monolith

Not a Monolith

December 9, 2013

“I really liked your game Dys4ia.”

I remember the first time I got this. I corrected them.

“Oh, sorry, it was LIM then?”

No.

“Howling Dogs?”

By now, it’s a bit of a painful inside joke. For those who don’t know, the game the person is thinking about is Mainichi, and all these games were mentioned because they were created by queer women. I’m aware that people mainly approach my work because it’s a game done by a queer woman, and that is the context it’s allowed to exist in the main conversation. A piece of common wisdom out sociological research is that there’s more variation within a group of people than between two different groups separated by identity markers. For instance, there are more things different between all women than there are differences between men and women. This is the same for the women of a ‘queer movement’ in games that are picked to be representatives. Yes, those are scare quotes.

Looking at Dys4ia, LIM, Howling Dogs, and Mainichi, the differences in design is so apparent, that being developed by queer women is the least interesting thing about them. Yet, that’s how they are packaged, and the only time they are allowed to be highlighted.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my relationship to labels in social justice, how they help and hinder. These labels help people form a community and easily communicate ideas to people. The press’ acceptance of social justice banks on everyone knowing their labels so they can easily speak to certain audiences and reference certain identities. Because of this, people will only talk about me when it’s a feature on a queer woman. What about my writing, my theory, my design, my life? Why only the trans* side of my queerness? I’m just lumped into one category and left to rot.

It’s easy to pick on mainstream discourse, though. It has a strange way of being too fast-moving and too slow-moving at the same time when it comes to these issues. It’s not a complex argument to advocate that my work shouldn’t be tokenized because of my identity. But I want to understand how this affects social justice discourse in games, and how communities of people exist within a movement.

What do you think of when you see ‘straight white male’? The privileged, the problem? True, in some cases. This term is wielded like a sledgehammer in many conversations surrounding social justice, almost used as a rallying call. But this feeds into our short attention span and unexamined biases. If that straight white man was gender variant, disabled, considered old, poor, non-English speaking, not of European descent, would we still confront them? Straight white male isn’t the privileged class, but we cling to that soundbite. This can be used the opposite way as well. Think of what’s happening with the LGBT movement. It really should just be called the GL movement that expects equality to return once same-sex marriage is allowed everywhere; bisexual and trans* people are afterthoughts that still face discrimination within that community. And let’s not forget that other letters that are often left off for ‘ease.’ Are there are as many conversations about two-spirited, queer, questioning, asexual, and intersex people? What about those not donned with an acronym? Do they just not exist?

The politics within social justice is just as important as the politics outside of it. Who are the voices being heard, what are the relationships between them, what is being swept under the rug? It is a common occurrence to hush things like abuse or marginalization in order to appear like the model minority. This is particularly true for domestic violence. What do we get by trying to be the perfect woman community, the perfect trans* person, perfectly impoverished?

Intersectionality is a good word to know, but difficult to practice. In essence, it is observance of variation within certain labels, such as the difference of experience between women and non-white women. Many people think that intersectionality is counting up all of your labels and taking an authoritative stance on each one, with more martyr points going to those with more marginalized identities. This seems useful for dealing with the public; someone might say something about women in games, and then I can remind them that it does not apply to me as a queer, non-white, poor woman in games. But even that is disingenuous, I cannot speak for all of these general groups and their intersections with other politics at the same time. Where it becomes dangerous is within the social justice movement itself.

Colloquially, it’s called oppression olympics. It’s a race to the bottom to find out who’s most oppressed and therefore right in an argument. Winning the oppression olympics, with a weird inclusion of owning membership to an identity when someone is accused of internalized marginalization, is used as a bullying tactic both within social justice and to people outside of it. Count up how oppressed you are, and if you win, you get to automatically be right and make generalizations both for the identities you subscribe to and the ones you perceive your opponent to be.

I remember getting into an argument with someone, who accused me of classism. A lot of wheels turned for me because of this confrontation. The main one was my gut reaction to bring up their whiteness, to up the game, because that’s the rhetorical structure of a lot of conversations. ‘You are doing this because you’re white,’ ‘we are women but I’m a poor woman.’ It’s a spiraling fractal that makes identities into badges.

This isn’t intersectionality. We don’t truly consider our unique individuality, and how that relates to the people around us. Arguments escalate to what identities do to each other instead of what you did to me, and the structure of our particular relationship. Because the latter is difficult. It requires that you know yourself, and have an honest communication with another person knowing they are as unique of a circumstance as you are. This isn’t to dismiss privilege, but to understand that labels are extremely flimsy constructs to base so much of our actions on.

Mattie Brice =/= transgender + thin + poor + young + enabled + polysexual + multi-racial + woman + American + etc.

I was born in South Florida in the late eighties. My parents are immigrants from the Caribbean lucky to escape the political strife of Jamaica, the country they met. People often don’t know what to make of my race, though how I’m wearing my hair dictates what their guess is. When I wore it shorter I often got tagged as hispanic, when I straightened it, pacific islander, and now as I currently have it, black. I don’t identify as any of those things culturally, but I am often forced to check them on forms.

My parents saved up for my sister and I’s undergraduate, in-state public school tuition. We lived most of our family’s life in the nicer part of a lower income city, often around other immigrants, black and hispanic Americans, and older people, all not very well off. I didn’t like to invite my friends over to my house because my dad was always trying to fix it and it looked crummy. My mother made sure to send my sister and I to schools outside of our city to primarily upper-middle class white schools. Most of my friends were white and somewhat affluent.

I didn’t like being forced to have a gender when I was young. I didn’t identify with being a boy or a girl. My mother asked in the sixth grade me if I was gay because I was effeminate and gendered a boy by others, and I didn’t really understand what being gay meant. I wouldn’t enter my first relationship until I was 25, and in general was considered unattractive by men I encountered before then. Most of my romantic and sexual escapades were one night stands. I lost my virginity at 21 to an acquaintance who overpowered me when he was drunk.

Despite the money my parents saved up for me, I had to work 40 hour work weeks in order to stay in university. I realized that I was gender-variant and went into a deep depression that had me bail on my job, drop out of school, and return home. I was eventually kicked out of my house and had to survive off of a Starbucks paycheck for 5 years while finishing my degree. I couldn’t, and still can’t, transition because I can’t afford to. Clothes and makeup are the only way I can convince people to treat me like a woman.

I realize that my main motivation for straightening my hair was to appear less black. I’ve been trained, along with everyone else, that blackness is ugly, often masculine. I decided to go natural because I drained all of my money leftover from rent on hair products and salon visits. There was a noticeable drop in number of people who showed their attraction to me since then. People touch my hair and body without my permission. People actively, loudly, misgender me. I suffer from PTSD and anxiety.

I study literature and creative writing in school, and I’m often relegated to minority studies and writing related to social justice. I will be in debt for the rest of my life for a degree that won’t make me money. My grandmother calls every two weeks asking why I’m not graduated yet, why I don’t have a job, and how I plan to support her and my family as a writer. My entire income is from crowdfunding.

I am asked to participate in a culture, nicely, that is consistently discriminatory. I cannot get writing jobs because I’m not friends with the rather homogeneous old guard of journalism. Even when a conference pays for my travel, I still spend money and don’t get paid. I am consistently mocked because I ask for financial assistance from my community.

I am not the sum of my parts, and when I need to address social justice issues, I don’t do it as a x, y, z person. Not all queer people can account for my experience, nor all women or non-white people. And I don’t expect my experience to stand as fable for those things either. When that person called me classist, they didn’t know or really care about how classism affected my life, only there used as a bullying tactic.

We are stronger when we all bring our personal stories into social justice, and speak from that instead of relying on broad identifiers. We are too caught up trying to assess who each other are instead of examining the problematic actions, the unequal power relations. We need to push back against how we are activists on social media and in private with thoughtfulness instead of virtue. The amount of public shaming and behind the scenes threatening is not only unbearable, but damaging. We don’t need to be the same, we don’t need to be pushed into line and looking immaculate for all others to witness. We shouldn’t be so afraid of each other. We need to do a better job of understanding one another, even if it’s difficult.

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3 Comments

  1. […] about labels, and if you haven’t already, I encourage you all to read Mattie Brice’s Not A Monolith for an idea of how these can damage discussions of social justice by turning them into competitions […]

  2. […] and toxic space. We need to understand and respect people’s identities, but we also can’t start generalizing people into monoliths and erasing their uniqueness. We need to stand up for people without also speaking for them. We […]

  3. […] about labels, and if you haven’t already, I encourage you all to read Mattie Brice’s Not A Monolith for an idea of how these can damage discussions of social justice by turning them into competitions […]