How Does Oppression Work? INSIGHTS FROM HONG KONG LESBIANS' LABELING PRACTICES

Andrew D. Wong

Intersectionality theory has attracted increasing attention from sociolinguists in recent years (see, e.g., Mallinson 2006; Morgan 2007; Lanehart 2009; Levon 2011). For those familiar with the study of language variation and change, the word intersectionality immediately brings to mind the interaction of social variables like gender, ethnicity, and social class. As a theory, however, inter- sectionality is not just about the interaction of social variables. It grew out of black feminists’ attempts to expose the limitations of gender as a single analytical category (hooks 1981; Davis 1983). The term intersectionality, coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw (1989, 1991), was originally used to critique the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories, which was commonplace in academic research, antiracist politics, and the feminist movement. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (2000), another major figure in this area, provides a succinct explanation in her book Black Feminist Thought:

Intersectionality refers to particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation. Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice. (21)

In other words, intersectionality underscores how different axes of social difference reinforce and intersect with each other to create specific forms of identity and oppression. This theory was initially used to emphasize the multidimensionality of black women’s lived experience. Over time, it has also been applied to the discussion and analysis of the experiences of others who are multiply burdened and marginalized because of their race, gender, sexuality, and nationality (McCall 2005; Nash 2008).

Sociolinguists have been particularly successful at demonstrating how intersectionality theory illuminates identity-related linguistic practices. Dodsworth & Mallinson (2006) explore the idea that the multiplicative nature of race, gender, sexuality, and social class produces contextualized experiences, which are then manifested locally in linguistic and other social practices. Using this idea to frame apparently conflicting phonetic data from an individual speaker, they show how the phonetic data actually reflect the speaker’s personal tensions as a marginalized member of his community. In a similar vein, Mallinson (2008) examines how diverse life experiences in an Appalachian community shape residents’ use of a variety of linguistic resources to construct complex identities and to articulate differing social orientations toward race and region. More recently, heeding the call for greater attention to individuals’ lived experiences, Levon (2011) demonstrates how two groups of Israeli lesbian activists attend to the intersection of gender and sexuality differently and how this difference results in the two groups attaching distinct meanings to the same linguistic practice. Taken together, these studies remind us of the necessity to take the beliefs and lived experiences of the people we study seriously in order to understand their linguistic practices.

Nevertheless, intersectionality is not solely a theory of identity formation. As previously discussed, it also calls attention to the ways in which axes of social differentiation interact with each other to produce systematic inequality. Intersectionality theorists believe that multiply marginalized subjects offer a unique vantage point for understanding how power is exercised and resisted (Collins 2000). Those who are multiply marginalized, as critical race theorist Mari Matsuda (1987) argues, “speak with a special voice to which we should listen” (324). Taking this insight as its point of departure, this chapter examines the labeling practices of two groups of Hong Kong lesbians (activists and non-activists) in order to reveal how power operates through language at the intersection of gender and sexuality and to expose the kinds of oppression that lesbians experience in Hong Kong society.

After a brief discussion of the role of power in distributional sociolinguistics, I describe below the methodology of the study and the sociohistorical environment in which the research was conducted in order to contextualize the analysis of labeling practices that follows. While activists’ labeling practices shed light on how androcentrism is imposed on women within the sexuality-based social movement in Hong Kong, an examination of non-activists’ labeling practices reveals the symbolic means through which same-sex desire is rendered invisible, as well as non-activists’ complicity in the process. Not only does this study provide support to Levon’s (2011) observation that intersections are underspecified and can only be understood through empirical investigation, but it also shows how labeling practices offer valuable insights in such an endeavor.

 
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