I have said before how I love language. I love it because it can empower or disempower, create or destroy. It frames issues, gives them direction. It is part of your identity, of how others see you and how you see yourself.
It can be incredibly intimate – with secret codes and made-up words to have with someone, with words of encouragment every morning in front of the mirror – and it can be incredibly political. It IS always political, in that it includes and excludes, offends or supports, ALWAYS. Even when we are not paying attention, language comes up behind us and stabs us in the back, letting everyone know our true sentiments, our deepest-held prejudices, our privilege, our ignorance. I believe that we ought to pay more attention, as our choice of wordscan make a great deal of difference in which conversations happen, who we include instead of excluding, who we stop hurting.
Language (not just English, although the literature I have encountered has been vast on this particular one) as an inherently racist, inherently sexist, inherently homophobic, inherently classist thing is too broad and too complex and too damn long a topic to speak of right now. For now, I just wanted to share some terms I have been trying to use or stop using and why. I of course, invite you to also check yourself – as a privileged ally, that is the least you can do really – and evaluate your language use and do your homework about it and change some habits too.
Some of the terms, dichotomies, standard-versus-other stuffs that we should all be changing:
– First of all, that whole “my gay friend/cousin/teacher” when sexual orientation is not relevant to the conversation (which if you ask me, is almost all the time). It makes me and others think 1) the gold standard is being heterosexual and that one person is the weird one in your world, 2) our (and your) judgment of the rest of what you’ll say should take the ‘gay’ bit into account (for some bizarre and homophobic reason) and 3) that – sorry, I gotta say it – having a friend who happens to be gay somehow makes you a better or cooler or special person and we should take notice of that fact.
Also, some funny kind-of-true stuff
– Same thing goes with “my black friend”, “my trans friend’, ‘my disabled friend’, ‘my midget friend’. Unless that part of their complex, full, awesome being is relevant, saying it only marks it as a difference. And yes, differences do exist, but I do not hear you saying “my white friend”, “my straight friend”, “my cisgender (I’ll come back to this one) friend”, “my fully-physically-abled friend”.
– Start using cisgender to refer to people who are not transgender, who are privileged in this society for identifying with the same sex they were born with, when differentiating from transgender people. Do not mark the difference by saying “men and transmen”, as if the normal thing was to be cisgender and the other, the alien, the abnormal was to be transgender.
“Oh, but I only mean normal in the statistically-normal kind of way”, you say? We humans do not talk in statistically-literate terms, in case you have not noticed. In a hypothetical situation, almost anyone would be more likely to say it is more normal to run into an English-speaking person in Argentina (or almost any country) than it is to run into someone who speaks Chinese, even if Chinese is more statistically normal. Because language is about politics, about visibility, about access.
I know the analogy is not perfect, but you get the point.
“Oh, I don’t know anyone trans so I’m not offending anyone”, you say? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t (what makes you assume you know, anyway?). Even if you don’t, language works like a forest fire. If you say cisgender, someone might ask you what cisgender is, maybe they’ll too be convinced and use it, and so on: somewhere (if not everywhere) along the line, you just stopped someone (and yourself) from – possibly unintentionally – hurting, discriminating against, and offending some one else.
While we’re on the subject of cisgenders and cisgender privilege, it is time for a check-list. I know I have been guilty of more than one horribly offensive, transphobic thing, and some of them stem from not fully acknowledging cisgender privilege, so check it out and stop being a twat 😉
– Saying something/someone is “so gay” as a way of saying silly/dumb/ridiculous/flamboyant/cowardly/boring/cheesy/over-dramatic. You are literally equating those negative or at the very least stereotyping adjectives to being homosexual, and an = sign goes both ways. It is as simple as not being lazy and use any of the above adjectives or any other instead of saying “gay”. Even Hilary Duff agrees with me on this one.
– The same thing goes for “stop being such a girl”, “you’re such a pussy” (for an anatomically-accurate word for ‘sensitive’, try “glans”, as in the tip of your penis), “he plays like a chick” or the like.
You are saying, first of all, that whatever attitude the person displayed was a feminine (girly/womanly/chick-y) thing to do which is 1) stereotyping and further reinforcing gender roles that block both men and women from being however the fudge they want to be without fear of ridicule; and 2) saying, literally saying, that being equated to a woman is wrong or undesirable or humilliating or inferior. Actually, all of those things. It goes like this: “playing like a chick” is saying (most commonly) that that person is playing badly or poorly or too delicately, right? So you’re saying that a girl plays badly and poorly and too delicately, and because you are saying it to demean a person, it is saying that being called or compared to a girl is supposed to be demeaning. It is very easy: say they are playing poorly. Say they are being over-dramatic, say they are being too high-maintenance. Don’t equate those bad attributes and offensive stereotypes to women and do not equate “woman”/”girl”/”chick” to an insult.
– Using the word ‘retarded’ or retard. Something is not retarded: something is either ridiculous, or dumb, or bad, or annoying, none of which describes or equates to intellectually challenged or disabled individuals. Do not use that word to describe people who are not intellectually disabled as a way to insult them: it should not be an insult because intellectually disabled people are not inferior or wrong or less worthy than non-disabled people like yourself. Do not use that word to describe intellectually disabled individuals either, it is offensive. You are not charged by the vowel, so I am sure you can use intellectually disabled instead.
– Oh, OH. Please, stop using the word ‘rape’ for anything else than rape itself. Ohhh this makes my blood boil. You did not “rape that exam”, you ‘rocked’ it or you finished it no-problem. The football team did not “rape that tournament”, they embarrassingly outperformed the other teams.
Using the word minimizes the actual pain, suffering and trauma of survivors. It hurts them, and it can bring back the pain of the actual rape that happened to them. It makes survivors feel unsafe and rapists feel safer in a world that trivializes and jokes about what they do. Here’s another more elaborate take on this.
– Relevant to recent events, debates and blog posts: gay marriage vs marriage. I am guilty-as-friggin-charged. I think this is not cool because it makes it as if marriage between heterosexuals is the whole deal and the other one is an alternative version. So I will start saying “straight marriage” or “heterosexual marriage”. This is a pledge.
So yeah. These are some easy ways in which we can change our habits to be better and to make others feel better and safer. By recognizing the prejudices that we carry with us and by correcting the language that promote these same prejudices, we make it less okay for people to say racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist things whether it is on purpose or not.
I also invite you to check out this test. It is related to my blog post in that our word choice is one of the ways our prejudices leak out, but there is so much more to look at inside our socialization. The test was created by Harvard researchers in order to assess some of the unconcious associations we make and makes us reflect upon them in order to make our concious attitudes meaningful ones. It is also super simple and interesting and enlightening [I got some scores that embarrass me, honestly, but that make me think and try to tackle internalized ideas I hold].
Any other terms/phrases you think we should change in our vocabulary?