Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

plain donuts and the normalization of normalization

       Today at work—i work at a coffee shop—someone asked me for a donut. However, she (i read her as a she, and will own that) didn’t simply as for “a donut.” She asked for “a plain donut.” This is where the challenge ensued.

       Now, i knew exactly which donut she wanted. There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in my mind, and, for the record, i ended up being right. But i have a bone to pick with the concept of “plain/normal/regular.” Fortunately, in my line of work, there are literally hundreds of opportunities to pose challenges to this way of thinking.

       So i drug the moment out. It could have been over in a flash of money and smiles; i could have sent her on her merry way quite easily. But i chose not to. i pretended not to know what she meant. “Which one?” i asked.

       “The plain one,” she repeated herself as if the issue were one of decibel level instead of clarification.

       “i don’t know what’s ‘plain’ to you, that’s very subjective,” i began playfully. “This one is covered in powdered sugar, is it ‘plain?’ What about the frosted ones, those look pretty ‘plain’ to me. Then, of course, you’d have to choose what’s more ‘plain,’ black or white?” i framed with a wry smile.

       i posed these questions in a friendly way, both because i wanted to keep my job and because i wanted her to be receptive to the lesson i was trying to teach. That said, i waited until she gave me an adjective that was actually descriptive of what she wanted and not laden with normalizing values (she chose, “the one that is just cake, with nothing on it)”before i gave her the donut she wanted.

       This wasn’t just to be rude, and i really do think that she was receptive. But the pervasiveness of this idea of “plainness” or “regularity” is incredibly frustrating, especially as a trans person in the service industry. There’s an assumption of a standard from which all things deviate.

       At the café where i work alone there are so many manifestations of this logic structure. There are “plain” croissants, which are cast as having no flavor when compared to their almond and chocolate neighbors. But, in reality, they taste like butter. They too have a flavor, but this flavor goes unacknowledged. Butter is apparently the whiteness, the straightness, the cisness of flavor. It is the flavor against which other flavors are measured, thus it is allowed to remain invisible.

       There are “muffins” and “vegan muffins.” In this case, the dairy content of the former category is obscured in an invisible language of normalcy. The vegan muffins are linguistically rendered as different, that which requires a modifier, while the dairy muffins are allowed to remain the unquestionably Normal muffin.

       The problem here goes beyond difficulties in communication. There are so many repeat interactions in the coffee industry that one quickly learns exactly what people mean when they use certain phrases, regardless of whether or not these phrases are accurate or descriptive. Further, i’m a relatively savvy individual and can usually discern meaning, if only by utilizing clarification questions.

       The issue here is that the process of normalization is itself normalized. People often perceive certain choices or characteristics to be neutral, rather than perceiving whatever choice or characteristic to be merely one on a spectrum. Other choices or characteristics are then, by necessity, labeled as deviating from a norm as opposed to just being one of many possibilities.

       This perfectly mirrors identity based normalization processes within macro-culture. Beyond the café, (and frankly, within it as well) these processes result in the largely unacknowledged dis/privileging of various identity categories. Categories that are constructed as normal are privileged while those deemed other than normal are assigned various adjectives, rendered visible, and denied certain privileges in the process.

       i would argue that this not only mirrors broader normalization processes, but reinforces them by making the process itself seem more normal and more innocuous. What’s the harm of asking for a “regular coffee?” Nothing really, at least not outside of any sort of social context. Although, as a note, people who don’t drink caffeine often have incredibly limited options at cafés, and while that sucks i wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as oppression. But again, the process here is parallel. At the end of the day although the phrase “regular coffee” is not necessarily playing into a (dis)privilege power dynamic, it normalizes the idea that there is a normal.

       If there is a normal for everyday items, then normal becomes an everyday word. It’s meaning, and all of the problematic nuance behind it, is obscured by the sheer amount that it is used. Normalizing normalcy in this way makes it easier to cast other things as normal, easier to understand the world as full of things that are either regular or irregular.

       Because this is both an easy way to construct things and is rendered invisible as a process due to the frequency of its use, normalization has become something that, not only do people participate in without realizing it, they also become relatively incapable of understanding the process itself. This is kind of like how it’s hard to truly be aware of air, because we breathe it and are surrounded by it. This is true in my experience at least, insofar as it is difficult to help people to understand how normalization processes happen, how frequent and consistent they are, and how they impact people who are constructed as not normal.

       That said, i have also noticed that once people get it, they really do seem to get it. For example, i was having a conversation with my mom about normalization, one of many. One day i broke down the example of “ethnic food,” and she really seemed to get it. Since that conversation, other conversations related to the idea of normalization have become much easier. It’s like there’s a normalization map onto which other various processes can be superimposed and more easily understood.

       This is not to say that there isn’t nuance between normalization processes. But it does seem to be easier to see where it is happening once the concept is cohered. Inspiring and cohering this concept is what i hope to achieve in attempting to render the process more visible in my day-to-day life. i hope that people will realize that their actions and choices are not normal, they are just on an array of possible actions and choices. i hope that this understanding will grow to a realization that they themselves are not normal, but are one of an infinite array of possible people.

       Further, i hope that they will realize that when they play into a normalization process they are participating in the continuous creation of society, a society that other people have to negotiate. i hope that they realize that their constructions of normativity have very real implications for others’ lives, implications that are often difficult and problematic. i hope that they realize that this is not just about a donut, but is about identity and visibility and oppression.