February 17, 2008

Randon Act of Feminism for February/March : Gendered-Language Watch

Posted in exnomination, ideology, language politics, Random Acts of Feminism at 8:21 am by LB

I’ve decided to start a monthly “Random Act of Feminism”- a suggestion of something you can do to make feminism or feminist thinking visible in daily interactions with others. Among all of this cultural analysis, feminism is both useful and relevant to everyday life!

We’re halfway through February, so this will be a 2-month deal, which is actually pretty appropriate considering February and March are the token “appreciation” months for women and African-Americans. Which in my book pretty much boils down to this:

image credit: Guerilla Girls

But this Random Act regards women and people of color (in addition to other social minorities) specifically, so in a way, I suppose it’s “appropriate.”**

Without further adieu….

Gendered-language watch
In conversation (your own and others’), watch how people are described. Typically, we use “identity” descriptors only with reference to women, gay men, lesbians, people of color, non-Western ethnicities, (and also non-Christian religions)…in other words, the default category for a “person” is a white, hetero, male. A person is only someone “other” than that when specified.

This is what’s referred to as “ex-nomination” (coined by the semiotician Roland Bathes)-being ‘unnamed’. What is unnamed is what is seen as a ‘natural’ commonsensical category. Those of us who are not white heterosexual men become those with “marked bodies”-bodies who must be named to be identified. In other words, people who are women, or black are designated as such (as if identifying them according to said label adds particular meaning to who they are as a person), while white hetero men are simply “people,” and are thus permitted to establish meaningful identities in ways not shaped by said societal identity labels.

Listen for it-you’ll be surprised. Start correcting your own speech and kindly point it out in others’. Usually these identity markers are completely irrelevant to the context of what’s being said-and using them continues to produce the default category of “person” or “human” in line with how it’s been posited throughout history, and how it’s been assumed to be in disciplines such as science, psychology, and philosophy: white, heterosexual, and male. This is a subtle way that norms around gender, sexuality, race, class, &,… are reproduced on a daily basis, through interpersonal interaction. “-isms” (sexism, racism…) need not come in the form of legal discrimination-they often happen in little moments throughout the day in ways we often don’t realize…until someone says “hey, wait a sec…”

**These token “history” months are case-in-point. I do not wish to take away from their usefulness-during those months, the promotion of minoritarian history seems like worthwhile endeavors and more people are exposed to those histories than might otherwise be. Indeed, it is sad that traditional disciplines are so WHITE that they are even necessary. But, they are a good example of what I’m talking about as far as exnomination goes. I hear so many people say, “Well, when will we have a men’s history month?” The simple (and to me, obvious) answer: every day of every month of every year, in newspapers and classrooms nationwide, is the teaching of men’s history. It just isn’t called that. “Neutral” history is really the history of dominant culture-it just gets the “privilege” of being called plain-old “history”. Why? Oh yeah-because of exnomination, baby!

1 Comment »

  1. […] to mask violence as a gender-neutral activity.  My issue is at a more basic linguistic level.  Previously I wrote: In conversation (your own and others’), watch how people are described. Typically, we use […]

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