Friday, 2 February 2018

Race, gender and class: deeply intertwined with information

Our research group is increasingly focused on developing a discipline of critical information studies - exploring the social impact of information and information systems, in particular through examining the way they interact with, and strengthen, imbalances between different powerful groups. As part of this we're especially concerned with the ways that race, gender and class interact with each other, with power issues, and with informational phenomena.

My colleague on the group, Dr Mustafa Ali, is working hard on issues of decolonial computing, and we have been having many discussions about the interplay between race and gender in particular - the concept often called intersectionality, but which Mustafa prefers to call entanglement.

Mustafa pointed me to the work of Thomas Curry, who argues strongly against the concept of intersectionality as being inadequate to capture the lived-experience of black people and their relation to gender. In an essay entitled Ethnological Theories of Race/Sex in Nineteenth-Century Black Thought: Implications for the Race/Gender Debate of the Twenty-First Century [subscription], Curry argues that "In the nineteenth century, what we know as gender was believed to exist only among civilized races" and that "Under nineteenth-century ethnological thinking, races were gendered, rather than those bodies biologically designated as male or female by sex".

I find this very interesting, and it raises all sorts of questions. I doubt anyone would subscribe explicitly to a view like the 19th century approach to race & gender (though there’s probably a nastier sort of intersection between white supremacists and so-called men’s rights activists) but I can readily see how such a view was only widely-held and would persist in some kind of background form. All that said: it strengthens my view that race, gender and class issues are deeply intertwined and need to be considered together, and that in turn they’re intertwined with information. Because it seems to me that these views are deeply based on information - constructed narratives which put together half-selected 'facts' about the world, from a strong worldview, choosing those which fit and rejecting those which don't.

Two more thoughts about the intertwining of race, gender and class. Earlier this week I was reading about the Irish potato famine and specifically the Gregory Clause of 1847 which worsened the plight of the poor considerably (my eye lit on it because my son is called Gregory). Named after a Sir William Gregory MP, it restricted public assistance to those who possessed essentially no land, less than ¼ acre, to avoid ‘absorption by undeserving persons of a large portion of the public funds’. Interesting because of the entanglement here of class and race – the Irish of course are white but have always been treated as a sub-race by the British/English.

Second, in choir yesterday we were singing Heinrich Sch├╝tz’s St John Passion. Of all the gospel accounts, John’s is often said to be the most anti-semitic, and I’m finding the English translation here to be very starkly so (dated 1963 in the score but I think possibly a few years older). There are constant references to ‘the Jews’ saying nasty remarks, or asking for unpleasant actions. It reflects older Bible scholarship, and the translators (Imogen Holst and Peter Pears) were musicians not theologians, but no modern translations of John’s gospel would say ‘the Jews’ – they say ‘the Jewish leaders’ or a more specific term such as ‘the Sanhedrin’ (the ruling court of leaders). I’m wrestling with the text still, but in a way it gives me hope, that ideas do shift, and that contemporary Christians, however suffused with racism (and I can name plenty), are recognising our need to move away from our historic anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.

Lastly all this makes me uncomfortable about my own complicity as an affluent middle-class white male, but as I've written more than once on this blog, I'm used to that discomfort!