Two Experiences, One Effect
In this article I’d like to explore two other experiences; one interpersonal and one social. I’ve given these experiences the tentative names of ‘Interpersonal Distancing’ and ‘Affect Alienation’ respectively.
I’m grateful to my friend Meg Barker for suggesting the latter phrase and for directing me for further reading to Sara Ahmed’s The Promise Of Happiness, which I’ve begun but not finished reading. I hope that Ahmed will forgive me for lifting the language directly from her book!
I am beginning to believe that these experiences function together to create differences between the experience of some marginalised people and those of wider society in ways which are not fully acknowledged by existing theories of interpersonal/institutional/microaggressive discrimination.
Intention and Disclaimer
This is an attempt to describe experiences that I am surprised not to have found covered in blogs, articles or books. I don’t usually write in this way, but I hope I can either provide a starting point for discussion of this topic or, more likely, describe my experiences and views in such a way that other, more widely-read people can identify them as already having been covered elsewhere and can link me to those pieces. I would like to place this firmly out of the category of an ‘article’, which is planned, published and then cited, but describe it instead as a ‘living document’. Like all living things, it may grow, shrink, change or die over time, and I reserve the right to change any part of it at any moment. This is my first attempt at self-expression on this topic and as a result it will be imperfect (I do, however, welcome feedback, both on those imperfections and of course, positive feedback!)
I don’t mean to imply that the experiences described here are universal to all people fitting the same labels. I also don’t mean to imply that the experiences are unique to people like me; I can easily believe that other marginalised people have very similar or even identical experiences. I do, however, feel that my experiences are particular to and inextricable from my experiences of society as a transsexual lesbian who is also a radical feminist, and it’s from this perspective that I write.
To describe my perspective in some more detail: I’m a white, middle-class transsexual woman attracted more-or-less exclusively to people with some quality of the feminine, and I self-describe as both queer and lesbian. I have little-to-no experience of being disabled and, though dyslexic, I’m largely neurotypical. I am an anarchist and a radical feminist (who is happy to discuss radical feminism’s reputation and record of anti-femme, anti-sex-work, anti-trans, anti-BDSM politics; I am anti- none of those things, but I feel that radical feminism has valid critiques to offer of them all). All of this informs way I view the world.
This Article Is Not About…
The ways in which individual acts of discrimination can impact the experience of marginalised people, for example, transsexual women, have been widely written about and are to some extent understood. Likewise, there has been considerable writing, although perhaps less, about the ways in which systematic, institutional discrimination can do the same. And women of colour have talked about microaggressions for a long, long time.
It is not the intention of this article to further explore any of these three theories, although they do inform the article, and I’d suggest becoming familiar with the ways in which interpersonal, institutional and microaggressive discrimination can function before continuing to read this piece.
A cisgender female friend and I recently discussed the ways in which we felt when in one-on-one and in small-group environments with men and cisgender people, respectively.
We found common ground in our experience of distancing ourselves, emotionally and sometimes physically, when in those environments, as a response to the knowledge that these people had an ability to win against us if they chose to use it.
That ability to win takes a variety of forms: my friend described her knowledge that most men, if they chose to, could physically overpower her. I described my knowledge that most cisgender people can, if they choose to, invalidate and ridicule my gender. Another friend talks about the social training that they feel men have to win an argument with them by deploying the kinds of competitive and debating styles which they have never learnt and don’t really want to learn.
We agreed that we performed this distancing even when with people who we were almost certain wouldn’t attempt to use this ability to win. We described the knowledge as something which, “wouldn’t go away,” and, “was always there”.
This is broad knowledge among many marginalised people, and I introduce it here in order that it may be considered in combination with…
On my way home from work I walk through a green space in which people socialise in good weather. The majority of these people are, as in most spaces, cisgender. For some time, I’ve felt an alienation when moving through those spaces, and I’ve only recently been able to put words to the experience.
In almost all social spaces, there are countless small exchanges which take place between people, most of them unremarked, for example, greetings, glances, body language and what kinds of behaviour are expressed – is it normative to read a book in that space, or do people remain upright and alert? Does this change when others enter the space?
Many of these exchanges have qualities of, for example, gender and sexuality. Eye contact, for example, differs between people of different genders and people of different sexualities, and importantly is also based on the gender and sexuality which one person perceives the other to be. Krista of effingdykes.blogspot.com writes about eye contact between women who perceive each other to be lesbians, and its tendency to linger slightly longer than eye contact between straight women (I’m not aware of any writing about eye contact as initiated by people of other genders and sexualities, though I’m sure it exists!).
These exchanges, when they function in a way which is congruent for all parties, can act as validations and acknowledgements of shared humanity and experience, performing a function of social inclusion. When these exchanges don’t occur, or when they occur in a way which suggests that a marginalised person is being viewed as something other than they are, the experience produced is what I describe here as ‘affect alienation’.
The absence of an expected interaction can cause the person who expected the interaction to feel invisible. And if they receive the ‘wrong kind’ of interaction, then they can feel misidentified, for example, misgendered. One bisexual friend speaks of the feeling of being in a lesbian group and read/treated as lesbian, that they felt bonded in the group but that, “this thing that is bonding us isn’t quite what it is”. These experiences fail to achieve – or only partially achieve – social inclusion and result in a feeling of social exclusion, of ‘affect alienation’. To the person experiencing it, it seems as if they are on a slightly different planet to the other people around them.
I’ve also experienced preemptive alienation, which has some qualities in common with interpersonal distancing as described above. This experience feels like ‘armouring oneself’ before going into a space, in anticipation of alienation or microaggression; an emotional withdrawal which means that I don’t even offer the cues which would – were I not an alien – lead to interactions which function as acknowledgement and inclusion.
It is normal for most people to occasionally find themselves in spaces where the social exchanges aren’t ideal or are incongruent. Many people will have travelled on crowded public transport and ‘shut down’ to some extent while in that environment. We are often able to deal with alienation in moderate doses, provided that we are able to return to environments in which we feel comfortable.
For some people, that simply means returning to social spaces where there are ‘people like them’. Others may only find comfort in one-on-one or small-group interactions in which they can relax.
But what happens when there is nowhere which feels comfortable? What about people who leave the world of affect alienation and return home to a world of interpersonal distancing? For many transsexual lesbian women, one or more forces of distancing or alienation are almost always in effect. Internalised transphobia and the already-fragmented trans* communities mean we may rarely or never experience societal, friendship or partner environments involving only other transsexual lesbians.
When in public we are aliens, and when we’re with friends, we are distant. I would like to suggest that the effects of alienation are cumulative and increase significantly when there is no relief from alienation. When preemptive alienation begins to become a way of life, we experience a radically different world.
If we talk about discrimination purely in terms of negative acts which occur in interpersonal and social contexts, we may be missing other subtle ways in which mainstream society further marginalises already-marginalised people.
As privileged / socially-included people (though of course, we are all both marginalised and included, at different times and in different ways), we should acknowledge that alienation may be an common aspect of marginalised experience, and when marginalised people express a desire for separatism, or broad-brush negative statements about privileged groups, we should understand the experience underlying this.
But perhaps more importantly, as marginalised people, understanding this may help us understand how we feel and that we are perhaps not depressed or unable to interact socially, but instead are coming up against social dynamics which force us to the margins. It may present choices to us in terms of varying how much we distance and pre-emptively alienate ourselves; alternatively it may just help us understand the choices we are making and the extent to which they are choices at all.