The Dress as a metaphor for Social Justice.
One of the most interesting things about the entire situation where the dress is concerned is the vehemence with which people will defend the authenticity of their perception of the dress. To put it another way, the concern produced over the inability of others to see the dress in the same way that we could was literally an anxiety generated from the knowledge that we all have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. To this end, and given the orientation of our society, one of the ways of viewing the world (either the dress as white and gold or blue and black) must necessarily be false if the other is true due to the fact that we all, presumably, share a common world. Thus, all of the arguments over the color of the dress had nothing to do with the actual color of the dress and everything to do with the truth of the world as we see it.
If you have made it past the title and the opening paragraph, I want you to forget about the dress itself but keep in mind the degree of social anxiety that the dress produced. Instead of the dress, I want you to substitute any form of institutionalized oppression. Racism and sexism might be the easiest ways to use this metaphor, but homophobia and transphobia also work just as well. To this end, I want you to consider that those in the power majority see the dress as white and gold and those in the power minority see the dress as blue and white. If you can keep this in mind, you can follow me through the next part: the people in the power majority literally cannot see the world as organized by systemic inequality, where as the people in the power minority have no choice but to see the world as organized by systemic inequality. To be blunt, white people, men, heterosexuals, and people who reinforce the gender binary are socially blind to the way in which the world functions differently for them.
Now, that might be a bitter pill to swallow, especially since we can be taught to view the structures of oppression in our world and actively work against them. It is this analogy of institutional structures as “visible” or “invisible” that I want to point out with reference to the phenomena of the dress. This is language that is often used within social justice circles bot on tumblr, in activist spaces, and in academia, yet it often goes undefined. What this means is that our perceptions are not limited to our five embodied senses, but extend outwards into the social. To say that we don’t “see” a particular institutional structure, or that we “see it” differently is to speak of a way of perceiving a social structure through reference to social senses. It is these social senses that allow us to move through “social spaces,” and make us aware of our “sense of belonging,” or “sense of place,” or our “sense of being in place.” To this end we have a “social body” which we use to move through a “social world.” As an example, when we call someone “socially inept,” we are referring to a failure of their social senses to properly interpret the sense data of their social world in order for them to respond appropriately.
Pushing further, it is not simply that we are born into the world with the knowledge of the color blue: things become blue through a process of training our minds to recognize particular sense data as corresponding with blue or gold. To this end, our social senses are trained in the same way: we are taught to recognize particular social organizations as a result of our continued interaction with them. Depending on the social environment, different actions have different meanings, all of which are interpreted by our social senses in order to allow us to make sense out of the social world that we inhabit. AS an aside, the only way that our “sense of belonging” functions is through the recognition and identification of the social sense data that tells us “we belong.” An inability to interpret this social sense data would mean that the individual cannot tell if they “belong” in a particular group. More specifically, the training of our social senses allows us to recognize the appropriate course of action in a given social situation.
Let’s get back to the familiar territory of the dress. If we accept the analogy of social senses to physical senses in so far as we can “see” institutionalized structures of oppression, then the dress metaphor becomes clear: people in the power majority have been trained not to see the world as organized by institutional oppression, whereas people in the power minority have no choice but to see the world as structured in this way in order to survive. To put it plainly, people in the power majority see the dress as blue/black and people in the power minority see the dress as white/gold. Bearing this in mind, every conflict over the presence of institutional oppression (and remember, the social is an institution in so far as it puts something in place) is literally a conflict over the structure of the shared social world that we inhabit. Each side is determined to convince the other side of the truth of the reality of the world as interpreted by their social senses, yet neither side has been trained to see the world as the other does. In some cases, it may simply be impossible to come to view the world in the same way that another group does, in other cases, the world can only partially be viewed in light of the perceptions of the other.
Here is where the metaphor of the dress tends to stand on shaky ground: social perceptions, unlike the dress, is ultimately trained through the instituting power of society itself. It may be possible to retrain ones social senses to limitedly view the world as another group views the world, however, the nature of institutional oppression means that no one in the power majority can ever truly share the same world as the power minority: they can only accept the reality of the world as viewed by power minority and act accordingly. Ahead of his time, Paulo Freire anticipated the need of anyone who sought solidarity with the oppressed to accept the validity of the world of the oppressed, which is to say that any ally must accept the truth of the dress being blue/black for some people, and actively work to transform the world so that the color of the dress does not become grounds for oppression. That last point may be stretching the metaphor to breaking, though it does coincide with the way that we, as a society, have responded to the dress.
Finally, to put it simply: one of the major problems with social justice is that those in power literally cannot see the world as organized by oppression. As such, any attempt to show them the world as it is, is ultimately met by an attempt to reassert the reality that the oppressor knows is true. It is this point that using the dress as a metaphor for social reality intends to bring to light: conflicts over social justice are not simply conflicts over human rights, they are literally clashes between two perceptions of reality. Further, I am not content to restrict the application of this metaphor to merely oppressed/oppressor conflicts: interactions between oppressed groups often take upon the form of clashes between perceptions of social reality. To put it simply, as the structures of oppression operate differently on different groups, so too will the perception of those structures. As such, in order to engage in any transformation of the situation, we must come to recognize that we all see the same dress, simply differently. What matters is how we recognize those differences.