One of the cool things about being a blogger is that sometimes people working on essays or theses want to interview you about your blog. One of those people is my birthday buddy Liz Ellcessor, who’s working on her PhD about disability and the Internet. She asked me a question in particular that I thought would be of interest to you, readers, which I’ve included below with a slightly edited response.
Some of my favorite of your posts are those that attempt to address the complexities of identity, such as your July 2011 post about invisibility. How do you see racial, gender, sexuality, disability, and other vectors of identity relating to one another? Do you think web media makes identity more or less visible?
I’ve been told that exploring the complexities of identity is my main theme, and I’m now seeing that as my project, at Zero at the Bone, at least.
That post from July 2011 was partly in response to an anonymous thread on which a picture of me from my blog was posted. The image was presented in order to mock any claim I had to talk about racism on Feministe. It was pretty devastating to have my status as a non-white person mocked, both in light of the substantial pain I have around having my racial status doubted and also the extensive work I’d done at Feministe on visibility, identity, and racism.
In Australia, it’s considered incredibly racist to doubt someone’s racial status on the basis of light colouring, largely because of the particular history we have of trying to “breed out” the indigeneity from our Indigenous peoples, and it was really hard to relate to anyone feeling comfortable positioning me, in the name of social justice, as less than a real non-white person. Trying to arbitrarily assign particular features, physical or otherwise, as belonging to people with a particular background is basically how racism starts, and it has been really bizarre to be told I’m really white, or not a real non-white person, because of literally how I look. I’m just an improbably pale lady without any traceable white ancestors, and I’m okay with using that to intervene in the racist idea that there is an essential way people of particular backgrounds “should” look.
I am atypical in a lot of ways: I can often pass as white, and non-disabled, and normative in other respects, and the Internet has been an important place for me to play around with identity, and expand people’s ideas beyond essentialist notions of various identities. I use how I look, and how I identify, in heavily politicised ways. On the Internet, you can hide a lot about yourself, and I do that, as I do in the offline world, but it’s also a unique platform in which to be visible. I don’t have to let people’s perceptions of how I look, or what they expect from someone with my stated identities, be the last word. I can contextualise those immediate perceptions, take control back, and tell thousands of people who I am. I’m visible on the Internet in ways I am not to people I’ve known for a decade.
I suppose that various components of identity intersect in terms of those concerns about visibility, but I also understand race, gender, sexuality, disability, and so forth as relating to each other in all kinds of ways. White womanhood is defended and idealised where non-white womanhood is not. Many people are reluctant to acknowledge people with disabilities as having sexualities, and certainly not queer ones. I know I’m seen as silly and hysterical or making up my chronic illnesses specifically because I’m a woman. I have an amazing doctor who doesn’t subject me to those attitudes, however – but that’s because I can afford him, with the funds that come attached to being middle class. I’m extremely conscious of how racialised ideas influence how people might understand me as a sexual woman. It’s all intertwined in many, many, many ways.
I’m left with a few questions and thoughts.
1. I think part of what prompted that hatefulness I experienced in that thread is a result of people feeling that the anonymity afforded by the Internet means that they can say whatever they want. Why is it so common to react to hurt others when people claim to be doing social justice? What is it about the blogosphere that facilitates that?
2. I think part of it also is unfamiliarity with the ways in which race operates, and an emphasis on visuality in identifying race that I encounter from the US more than anywhere else. I find this really strange, and I find it stranger that there’s an unwillingness in the blogosphere to expand ideas of culture, and social injustice, beyond that set of borders. It drastically limits the way in which marginalisation can be visible. So, I suppose: how do we open things up?
3. How do you yourself use the Internet to play with visibility, and reveal yourself in ways you haven’t been seen in offline?
4. Do you use your visibility, or invisibility, in politicised ways?
5. How does the structure of Internet social justice prevent particular experiences from being visible?