Is racism really that different from classism, ableism, etc?

Despite their striking similarities, it is often assumed that debates regarding the metaphysical nature of, say, race must be sharply distinguished from those of gender, class, disability, etc., and that metaphysical arguments relevant to one kind of habitable category might not apply to others (see, for example, Guerrero McManus, 2019, Fernandes Botts 2018 or Díaz-León’s remarks on Weinberg, 2015). Yet, the question of whether the ontology of gender is different from that of class or race or any other similar social systems of categories is idle by itself, of course. There is a sense in which all these systems are obviously different, but there is also a sense in which they are also all very similar. Otherwise even the very question about the differences between them would make little sense. They are all social system of group oppression, and this is no superficial ontological feature. Thus the question can be neither whether they are different or not, nor even how deep these differences go. The question has to be how useful is it to treat these systems together, and when it is good to separate them or treat them in smaller groups. Besides the aforementioned fact that these are all systems of social oppression, there are other important characteristics that all of them share. For example, at least prima facie, they all show the following constitutive features:

  1. A social structure, i.e., a system of inter-defined normative social roles.
  2. A folk theory that grounds that system, which is largely false but is nevertheless widely believed or at least taken as plausible.
  3. An epistemic criteria for assigning individuals to roles – what Hasslanger calls a series of ‘marks’ that trigger role assignments.
  4. A material context on which the system mounts and which is itself heavily affected by it.
  5. The series of lived experiences of individuals vis a vis the above elements.

For example, the American race system is constituted by (1) a system of inter defined social roles like white, Asian American, African American, Native American, Latinx, etc. each one with its own expectations, entitlements, etc., (2) a largely false folk theory of ascendency, biological inheritance, ethnic similarity, etc. that people take to be behind those categories, (3) body marks that trigger those expectations and entitlements in concrete circumstances, most notably skin color, but also body shape and size, facial feature like the width of eyes or noses, etc., (4) the factual circumstances in which race has historically developed, including the economic systems of slavery, colonialism, land theft, etc. but also the biological underpinning of those body features that trigger racial categorization, among other similar factors, (5) and, of course, the experience of living in a racist social environment like America’s and how it affects both how we feel about ourselves,  about others, about our nations, etc. and how race affects the political and ethical consequences of our actions.

In a similar fashion, gender is also constituted by (1) a system of inter defined social roles like man, woman, etc., (2) a largely false folk theory of biological sex that people take to be behind those categories, (3) features of body shape, facial features, attire, etc. that trigger those expectations and entitlements in concrete circumstances, i.e., clues that trigger our mostly unconscious reaction to concrete individuals expecting them to ‘behave as’ men or women, etc. (4) the factual circumstances in which gender has historically developed, including domesticity, systems of kinship, inheritance, etc. but also the actual biological underpinnings of sexuality and of those body features that trigger gender categorization, etc. (5) and, of course, the experience of living in a gendered social environment like ours and how it affects both how we feel about ourselves,  about others, about our sexuality, our families, etc. and about the choices we have to make as gendered persons, etc. 

Few people would dispute these similarities, but many may still argue that, behind those similarities lay profound ontological differences because of how each factor is actualized in each case and how they interact with each other. Not only are these five factors different in each case – again, that must be obvious: the body marks that trigger gender classifications are not the same that trigger judgments of physical or cognitive ability, for example, even though they may interact and intersect in important ways – but their relative importance and relations may also be different. In other words, even if all social systems of oppression share the same constituents, they are structured in profoundly different ways.

In a conversation that eventually became her 2019 paper, for example, at the National University’s Diversities Workshop, Siobhan Guerrero MacManus presented many concerns we might have about just transposing metaphysical arguments from one kind of habitable categories to another. For example, it is common sense to think that material conditions are fundamental for determining who is or is not a bourgeois or a proletarian, but we should not generalize this to other categories such as gender or race. Material conditions may also be fundamental, or maybe not, but this is a question that must be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

In an informal discussion, for example, Paloma Hernández pointed out to me that, perhaps, one of the most important differences between racial and ethnic differences in segregated contexts like in the USA or Argentina (and unlike ‘mestizo’ contexts like those of Mexico or the UK) and gender differences is that, while the former tend to be experienced ‘from a distance’, so to speak, the latter are present in many of our most intimate relationships. In other words, the experience of living intimately with people belonging to other gender categories (either as relatives, couples, colleagues, neighbors, etc.) is substantially more common, despite the prevalent existence of gendered spaces in both the social and domestic spheres (Spain 2000), than the experience of living intimately with people of other ethnicity, race or class.

In the end, Guerrero MacManus argues, the metaphysics or race will most likely be substantially different from that of gender. The historical and political differences between these categories are so radical that any account that might serve to build better racial relations could reinforce gender injustices if applied to these other categories. This is because the struggle and oppression experienced by minorities of each type has been substantially different in each case. Even within a single historical and cultural context, the way in which ethnic minorities are oppressed tends to be radically different from the way in which gender minorities are. For example, there does not seem to have been an analogous to cultural appropriation as a strategy of erasing racial identities in the case of gender. Consider the situation of the Kurdish minorities in Turkey, whose cultural manifestations have been systematically appropriated by Turkish nationalists with the nefarious purpose of erasing their identity as an autonomous ethnic group. Nothing similar seems to have happened in the case of gender minorities. Although it is true that the cultural contributions of gender minorities have been disparaged and appropriated (Serano 2016), it does not seem appropriate to characterize this as a case of cultural appropriation. This is because gender categories do not usually correspond to different cultures (but see Chauncey 1994). Therefore, it seems that, at least prima facie, the loss of cultural goods is a harder blow against ethnic or racial minorities than against gender minorities. This means that, for example, given their very different historical antecedentes, the threat of cultural appropriation is a more serious threat for the Afro-American or Kurdish or Rom identity than for the identity of women or trans people.

So it seems that the difference in public reactions to cases like Caitlyn Jenner’s and Rachel Dozal’s is justified, although it is true – noted Guerrero – that  there is still much to be learned about the different ways people inhabit categories like gender and race in order to determine how different they actually are. Guerrero is also right in pointing out that a good metaphysical account of race and gender must account for this type of differences. For example, it must account for why testifying to our own gender plays such a central role in the construction of our subjectivity, while there does not seem to be anything analogous in the case of race. In her presentation, Guerrero alluded to the important role that desire plays in gender identity –

“… the idea – associated with Jacques Lacan – that your sense of who you are grows from your sense of what you want, what you lack, so that in order to keep being the person you recognize as yourself, you have yo keep wanting something you cannot have”

Burt 2012; see also Long Chu 2017

– and how it seems to be absent from most racial identities. Ever since the seminal work of Foucault on human sexuality, it has been claimed that an important part of belonging to one genre or another is to desire certain things and not others. There does not seem to be anything analogous in the case of race, although in contexts such as the United States, miscegenation remains an important issue and, in this sense, desire also plays an important role in the construction of race in that context. If Guerrero is right, since desire is something that, at least in our popular psychology, is private, subjective and, above all, something for which we have privileged access, this would explain why gender is also something for which we have privileged access (but race is not). It would also explain why people hold that gender cannot be a political choice. In the words of Andrea Long Chu (2017), whom I read months after listening to Guerrero,

“… nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to political principle … one can not be aroused as an act of solidarity, in the same way that it can fill envelopes or march on the streets with its fighting sisters. Desire is, by nature, childish and chary of government.”

Long Chu 2017

Thus, in the end, the metaphysics of race might substantially differ from that of gender or class, etc. Yet I take it that even if it is true that different sorts of categories have different metaphysical profiles, it is precisely because they show a different behavior when considered under the same criteria. Thus, for example, if it is true that there is a stronger metaphysical link between gender and self-testimony that between, say, class and self-testimony, this must manifest itself as differences in the way we shall answer specific general questions about gender and class as habitable categories. Thus, it is fundamental to know the general issues and challenges that faces any metaphysical account of any habitable category in order to even try to understand whether different sorts of categories are metaphysically different.

That is why philosophers like myself (Barceló 2020, Hasslanger 2000), have developed an opposite strategy that aims to show just how much can be achieved by adopting a more abstract perspective: one that does not deny the existence or importance of aforementioned differences, and yet aims to develop a general account of social oppression. Thus, we have tried to show that approaching the question at such a general level…

“…will allow us to detect general threads that weave through a vast range of philosophical theories of social categories and to compare and contrasts them by identifying their central achievements and challenges…condensing a wide variety of complex debates into a few simple questions and issues.”

Barceló 2020

In other words, it is not enough to say that there are importante differences or similarities between gender and race, one needs to show what they are important for, i.e., what questions need to be answered looking at the larger pictures and what questions require a focus on details where our systems of oppression may come apart. Most likely, both perspectives are fruitful and indispensable for a thorough understanding of the metaphysics behind oppression. This is something guerrero-MacManus recognizes when she writes:

“…si bien hay cosas que ganar al buscar coincidencias en las diversas dinámicas de opresión, es igual de importante no desatender lo específico de cada categoría.”

Guerrero MacManus 2019

It is a cliché to say that specialists get too bogged down in irrelevant details, as much as it is also a cliché to say that generalists miss important details with their heads in the clouds. And it is also a cliché to recognize that there is truth behind clichés like these.

Of course, this is something one cannot argue for, but only show; and this is what I hope to achieve in my work: show the value of adopting a general perspective on the ontology of habitable kinds, while recognizing also its limitations.

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