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.