Cognition, categories and oppression


Our minds naturally group things in culturally specific categories -- for Americans, robins are more "bird" than albatrosses -- and we're better at categorizing more prototypical items than outliers -- but what does this mean when we group humans in categories like "real Americans"?

Shweta Narayan's post on the issue is a fascinating and well-reasoned cognitive explanation of privilege and oppression, with reference to how this works in fiction and other art-forms.
gecently categorized them as human?

1) Able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian men are considered to be prototypical humans (prototype here = privileged default). So. If you ask people to think of famous people, they will think first of famous able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian men. And their exceptions will normally fall outside this prototype in only one or two ways.

This is how a lot of casual erasure happens. (btw it's also what's happening when editors "just happened to think of" a lot of poets/writers/artists who aren't marginalized, and when poets/writers/artists "just happened to think of" prototypical characteristics to portray.)

2) If someone is not an able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian man, it will generally take people longer to categorize them as human. And the further they are from this prototype the longer it will take to make the judgment. Now, if people take that extra time, we're probably good; but do they? When they sort resumes / run job interviews, when they're trigger-happy cops, etc?

3) (horrific examples tw) Consider the structure of the category "American citizen", which often gets treated as either-or. But the prototypical citizen is white, abled, and Christian (at least). Consider who counts: who gets protected under US law. And consider whose ID gets checked, who gets stop & frisked. Whose mass incarceration and state-sanctioned murder is business as usual. Who gets called "an illegal", or told to "go back home", regardless of their actual documentation. Who gets demands for their birth certificate once elected to high office. Whose languages are considered ok if spoken in the US, whose accent if they're speaking English.

(Non-Americans, when we talk about American privilege, we need to understand that it does not apply equally to all people with US citizenship; it applies only to the people who get counted as "proper" Americans, according to this category structure & the context.)

3b) (Horrific example tw) Where you draw the category boundary can be person and culture specific. Which is okay with birds, you'll only annoy scientists if you decide an emu isn't a bird, but what about the category "human". What about the people who decide that if you're Black, or disabled, or a trans woman or all three, then you've fallen outside the human category and your murderer isn't really a murderer? The murderers who call their Black victims “it”? The settler laws about Aboriginal Australian people, that only recently categorized them as human?

Let's talk about category structure and oppression! [Shweta Narayan/Livejournal]

(via Making Light)

(Icon: American Red Robin, KurtFaler, CC-BY-SA)