Unaffected or Disaffected?
Last week I encountered a guy who was attempting to get his start-up off the ground. It wasn’t the first time he’d been through the process, but the third or fourth. First, he told me about how his business partner was a complete narcissist, who was difficult to work with. Second, he told me he thought they had a good shot at wooing investors because his partner was a “minority female,” and there are diversity quotas in place. “Silicon Valley has a bit of a problem when it comes to women and minorities,” he said.
It was a jarring moment, to have this white man so flippantly (without trace of irony or shame) describe to me (a minority female) how he might benefit from the race and gender – the body – of his business partner. Invoking Judith Butler and José Esteban Muñoz, to what extent is he expecting his partner to sufficiently perform race and gender for them to capitalise upon? To invoke bell hooks, to what extent do he – and Silicon Valley – desire to feed upon his partner’s otherness?
I think Silicon Valley quotas are a good thing. But I have begun to wonder about the ways in which “feminist-friendly” or minority-friendly gestures can be used against feminism itself, as a kind of alibi. By this I mean empty gestures that follow the logic of feminism while allowing their performers and the status quo to remain unaffected by – or even disengaged with – feminist and minority discourse.
In the case of the start-up guy, he can recognise the value of “diversity” and even participate in measures that engage it, but ultimately remains unaffected by it (he can buy into it, or not, as a nice bonus for his chances) – hence his flippancy. Elsewhere in our day-to-day lives, we might observe that muteness on queer, feminist and minority issues is given an alibi by principles such as “speaking with, not speaking for” or “nothing about us without us.”
But to allow someone else to speak does not necessarily mean that one therefore listens. This muteness forgets that the norm doesn’t need words to enforce the status quo. Muteness is therefore freed up to become a distancing tactic, so that the imbalance of power experienced by a minority group becomes “a minority problem,” rather than recognising it as relational to the majority. To what degree does this allow, for instance, violence against transgender individuals to be framed as a “transgender problem,” that has very little bearing on the affect of everyone else?
I am describing here a deafness disguised by muteness – a surplus of agency and privilege great enough that disengagement is an easy option. This could be as simple as a learned avoidance of discourse with which one isn’t comfortable. This in itself is the repetition of a gesture, one that contributes to the sedimentation and entrenchment of a norm. In exploring the performativity of race and the experience of race as affective, Muñoz cuts a path for careful (and self-conscious) consideration of where we ourselves fall on the spectrum between unaffected and disaffected.
Muñoz, José Esteban, “Gesture, Ephemera and Queer Feeling,” in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (NYU Press, 2009) 65D81.
Bell Hooks, “Eating the other: Desire and resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. (South End Press, 1992) 21–39.
Muñoz, José Esteban, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. (2006 31:3), 675-688.