself writing about words much more than I'd ever expected. Here's an early example of why I think using the write word matters.