Whiteness and “Oppressive Normativity”

This weekend, I’ll be in Vancouver presenting at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium, organized by the amazing and inimitable Emily Drabinski, Baharak Yousefi, and Tara Robertson. We’re going to sing and drink coffee and discuss intersectionality, so it’s guaranteed to be a good time.

My talk is based on my article on whiteness for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, with one notable difference—I’ve added the term “oppressive normativity” to the title and substance of my talk as an alternative (or rather complement) to my discussion of whiteness as ideology and hegemonic practice.

In my article, I join Angela Galvan in taking a broad view of whiteness to encompass not only race but other intersections of identity along the “matrix of domination,” as defined by Patricia Hill Collins. For me, whiteness is an appropriate umbrella term for the multiplicity of oppressed identities; the argument can be made that that whiteness plays a role in the marginalization of people based on class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, able-bodiedness, and other modes of identity. When we talk about whiteness in general and white privilege and supremacy in particular, we are also necessarily talking about an ideological practice that specifically privileges those who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, and fully able-bodied as being truly “white.” Those who do not fit those standards, while still enjoying significant benefits of race privilege as white people, do not reap the full rewards.

Nevertheless, I realize that this collapsing of the matrix of domination under an umbrella term more traditionally associated with one form of identity—namely race—is not entirely helpful. While I embrace that broad definition of whiteness that Galvan and I adopt, I recognize that my understanding of the term is not necessarily readily apparent from the term itself.

So, in the interest of providing clarity to my work, I’ve adopted the phrase oppressive normativity as an complementary term to describe the operation of this matrix of domination.

A quick and dirty search shows that while the phrase oppressive normativity has been used before, it has not been used in quite the context I’m proposing for it. There are mentions of oppressive normativity in the social sciences, particularly gender studies, psychology, and law, to refer to compulsory and often unofficial behavioral norms found in a community or society. (And it’s worth noting there are a few references to Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.)

My use of the phrase, however, is centered in norms of identity that dictate who is privileged in our society and who is marginalized. For me, oppressive normativity isn’t about what one does but who one is.

Oppressive normativity, as I’m defining it, refers to the fact that people who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, fully able-bodied, etc. are privileged in their professional and personal lives, while those who do not fit within all of those identities are professionally and personally marginalized, excluded, and erased.

What this means is that the systems for reward, advancement, support, fulfillment, and livelihood that we’ve constructed in our society are based specifically on the values, experiences, and practices of those in the dominant identities. They are the norm, and that norm is oppressive because of the way that it naturally forces out all those not fitting its dictates.

I guess you can say that I’m coining this term “oppressive normativity” for a new purpose. Feel free to reuse it with attribution.

Thus, in my talk for GSISC this weekend, I will be applying this concept of oppressive normativity to diversity initiatives in LIS, examining the ways in which our diversity programs reflect this hegemonic norm that privileges dominant identities while marginalizing all others. I’m really looking forward to embarking on this phase of my work and invite you to join me for the journey!

 

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2 comments

  1. Max Macias · April 27

    #whiteness

    Like

  2. Pingback: Tech-ing to Transgress: Putting Values into Library Practice

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