Articles / Categorization / Verbal Hygiene

Colonizing ontologies

Brin pointed me to a great blog post about how we relate to other people’s categories, especially the categorical systems used by other cultures. (The author, posting as “Boldly Go,”* calls them “epistemologies,” but they seem to be what I’ve heard called “ontologies” or “taxonomies.” I think “categories” is the most straightforward term. And yes, I do recognize the irony there.) Boldly Go also makes the point that these categories are referred to as “social constructs,” which mean that they’re not essential and can vary from culture to culture – and, critically, that they change over time, even in a single individual.

Boldly Go argues persuasively that abolishing gender is not a realistic approach. We all have a basic need to categorize people: who is a potential ally, sex partner, life partner, co-parent, leader, friend, collaborator? Who is a potential attacker, rival, rapist, burden? Figuring all those things out based on the individual characteristics of everyone we encounter would be exhausting and time-consuming, so we use roles and spaces based on gender and other categories as shortcuts. This becomes truly problematic when we forget that these categories are only shortcuts, when we essentialize them.

Here’s my favorite part of Boldly Go’s post:

Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D'Lucca / Flickr.
Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D’Lucca / Flickr.

For example, a great many people familiar with the trans* community may have heard of hijras, a concept of gender that exists within South Asia. A great many usually white trans* people have called hijra’s “trans*” or put them under the trans* label. Regardless of their intention, to take the epistemology of “trans*” and apply it to something like the hijra can be seen as an oppressive or colonising act. The hijra are hijra. That is their name. Unless a hijra specifically identifies as transgender or trans*, applying our own concepts of gender and sexuality constructed within white supremacist cultures to people outside of our epistemological framework is redefining them on our own terms for our own benefit.

They (that’s Boldly Go’s preferred pronoun) go on to talk about two-spirits and quote their friend Tiara’s thoughts about gender in Malaysia and Bangladesh, and to argue that gender abolitionism is colonization in the same way.

Much as I agree that it’s not realistic to abolish gender, I think it’s not realistic to ignore our own gender categories when trying to understand people from other cultures. We may say, “that’s kind of like our idea of ‘transgender,'” but it becomes problematic when we ignore the way others categorize themselves. It becomes colonization when we seek to replace their categories with our own. And it’s downright offensive when we act as though our way is the One True Way of categorizing the world.

This is not to say that it’s all relative, and all categorization systems are equal. Some may have particular virtues relative to others. But we can’t just assume that our own categorization system is superior. We have to make a coherent argument for it.

I’m less concerned with borrowing another culture’s categories. If it’s done respectfully and with full credit and an open mind, it isn’t appropriation. It’s just recognizing that other people may have come up with a better way of doing it than we did.

I’ll have more to say on this in the future.

* Boldly Go seems to have let her domain expire, so I’ve changed the link to point to a copy she posted on Medium under the name Lola Phoenix.

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