I wrote about my language school for another PiA post here, but I’d like to bring it up again today. My topic here is heterosexism and it’s in similar vein to the first post and, again, about a reoccurring pattern.
We were going over a compound verb today with three different meanings: to signify a longstanding friendship, to signify a romantic attachment, and to ask to do an action together (yeah, the last one seems a little bit out of place, but that’s Japanese for you). My teacher — a very sweet and contentious woman, if a bit more conservative than I — talked about how the first meaning was between friends and wrote the word for “friend” on the board next to the example sentence. The third one was similar, although the explanation was too complex to sum up in a word so she left the right part of the example sentence blank. When she got to the second, however, I expected her to write the word for significant other (ie. the frequently used gender-neutral word for boyfriend/girlfriend) but she talked about “relationships between men and women” and then wrote the heterosexual specific word for male/female relations.
When I had an opening, I was like, “Um, sensei, wouldn’t [gender-neutral word] be a better choice? I mean, not all relationships are between a man and a woman…”
She looked at me and blinked for a split second, and then it was like a light bulb went off in her head. “Of course, of course!” she said abashedly, “[Gender-neutral word] is much better!” And she promptly changed the word on the board.
My teacher obviously wasn’t intending to exclude those of us in the class who were queer. In fact, I would wager that she never even thought that the language she was using — typical language, I believe, for adults to use in regards to relationships — could be exclusive. But, that’s just it. Privilege is having the dominant discourse be tailored to your group, to the point that you often don’t notice how certain words are exclusive of other groups.
The “normal” discourse all too often erases the experiences of groups outside what’s seen as “normal”, making it easier to ignore, minimize, and otherwise ignore/forget the existence of those groups. It’s not that most people do this intentionally; far from it. People use words which are exclusive (boyfriend/girlfriend in the context of assuming heterosexuality, mankind instead of humankind, etc) all the time, but because of privilege, these words are in such common usage that we use them as if they are all encompassing when the reality is that they are not.
For most people, when it’s pointed out to them is when they change it. This is not a terrible reaction; and most certainly is better than insisting that there’s nothing wrong with a word that has been pointed out to be exclusionary. However, in this case the best response is for us to be aware of our language as best we can, and choose the egalitarian version of a term whenever possible. Many people put down this kind of idea as being the “thought/word police” or the “PC gestapo” or somesuch, but the truth is that it’s just about using language that acknowledges and respects the basic humanity of others.