Image Description and Identity

Sometimes I try to take on big questions; today we’re going to keep it light and only tackle the nature of identity and the relationship between author and reader in interpreting an image.

It all started with a question about image descriptions. Image descriptions are a way of making the images in webpages more accessible, primarily for readers with print disabilities. Screen readers will read accessible text, but when they encounter a photo, say (to take an image at random)

Image: Photo of golden retriever.

the screen reader can’t read it or render any useful information from it unless you add an image description. To make sure that print-disabled readers aren’t left out, I would add the description “Image: Photo of golden retriever.” I can put that either in the body of the blog, or in the “alt-text” field of the photo when I upload it. Here, I did both.

When adding image descriptions, I’m always challenged by how much detail to include. The photo above is easy: there’s one major feature and it’s quick and easy to describe. When I describe people, I’ve tended to describe them using a couple of basic characteristics: gender; age(ish); race; and perhaps an additional detail or two (color of clothing; glasses; sitting/standing). When someone is in a wheelchair, I say that; when they’re not, I don’t say anything.

For example, I described this photo

Image: slighly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.

as

slightly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.

When I started adding image descriptions to the large number of people photos in the presentation we put together to introduce CREEC, I started tripping over the question of how — if at all — to describe race and ethnicity.  Many of the photos depicted people whose races were (1) obvious; and (2) known to me.  For example, this awesomely cliched photo that Tim and I had taken around 2002 as an Official Fox &  Robertson Photo:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  (Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

I described it:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

That was easy:  I’m white; Tim’s white; I know our races.  Tim’s disability is visible.  All the props on the table probably aren’t that relevant, but my view is that the description helps convey the posed-ness of the photo.

But what about photos depicting people whose race or ethnicity was either unknown to me or not easily described?  This, in turn, raised the obvious question whether it is relevant at all. I felt torn between trying to achieve accuracy for print-disabled readers and adding unnecessary focus on race and ethnicity. I posed this question on Facebook, and deeply enjoyed the ensuing discussion.

When adding image descriptions to photos, what do you do about perceived vs. known vs. visible ethnicities? For example, if I’m in a photo with an African-American woman, I would say something like, “White woman in white shirt and jeans; African-American woman in dark shirt and skirt.”  Easy.  But what about describing someone whose ethnicity is likely neither white nor African-American but is not known to me? Or someone who “looks” “white,” but I know would be annoyed by being described as “white.” Describing degrees of skin tone seems weird.

A surprising number of people responded with something like, “I don’t describe race.”   From Andrew Montoya:

Generally I do not comment on race/skin tone in alt text unless it’s germane to the picture.

From Carrie Lucas:

I don’t describe skin color.  If race is important to the picture, or skin, hair, etc, then describe it.  Otherwise just say “person” or “people of multiple races.”

My response (edited for coherence):

But that would mean that (respectfully) I’m making the decision for the reader when race/color/ethnicity are relevant. I try to be complete and objective in descriptions, though completeness is never possible and there is always editorial discretion.

If you don’t mention race, do you say “woman in a wheelchair” “older woman” “young girl” or just “person”?   What matters?  Gender? Race? Age? Disability? Hair color? Skin color?  At what point are we short-changing a blind reader who just wants to know what the photo looks like.

Carrie:

  I wouldn’t say race; I would say “dark colored skin, light colored skin, olive colored skin.”

Me:

But if I say that [Chinese-American colleague] has “olive skin” don’t I leave out something important, that is, that he’s Asian?  Or do I have to anatomically describe his eyelids?

Andrew:

But then where do you draw the line? How much detail do you use to describe the individual’s clothes, type of glasses, how the hair swoops over an eye, where the person’s shadow falls against the all white background even? It seems a line must be drawn somewhere lest you lose the content to the details of the description. So unless race is part of the relevance of the picture, I prefer to let people be people.

I will state that a person is in a wheelchair or using other equipment if it’s relevant. I rarely mention age, unless it’s relevant to the description (i.e., saying “cranky man” doesn’t convey the image as well as saying “cranky old man” for the stock picture of the muppet in the theater box guy). I do often state gender, as it seems a natural descriptor, but generally only for pictures where there’s only one gender present. However, stating a race or skin color where it’s not relevant to the picture seems odd and forced to me. As for determining relevance, I think that I’m already editorializing by having used the picture. I intend it to convey a particular thing by using it, so that’s where I focus my alt text description.

Corbett:

Some descriptions I have seen include information that is visible such as describing the skin tone but not assigning racial identity. So the description might say: “a light skinned female appearing person sits in a wheelchair. A dark skinned male appearing person stands nearby wearing a dark suit with a light shirt and plaid tie.”

Good point:  you can’t assume gender either.

Carrie:

It depends on why you are including the picture; whether race is important to the purpose of the picture.

Me:

But I think that’s circular, in the sense that “importance” is created by the interaction of creator and reader.  Should my purpose be the be-all-and-end-all of the decision?  I totally agree you have to make choices or you’d spend 3 paragraphs describing the building in the background of the photo, etc. But the question of when race is relevant seems to me to be one that the reader should make.

Carrie:

Yes, you are the author.

Me:

Don’t you often see things in photos that the photographer or user didn’t see or intend? I think we’re heading into lit crit territory!!!

That is, it was starting to sound very vaguely like the discussions of author, reader, and text that my much smarter classmates were having in 1981.  Which, to me, meant that I was way in over my head, and thus could start making shit up with impunity!

Then my law school roommate, Kristin Robinson, chimed in.  She was a grad student in American Studies (IIRC) when the two of us and a med student shared a house in 1985, and we’ve only recently reconnected on Facebook.

Long descriptions include information that is relevant to understanding the reason (instructional goal) the image has been included. It highlights salient information. So, if race or other aspects of people’s appearance is salient, you would include it. If it isn’t, you wouldn’t.

So perhaps in a strictly educational context, the teacher’s purpose is more important than total transparency.  Kristin also provided a helpful link to guidelines for describing science and technology images in the educational context.  The very first guideline is

Brevity. The most frequent recommendation from respondents was for more brevity in description. Simply put, it takes people with visual impairments more time to read books and articles than people without visual impairments and the process should not be further slowed down by unnecessarily long image descriptions.

For all my pontificating about the need for enough detail to let print-disabled readers interpret the image, I may also be annoying the crap out of them with verbose image descriptions.

Here’s where I end up.  Once you start describing people — that is, going beyond something like “three people in the background” — you owe it to your readers to give a description sufficient to let them decide what features are relevant.  To my mind, that includes at least (perceived) gender, age, race/ethnicity/skin tone, and [visible] disability/lack.

There will always be filtering and interpretation in the descriptions and I realize that my perceptions (and thus descriptions) will not always be accurate.  That I may describe someone in a way that suggests the wrong identity, or that suggests an ethnic, gender or disability identity where the subject would prefer to be just “a person.”  So I’m making a decision that affects not only the reader but the subject.

Ultimately — perhaps by dint of what I do for a living — I don’t think I should be deciding for the reader that race and other identities don’t matter.  I may use a photo for one purpose, while my reader perceives other meanings.  When I see a photo, my eyes and brain (with its inevitable set of life experiences and preconceptions) conspire to give it meaning.  Sometimes that meaning may be different from what the photographer and/or author intended.  My goal in creating an image description should be to try — with acknowledged and inevitable limitations — to provide the opportunity for a print-disabled reader to have that same conspiracy of brain and ear to give their meaning to the image.

Peter Singer and the TERFs: We Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

And we want to make pejorative, exclusionary and — in Singer’s case — homicidal* decisions based on our superior knowledge of your inner state.

I had just written my random thoughts on the importance of trans* [**], Autistic and other former others rejecting the default setting, and my view that this made it easier for all of us “to be who we are and find or create our own cubbyhole, or none, or multiple,” when the New Yorker published “What is a Woman?” by Michelle Goldberg, an article describing the anti-trans* faction of “radical feminism” called, variously, Radfems or — more pejoratively but accurately — “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (“TERFs”).

But what truly reminded me of Peter Singer was the TERFs’ certainty that they know the inner life of trans women and trans men. One Sheila Jeffreys has written a book, “Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism,” in which she proclaims her knowledge of and judgment on the inner life of trans men and trans women by seeing them entirely through the political prism of male-dominated society. A man, per Jeffreys, can never appropriate the experience of being a woman. Accordingly, Jeffreys “insists on using male pronouns to refer to trans women and female ones to refer to trans men.” To her, trans men are simply trying to “raise their status in a sexist system” while trans women, well, “when trans women ask to be accepted as women they’re seeking to have an erotic fixation indulged,” or — according to the psychology professor on whose work she relies — trans women have “‘autogynephilia,’ meaning sexual arousal at the thought of oneself as female.”

So Jeffreys and other TERFs — cis women all — have decided that they know the inner life of trans people better than trans people themselves do, and not only pontificate about this in writing, but ultimately reject trans women as women, refuse to use their preferred pronouns, and in some cases exclude them from women-only spaces.

This is rank Singerism. Peter Singer is a Princeton professor who believes that, well, I’ll let Harriet McBryde Johnson describe it:

Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.

In other words, privileged white male Princeton professor asserts that he knows with such certainty the inner life of people with disabilities that he advocates killing them as infants. To me, Singerism means making policy — usually negative — based on the facially impossible premise that you can know and pass judgment on someone else’s inner life. Singer can never know how happy any particular person is or will be, much less disabled infants he’s never met. Jeffreys and the TERFs have no idea how trans women experience their lives and their identities.

Where the fuck do they get off deciding to kill, insult, and exclude people based on these arrogant and patently impossible judgments?

Jeffreys claims that cases of “regret” — people who have physically transitioned and later regretted the move — “undermine[ ] the idea that there exists a particular kind of person who is genuinely and essentially transgender and can be identified accurately by psychiatrists.” Well, it might undermine that idea for the person experiencing regret but how it undermines the self-knowledge — often hard-won — of everyone who has ever transitioned is hard to see. More Singerism.

The New Yorker article describes one TERF group, Deep Green Resistance, as holding the view that “a person born with male privilege can no more shed it through surgery than a white person can claim an African-American identity simply by darkening his or her skin.” I suppose that may mark the far outer boundaries of my “Free to Be You and Me” approach to identity, that is, that we should credit people with knowing themselves and defer to the identity each asserts. Could a white person declare himself black in the same way a person born with female parts can declare himself to be male? Can I decide to be disabled without actually having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities? When does the assertion of identity become appropriation? I think we avoid Singerism by saying (1) we don’t know; and (2) we have no business killing, insulting, or excluding people based even on identities that push the boundaries of credibility.

It is reassuring that TERFs find themselves marginalized in feminist and academic circles, though frustrating that Singer is not similarly ostracized. It is apparently more acceptable to mainstream academia to advocate killing disabled infants than it is to advocate excluding trans women from all-female music festivals.***

I conclude with this quote from the New Yorker article:

Older feminists . . . can find themselves experiencing ideological whiplash. Sara St. Martin Lynne, a forty-year-old . . .

Hold on! “Older” and “forty-year-old” do not go together!  But assuming that “older feminist” would accurately describe this 54-year-old, I experience no whiplash, but only a deepening appreciation for each way we let people be themselves, and each mind-opening step we take away from the default setting.

Update: Here is an excellent response to the New Yorker article, in Bitch magazine.****  TERF War: The New Yorker’s One-Sided Article Undermines Transgender Identity by Leela Ginelle.  Lots of good points about the the TERF problem, though I disagree that the original article undermined transgender identity.  I thought it was fair, and that the TERFs were portrayed as the narrow-minded troglodytes that they are.

Update 2:  Julia Serano, who is mentioned in Goldberg’s article, has an informative rebuttal in The Advocate.  Here is my comment:

This is an excellent rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, but reading this & the rebuttal in Bitch made me wonder whether we read the same original article. First, though, I agree that Julia Serano has every right to feel personally pissed. But while Goldberg clearly skates over the surface of a complex issue, and probably did sensationalize the feminist catfight angle, I thought the TERFs came off in her article as deeply misguided, insular, and hateful. Specifically the reference to “autogynophilia” seemed to me like a self-evidently hysterical use of scientific-sounding Greek word roots to disguise abject quackery. All that said, Serano’s response adds a great deal of useful detail; would be great if The New Yorker published it.

*******

* I was going to say “life-threatening” but Singer doesn’t just want to threaten the lives of disabled infants, he wants to permit people to kill them. Let’s call it what it is.

** “Trans*” is a way of indicating a wide variety of trans ways of being. As Slate explains, “the asterisk stems from common computing usage wherein it represents a wildcard—any number of other characters attached to the original prefix.”

Image: Graphic that reads, "Trans*. I recently adopted the term 'trans*' (with the asterisk) in my writing. I think you should, too. If it's new to you, let me help clarify. Trans* is one word for a variety of identities that are incredibly diverse, but share one simple, common denominator: a trans* person is not your traditional cisgender wo/man. Beyond that there is a lot of variation. What does the * stand for? *Transgender, *Transsexual, *Transvestite, *Genderqueer, *Genderfluid, *Non-binary, *Genderf**k, *Genderless, *Agender, *Non-Gendered, *Third gender, *Two-spirit, *Bigender *Transman *Transwoman" Poster created by online LGBTQ educator Sam Killerman.This can get confusing here, in light of the fact that the ThoughtSnax Style Manual calls for asterisks for footnotes.  We’ll muddle through.

*** The article noted that violence and threats have been directed toward TERFs, which is of course deeply offensive and wrong . . . except the graffiti “Real Women have Dicks,” which is just the sort of smartass, mind-opening civil disobedience I love.

**** Of course I read Bitch Magazine — it’s my trade publication!

 

I love “cis” and “neurotypical” and “non-binary.”

Because they reject the default setting.

“Cis” is the opposite of “trans,” as in cisgender, meaning (more or less) “identifying as the gender that [society tends to] correlate[s] with the body parts you were born with.”

Neurotypical” is used to describe people who are not on the Autism spectrum. 

[Update from the comments:  Unstrangemind explains that “neurotypical is the opposite of neurodivergent. The opposite of Autistic is allistic. I know many people who are allistic but not neurotypical.”   I love this even more — two different ways of rejecting the default setting.]

Both of these terms reject the concept that the opposite of transgender or autistic is “normal,” and I love them for precisely that reason: they reject the default setting.

I love reading the thoughts and experiences of people who are trans, or autistic, or non-binary, which is being “on the spectrum,” but just another spectrum. I love that parents are more and more open to listening to kids who don’t want to live as the gender they were physically assigned.

I love fat activism, which says beauty norms are contingent and health and happiness come in many shapes and sizes. The fact that we now insist that women have flat stomachs and men have six-packs seems as random as fashion, and as open to change if we all open our minds.

I love universal design, which says you can build a structure for every body, not an archi-typical structure that you then have to retrofit to accommodate people whose bodies and abilities don’t fall within a narrow part of that spectrum. A structure that accommodates all of us from the start.*

Why, I’ve asked myself, would a cis, largely neurotypical, straight, nondisabled, averaged-sized person find these concepts so compelling? Because they reject the cubbyholes society creates for all of us. My theory is that every time a trans*, autistic, non-binary, fat, and/or disabled person makes society pry open its language and — following close behind** — its minds, we all win. It pushes back against the default setting and makes it easier for us all to be who we are and find or create our own cubbyhole, or none, or multiple.

I love Robot Hugs pretty much any day, but this comic was timed perfectly for this post, which had been rattling around in my head for a while.

2014-07-21-Gender Rolls

Image description by the artist:

GENDER ROLLS:

Daily Gender Check:

Roll Three:

Roll 1d8

1 – Agender

2 – Genderqueer

3 – Trans

4 – Genderfluid

5 – Cis

6 – Non-Binary

7 – Questioning

8 – Bigender

Roll 1d10

1 – Dapper

2 – Femmetype

3 – Twinky

4 – Sophisticate

5 – Androgynous

6 – Leather

7 – Flexible

9 – Queerdo

10 – Nonconforming

Roll 1d12

1 – Princex

2 – Dragon

3 – Beefcake

4 – Shortcake

5 – Dudebro

6 – Gentleperson

7 – Cumberbatch

8 – Butch

9 – Bear

10 – Dandy

11 – Otter

12 – Queen

A: What did you get today?

B: Genderqueer femmetype dudebro

A: Tough one.

B: Nah, I’m going to totally rock it. You?

A: Agender sophisticate dragon.

B: Nice.

*************

* That said, the next person who says a building is “accessible without looking all disabled or hospital like” gets whapped upside the head (gently but effectively) with a soft, non-fatal, but memorable wheelchair part.

** I’m a linguistics major and happy to talk about how language shapes thought — I wrote a thesis on it! — so ask at your peril!

We need a general anti-butthead law.

With fee shifting.

Consider the following case:

Damian Garcia

A senior at an Albuquerque Catholic high school identifies as a boy and wants to wear a black gown — along with all the other boys — for graduation.  Unfortunately, his birth certificate identifies him as a girl, which is the only criterion his high school considers in dictating that he wear a white gown, the color assigned to girls.

This case, although likely tough to bring under current antidiscrimination law, would be resolved on a plaintiff’s summary judgment motion under the Anti-Butthead Act, the key provision of which reads, “Don’t be a butthead.”  The high school, although fully entitled to implement whatever religious principles it wants,* is being buttheaded about a very simple thing.  Let the kid wear whatever damn gown he wants.

His family says

they’re not expecting the school to change policy by next week, but hope the school would consider eventually having all students wear the same colored gowns to avoid the situation all together.

Laudable non-buttheaded thinking!

**********

*I am completely unqualified to opine on Christian doctrine, but I thought it had more to do with loving your fellow human than what color gown he’s wearing.