Ungendering language

In 2015, hen will officially enter Sweden’s lexicon as a gender-neutral pronoun.

While some complain that this is “taking it too far” (a concept I addressed here and here), it’s really a step in the right direction. Sure, it may make for some occasionally confusing conversations, but the overwhelming majority of the time, knowing someone’s sex or gender identity isn’t really, or shouldn’t be a factor in one’s interaction with them.

Besides, gender-neutral pronouns are nothing new. The thing is, I’m not sure they make any difference. In Ghana, which is hands down the most gendered society I’ve ever lived in, the lingua franca, Twi, uses a gender-neutral pronoun. It doesn’t make anything even remotely egalitarian.

The world actually goes too far in the gendering of things. In many languages, inanimate objects are gendered. As far as I can tell, the only reason for this is to reinforce imagined differences between men and women by using language. There is nothing bad about removing artificial barriers that are held in place only by blind adherence.

John McWhorter argues that such a thing would be impossible in English, although teens already proving that idea wrong.

Why not embrace gender-neutral language? Although it’s not going to fix everything, maybe it will make us less quick to make assumptions about things based on supposed traits. Maybe I won’t be asked why I don’t wear nail polish or told by someone I’m dating that I need to wear dresses or he won’t be attracted to me anymore if I’m thought of primarily as a person rather than a woman first. Maybe men like Sissy Goodwin won’t be physically and verbally attacked for wearing clothes that they like if we just think of people as being people.



You take it too far, Part II

Have you ever heard people say that “feminism takes it too far” or that “some feminists take it too far”? Non-feminist men and women tell me that I’m taking it too far, and I’ve even had women who call themselves feminists tell me that they think I take it too far.

The only thing I believe in is full equality between the sexes, where people’s responsibilities, preferences, and actions are not arbitrarily dictated by the genitalia they were born with.* Basically I think gender roles are garbage.

Apparently this is extreme.

This is taking it too far.

And, apparently the following isn’t:

What’s not taking it too far is the unrealistic standards put on women as to how we are meant to dress and alter our appearance into something completely unnatural.

What’s not taking it too far is the number of women who are victims of intimate partner violence.

What’s not taking it too far is thinking that men need to allow women to go ahead of them in line/sit down on public transport because our female legs are too weak to just wait in line like a person.

What’s not taking it too far is the number of women and girls who are victims of sexual assault.

What’s not taking it too far is telling women they “unprofessional” and going as far as to fire them for not wearing makeup (or high heels).

What’s not taking it too far is saying that it’s a woman’s responsibility to cook. (Seriously, are we supposed to put vaginal secretions in what we cook? For what other reason does that make it the woman’s responsibility?)*

What’s not taking it too far is the almost universal expectation (and practice) that a woman will become a man’s property and produce more property for him with her body when she marries. (I put my name on my lunchbox because it was mine. Same principle.)

What’s not taking it too far is denying women the right to make decisions about their own bodies.

What’s not taking it too far is women still making less money than men for doing the same thing and being punished for asking for more.

What’s not taking it too far is assertions that women only read and write romance novels.

No, I’m the one who is taking it too far.

What’s taking it too far is objecting to someone rushing in front of me to open a door I was just about to open. (Men often argue that it’s about being nice. Look, if you’re doing it for me, and you would never do it for another man, and then you get offended when I don’t appreciate it, you are absolutely not being nice.) What’s taking it too far is not wearing makeup or shaving my legs. What’s taking it too far would be for a woman and a man to marry each other, and neither of these people putting their names on the other person. What’s taking it too far would be a woman giving her name to the children that she gestated and pushed out of her vagina. What’s taking it too far is not believing in stupid, patriarchal ideals about what makes a man (or a woman) desirable.

I had a friend a few years ago with whom I got into an argument about leg shaving. Her argument was that it’s not attractive for women not shave their legs, and I was disgusting for wearing short things without shaving mine. I pointed out that men don’t shave their legs, and she didn’t consider that disgusting. She said “That’s different, because they’re men.” She kept insisting that it was unattractive for women not to shave their legs, but it was fine for men. She also said (seriously) that it was “natural” for women to wear makeup, because makeup was invented for women.

I am no longer friends with her.

Men have legs. Women have legs. Men grow hair on their legs. Women grow hair on their legs. Legs perform the same function for both men and women. But somehow… only the people with vaginas* are disgusting if they leave the hair on their legs? Even though 90% of the people commenting on this post would agree, I think they’re taking it too far.

You have a right to your preferences and your opinion. That doesn’t make them not sexist.

I do not maintain relationships with people who don’t think I’m a human being.

Maybe that is just taking too far.

*I realize how cis-centric this sounds, but I do this to highlight the absurdity and arbitrariness of these norms. If someone transitions from M2F, does that mean that their legs must suddenly be shaved even if the previous week they didn’t need to be? They must suddenly cook when they’ve never needed to before?

Detroit citizens transported back to Stone Age

The United States of America. The self-professed “greatest country in the world”; the “land of the free.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I would beg to differ. And perhaps, so would the people of Detroit, Michigan.

Detroit used to be a bustling metropolis. In the early 20th century, it established itself as the world’s automotive capital, and during the 1950’s to 70’s, it was a prosperous city thanks to the thriving auto industry. It’s also the home of Motown, Berry Gordy’s record company (which is now a nickname for Detroit, as well as the musical genre), which was played a large role in racially integrating music and entertainment.

Despite all of the commercialism and creativity that the city was known for, there was also volatile racial tension, not to mention a Klu Klux Klan presence that surfaced in the 1920’s. The city’s decline has resulted in urban decay and abandoned buildings, and Detroit recently filed for bankruptcy.

Last week, Detroit has been in the news for reasons a far cry from its Motown and automotive heyday. Thousands of residents no longer have access to running water. In the “greatest country in the world,” in one of its biggest cities, there are people living in houses who don’t have access to running water. Thanks to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department 17,000 people have had their water turned off because of late payments in 2014 so far.

The United Nations has condemned the state’s actions. According to UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque, “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying.”

Is it a coincidence that such dramatic hikes in water tariffs and shut offs are taking place in a city that is over 80% black? Maureen Taylor doesn’t seem to think so, and frankly, neither do I. There were, after all, corporations who also owed on their water bills, and their access was not revoked as a result.

People living in the world’s most developed nations should not be dealing with water shortages. (In fact, no one should be dealing without access to water, but it seems especially egregious given the fact that the USA has the world’s largest economy.) Protesters have been arrested. This is how power and privilege work to continue to disenfranchise those already living in poverty. It’s appalling, and it’s no way for the people of Detroit, for people in the United States, or people anywhere in the world to live.

“You take it too far”

It’s not uncommon for people who have never experienced systemic, institutionalized oppression of a certain type to accuse those who have, and identify it, as being “too sensitive” or “taking it too far.”

For people who have never been on the receiving end of systematic discrimination, or for people who are, but for some reason, prefer it that way, it may not be that obvious. If it’s not something overt, like hanging a human being from a tree, or bombing their home or place of worship, or physically assaulting someone while yelling racial slurs, then clearly it’s not systemic racism, it’s because of something else.

Studies have shown that those who are on the receiving end of racism are the best able to identify it. And why wouldn’t they? While I understand that there are all kinds of discrimination that take place against people based on religion, race, size, ability, gender identity, I certainly can’t pick out anti-Semitism as easily as a Jewish person can, or transphobia as easily as a trans person can. I’m going to defer to the people who are on the receiving end of it to tell me.

Microaggressions, which are all too familiar to people with subaltern identities, are difficult to prove. It is possible for people to behave in a way that’s racist, even if it’s not a conscious decision for them to behave that way, thanks to several hundred years of white supremacy conditioning some people to be seen as smarter, more capable, or more attractive or more “refined” than others based on nothing but an arbitrarily defined set of physical characteristics.

It’s when a white Canadian says that of course white men in China go after local women in a way they don’t in Ghana because “That’s different, because they’re Asian, and they’re hot!”

It’s a “friend” telling saying that it’s not good not to cook because you’re “a girl.” (Two in one-infantilizing and gender policing simultaneously!)

It’s describing East Africans (any people of color with physical characteristics usually associated with whiteness) has having “more refined” features than the rest of Africa.

It’s your cousins and their friends laughing at you and saying “I hope I’m not being sexism” when you point out real, problematic, misogynistic behavior.

It’s me saying something in Japanese (to a table of people who don’t understand Japanese), explaining what it means, and then having them argue with absolute certainty about it- because by definition, as a black woman, it’s impossible that I could possibly know what I’m talking about, right?

It’s having all these types of incidences dismissed with a “You’re taking it too far” by someone who does not understand what it is to live life on the receiving end of this.

The thing is, it’s impossible to prove that (some of) these incidents came from a place of maliciousness, or even prejudice. I can’t prove when a white person sticks their hands into my hair without my permission that they have done it because of my race, because it’s not like I have a recording of them admitting to it. But I know that that’s what they are doing, because I have grown up on the receiving end of racism and sexism my entire life.

So no, it’s not me that’s taking it too far. It’s not the countless other people who are far more educated than I am on issues of discrimination and power dynamics who are taking it too far.


Further reading:

How to Tell if a White Person is Racist

“People are Nicer to Daddy Because He’s White”