Invisible Identities, Part 2: The Default Human

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.

[Cross-posted at ZatB and Feministe]

13 thoughts on “Invisible Identities, Part 2: The Default Human

  1. I was going “exactly! Right on!” through most of the post, but just so you know I tend to wince at statements like

    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

    – I understand what it is you mean (that certain elements common to Western white culture are assumed universal and that often white people who grow up in the dominant culture are often completely unaware of having a culture or say their culture is “boring” etc., especially in the US) and agree with that, but I can’t really agree with it in the generality there. I spent part of my childhood growing up in a different country and a) am often hyperaware of my culture and where it differs from, say, US or UK culture and b) have a whooole lot of issues and hurt when it comes to feeling as though I’m losing my culture or people are taking it away from me and suchlike.

    I hate bringing this up because, well, I’m white! and Western European! and this issue generally pops up in discussions about racism where I am very very privileged, but statements that conflate all white cultures are really unpleasant for me to read. :/

  2. ‘statements that conflate all white cultures are really unpleasant for me to read. :/’

    Hence ‘cultures’ in plural so as to highlight that there are many cultures, and ‘tendency’ rather than universalising it. I definitely understand that certain white cultures are invisibilised in favour of others in certain contexts.

  3. Chally did not say that white people’s cultures are all the same or that they were boring. She said — in the bit quoted actually — that in discussions of race white people tend to say their cultures are boring. Chally in fact specifically refers to white peoples’ cultures in the plural.

    This is however a thing white people say when excusing cultural misappropriation. “But my culture’s so boooooring and y’all’s is so exotic and iiiiiinteresting.”

    But by all means let us first ensure that the white folk are comfortable in any discussion of racial issues. It is such an important consideration. [Yes this paragraph is sarcasm. – k0]

  4. Sorry, I was hoping not to have it come off as “but me me let’s focus on me and my special issues as a white person!” but looking back on it I see that I did the whole taking statements personally when they’re about general trends thing and did, in fact, make it all about me me me! This is why I should not post when in a hurry – I am really, really sorry, everyone. Just ignore my post up there please?

  5. I actually was REALLY happy when I found the term cis. I suppose because I have had friends who identify as trans, genderqueer, gender-bending, and non-gendered since I was in high school. A word that describes me without being detrimental to anyone else, I thought, was great.

    I hear you on identifying people by race. I try very hard not to. I’d prefer to describe someone by their clothing or by a distinguishing feature like length or style of hear than by their race.

    I agree about the whole idea of colorblindness. It’s a way to say ‘but that doesn’t matter, because we’re all the default color now’ when the default color has always been white in the US and UK. I can’t speak for other places. I am white, but have no desire to erase anyone else’s culture and heritage.

    I can’t pass as being healthy anymore (well, except when people assume I’m training my service dog not working with him). But I do routinely pass as straight, and I leave it that way because…well, because correcting the assumption tends to lead to conversations I don’t want to have, usually men asking me about having threesomes. I’m heteroflexible/bi, and if I don’t have a reason to change the straight assumption (like a girl I’m over the moon about), I don’t.


  6. [trigger warn for mental health issues, esp. suicidality]

    What a wonderful post, Chally! I’m invisibly disabled (generalized anxiety disorder, comorbid depression) and it’s getting bad enough that I feel like I’m close to no longer being able to pass. There was an unpleasant incident earlier in the week when I felt like I may end up being pressured to out myself and the thought was really uncomfortable–the situation was that I had to work late on a project one night and would not be able to make it to the class the project was for in the morning, because sleep deprivation aggravates my mental health issues and at this point it would be tantamount to poking an already-angry bear.

    It has been my experience as a college student that people tend to assume “Because I can survive on [x] hours of sleep a night, you should be able to survive on [x +/- 2] hours of sleep a night,” and just have no concept of how damaging that kind of assumption can be.

    And my stuff has been so close to the surface lately that whenever someone says something like, “so-and-so is crazy,” or “I have so much work to do, I kind of want to shoot myself,” I really have to remind myself not to flinch. I’ve had to ask my best friend twice in the past month specifically not to use language like that; the first time, she said she didn’t really think of me as “crazy,” and I gently explained to her that I am. The second time, earlier tonight, she accepted it and we moved on.

    So the question for me is–what can I do in my daily life to un-invisibilize these identities, above and beyond being cognizant of my own perceptions and language use? Is there some kind of active teaspooning (in the parlance of Shakesville) that I can do? I’ve begun challenging my own judgments and assumptions, to a degree, and sharing these thoughts with my loved ones, but is there more?

  7. Great post, Chally! I could identify with a lot of it, and it helped inspire me to write up a post I’d been trying to work up for a few days.

    Thanks for the discussion on why “colorblindness” does more harm than good. That reminded me of another post I ran across recently at Body Impolitic, Colorblindness, Race, and Children: The Elephant in the Living Room. This kind of privileged attitude has also made me come close to smacking my (ethnic Swedish) husband on more than one occasion. (Smacking people is not OK, but I was still sorely tempted out of frustration.) Just because you think race should no longer be an issue, and everybody should just get along, doesn’t mean it will magically happen.

    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.

    I know that one. It’s very uncomfortable indeed.

  8. This is a really great post. Thank you, Chally. Thank you very much.

    I hope the following makes sense. I’m trying to word this so that it won’t be misunderstood.

    I am an incredibly curious person, I pay close attention to people for clues about their life and what they are like so that I can know them better and so that I can make my interactions with them more pleasant by being aware of potentially problematic areas. Also, just because I’m curious and find people fascinating.

    One thing that being an incredibly curious person has taught me is how very little the identities that are most often used to sort us actually have the meaning assigned to them by the dominant culture.

    I can’t say that these identities don’t “matter,” they DO matter. Mine matter to me so much! They do describe and define me in certain ways, and are important parts of me. But the words I use to describe myself and what a lot of folks mean by it when they put me in that box by using those same words are often two different things entirely.

    Also, my identities can mean different things to me personally than to someone else with the same identities. It’s intensely variable.

    One of the things I’ve learned to be curious about is what words people use to define themselves, and what those words mean to them.

  9. You are so welcome, everyone, thank you for your comments. And that’s so great about your post, urocyon!

    Monica: I really don’t know, I’m just starting to challenge these ideas in myself! I’d love to hear suggestions. Anyone?

    Naamah: I think I understand. My disability status is a political identity, a term of alliance and strength and marking out my social place. But to dominant society it’s a mark of weakness, of being less than, when it’s acknowledged at all. And regarding the variability of shared identities, my brother and I, for instance, have very different experiences of racialisation and racism. What great thoughts!

  10. My daughter regularly has her culture ‘taken away’ from her, or at least questioned. She is an Australian Aboriginal with very pale skin and blue eyes. I regularly have to argue with institutions (such as hospital staff) regarding her Indigenous status. Because she doesnt have brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin and broad features, and has a white mother and white brother, she is *obviously* not really Aboriginal (sarcasm there folks). I have put in complaints to organisations many times because of the attitude of their staff regarding this. My husband also has his culture and race go unrecognised on a regular basis because he is very tall, very broad shouldered, large weight wise, not particularly dark skinned and looks more (traditionally) Maori than Australian Aboriginal.

    Personally I am so used to people making assumptions about who I am that I take great delight in directly challenging their preconceptions. I have done this in regard to my mental health status (how can you have a family, an education, a job, be a counsellor etc and have chronic mental health issues?), my education (how can you be so well educated when you are a single mother, have mental health issues, live in a remote rural area?), my financial status (how can you own a house, hold down job, afford this and that when you are *insert whatever characterisation of the many that fit me*?), my health status (how can you have normal BP, normal this and normal that when you are morbidly obese?) etc.

    I detest generalisations and assumptionsm, they really do no one any service at all.

  11. As I was reading some of the other comments, I remembered reflecting in the past how sometimes non-noticable disabilities can be more a part of an idenity than noticable disabilities. In the first place mine (learning disabilities, ADHD and OCD) effect my thinking proccess and by default my personality. I have sometimes tried to imagine what I would be like if I didn’t have my disabilities and I can’t (despite my ADHD enhanced creativity and my OCD enhanced ability to focus and anyalize) becuase they have been a part of my personality for 23 years now. Additionally, I believe that having others judge you contrary to your disability can frequently put you in situations where you are consiuos of your disability because a) you are fighting an inner battle of whether to disclouse it b) you find your self in situations where you need accomadations but none are aviable c) you must explain/defend your disablity to those around you. I realize this view may be part of my privlage of not having a noticable disability and I would welcome anyone who disagrees with me to engage in a civil and insightful conversation.

  12. @Monica – Your question is a good one, but I don’t have an answer. For my part, I’ve chosen to only disclose my mental health status to a very few people (spouse, therapist, two or three friends). I don’t even share it with the medical professionals unless I think it’s absolutely necessary. And most of the time it isn’t.

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