Sun, Jan. 11th, 2009, 12:52 pm
Last night I was with friends at an Eat N Park, and a male friend made a statement that was against anti-gay bigotry. He then added, "I mean, I'm not gay, but..."
I thought this was odd. Everyone at the table, save for one guy knew that he was not gay (and that if he were bisexual, he tended to be attracted to women). There weren't really other people in the restaurant, and he was among friends.
I remarked that that was a silly thing to say. "Well, I think people are people no matter their sexuality. NOT THAT I'M GAY." To me, this sounded as if he did see gay people as something he did not want to be, thus implying a lesser value in his eyes. The qualifier made his previous statement sound insincere. I didn't have a chance to go into this detail before others chimed in.
Another friend remarked, "Yeah, we know that you're straight" and a third cautioned that she thought there was a table of gay people a few tables over so we should be careful what we say.
I wonder if I communicated poorly, or if it's just there's so much heteronormativity present that those other friends missed the point. Perhaps I'm off-base.
This lead me to reflect that even at a table among friends, friends who knew his dating history and knew that he was (almost certainly) a straight ally, in a place where he was unlikely to find himself threatened or harmed for being perceived as gay, that his qualifying statement "I'm not gay" was more of a preemptive self-defense than anything else. To me, it sounded like a non-sequitor. It wasn't a statement of "I'm a straight ally to the queer community!" It was a statement to set him apart from that group, after making a statement that might be perceived as him being a member of the group.
Was my reaction off-base? Was his statement off-base? Were my friends who responded to what I said missing my nuance or did I miscommunicate? What should I have done?
I'm still not sure. Worse, now I'm worried that I sounded offensive to the other table -- whether they were gay or not, I don't want to sound like a non-supporter of queers. Even if I thought it was pretty clear I was mocking the qualifier statement, I do live in a heteronormative world where my intentions are not immediately clear, and I know that I'm not always the best communicator.
Overall, I'm glad that I tried to speak out against what I saw as a problematic construction, but I'd have preferred if it were effective! What are y'all's thoughts?
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009, 01:00 pm
This has been bumping around in my head for a while, but I've only been pushed to write about it today.
Everyone speaks a different dialect, and everyone is fluent
in that dialect.* Everyone. Things that sound funny in one dialect, such as what we consider our standard dialect, are not necessarily "ignorant" or "uneducated."
We decide that people are uneducated when they speak with a heavy non-standard English accent because we teach our standard dialect in schools, and we use it in formal writing. However, people who have strong identities with their home region or culture are more likely to avoid using the standard dialect, even though they may have learned that their way of speaking is "incorrect." I'm not going to touch on all assumptions made based on dialect, and there are quite a few, but rather focus on issues of intelligence and education levels as percieved by dialect.
I am writing mostly on classism and racism in regard to dialect, and the US Politics section is more of an introduction, so if you're unfamiliar with US politics, you're not missing much if you skip it, but it should be quite accessible.
re: US Politics
One of the biggest things that got on my nerves during the presidential election was how even the people defending Sarah Palin from sexist attacks, even though they did not support her politics (which is honorable and I really praise everyone who stood up for a candidate they did not support in the face of unfair treatment), still made fun of her accent. And okay, perhaps that's not one of the biggest things, but it did bother me a lot. She speaks her local dialect. She is not from the midwest. She sounds a little funny to you. She sounds normal to herself and everyone around her. It's othering to make her somehow less for speaking the way everyone in her language community speaks. Edit:
I've been corrected on this. Please see the comments.
This same attack is used on Bush. Goodness knows he makes a number of linguistic errors (easy to find on the internets!) but his pronunciation of 'nuclear' is a normal dialectal thing. I used to say it that way, which is odd considering where I grew up -- I'm pretty sure I picked it up from TV -- and I know plenty of people who pronounce it that way. It's just a dialect thing, not an ignorance thing. People transpose letters in words all the time -- consider "comfortable." In all dialects I've heard spoken this word is usually pronounced "comfterble," even though the r should happen before the t! (Not that pronouncing it 'com-fort-a-ble' is wrong in those dialects, it just sounds stilted.)
Politicians are expected to take on what was basically arbitrarily decided as the standard dialect. Bush and Palin are supposed to speak with a perfect midwest accent. I feel like I remember Bill Clinton switching between accents, too, but I could be mistaken. This is 'normal' and 'right' but if a politician from the northeast were to assume a southern drawl when visiting Texas, people would see that as 'fake' and even 'condescending.' This says a lot about how we feel about class, and how language and dialect determines which class you belong in. If you're not from the right region, you'd better educate yourself on the right way of speaking or else you're a dimwit!
Which segues nicely into the next section:
re: classism and racism
Generally speaking, most people feel it's wrong to make fun of a foreign-born person in the United States for having an accent. However, we do not seem to have a problem with labeling people uneducated or stupid for the same, provided they were born on US soil.
How many times have you heard that Ebonics isn't English? That black people just need to educate themselves and speak real English? Or, as I saw in a comment at Hestika
today, a particular word is pronounced a certain way or else, where the particular word in question is a common example from BVE (Black Vernacular English)? Or even, "if they want to speak to me, they can speak real English?" I've heard these more times than I care to, and while I always speak up -- and use my credentials as a linguist to back me up -- it doesn't seem to stem the tide very well at all!
BVE and Standard English are both languages/dialects that have grammatical rules for sentence structure and pronunciation. But they are more different from one another than Spanish and Portuguese. What is perfectly grammatical in one is highly ungrammatical in another. Moreover, what is the prestige language in one language community might not be so prestigious in another. (Consider why people either make conscious efforts to change their dialect if they move to another part of the country or why they don't. Consider why they revert back to their native dialect when visiting home or why they don't.)
And sure, going through the school system, you're going to get the standard dialect taught to you, or at least you'll be taught in the standard dialect, and you'll hear it on the television. But imagine how hard it would be to learn to read and write and perform in school in any area if you were in a classroom where everyone was speaking a language related to yours, but still a different language! So here it's cyclical in nature. We say that people who speak this "language of the ghettos" are uneducated, we other them. But we don't teach to them, we teach at them, and we don't give people a social reason to want to learn, at least not one that makes sense during your first grade English classes.
But more than that, more than just which dialect is prestigious, which dialect will get you better jobs, it's a form of discrimination based on socio-economic class. It's not really a region thing, as communities all over the US speak BVE or a form of it. It's based not on the region where you grow up, but the conditions in which you grew up -- an inner-city white child is as likely to learn it as an inner-city black child, but it's still associated with blackness, and in turn associated with ignorance, poverty, lack of education, and a lack of a will to learn.
The difference between a dialect and a language is purely political. Serbia and Croatia basically speak the same language with a few minor difference, but their languages are considered different languages because there is a country's border between them. Spanish and Portuguese are more similar than standard English and BVE but no one questions that those are different languages. Yet China has mutually unintelligible dialects, but these are dialects because they fall within the same political borders. It's the same with English, and the sooner we realize that the sooner we can properly communicate with one another. And I think we all have a lot to learn.
*I understand that there are a few, very rare cases of a person who ends up switching languages while very young and as a result is a native speaker of neither, and thus does not have native fluency in any language. None of the examples in my post deal with people who would fall into that category.
I also am generalizing quite a bit and do not mean to speak for any individual's particular circumstances.
I shaved my legs the other day so as to wear a dress without offending anyone. I don't personally find body hair to be offensive, but it's not just about the hair itself, is it?
I typically avoid shaving, but I also avoid showing off parts of my body that are considered must-shave areas with the exception of my face, which fortunately, grows much less hair than my armpits do.
To be honest, it's probably been about since my last posting here since I shaved last, so I had a good deal of hair to get rid of! And as I carefully and painstakingly removed it, attempting to bleed as little as possible, no matter how long that would take me, I wondered when not shaving became such an act of feminist defiance.
Shaving is a relatively recent practice, if I recall, and yet it is so pervasive, that it is more remarkable to not act than it is to spend time, money, and potentially blood and tears to do so. In popular culture, people make jokes about men that shave their legs and the particular pain that comes with waxing. Any woman or person who lives with a woman who regularly removes her body hair can attest to the amount of time it takes, and a quick trip to the grocery store or pharmacy will show you how much money goes into this practice.
It's interesting how important it is, to be properly feminine, to be attractive at all, to remove a part of your body, to modify yourself, to go out of your way not to mark yourself as different, but to say, "I'm the same, I belong."
This is, of course, related to our broader beauty culture, the one that says we need to wear make-up, need to be thin, blonde and blue-eyed (is that still the narrative?), that our skin should be a "healthy" tan, but it can't be too dark either. The thing is, if you hate yourself for failing to be thin and blonde and whatever enough, you can be forgiven if not attractive. But not shaving isn't just something to be ashamed of -- it's bad hygiene! Because body hair is so dirty! Except when it's on men, or coming out of your scalp! -- but also considered a conscious act of defiance against the status quo.
I wonder, in that vein, if being fat is reviled for the same reason. There's the same sort of shaming involved for neglecting your health -- because apparently thin = healthy and not thin = not healthy -- and losing weight is culturally seen as something that you can do with enough will-power. Everyone is expected to love good food, and yet, no one is supposed to actually eat any of it. I've actually made me realize that the same sort of shame I feel from eating a cookie in public or purchasing candy from the convenience store twice in the same week is similar to accidentally showing off a bit of my unshaved legs.
I wonder what it is that makes not putting in effort or, in the case of other beauty standards achieving the physically impossible, so shameful. Certainly part of it is that you are removing yourself from being "attractive," which is a coercive enough idea -- do X or be ugly -- without the added problem that beauty is so highly valued, perhaps above all other traits that a woman might possess (or not possess), but you are also removing yourself from the cultural conformity of what it means to be feminine. Doing what you want with your body is defiance, a political statement. Does the shame come from not being attractive? Or does it come from having the audacity to stand up and wrest away a bit of power from the broader culture to be allowed to have some autonomy over your body?
It occurs to me that this is not as obvious as I would have thought:
It is condescending and ignorant to assume that what is best for any woman is to not be a member of a patriarchical religion.
Religion is important to a lot of people, and being a member of a religion only means that your worldview is shaped in some part by this religion, and that it is very likely you believe in a certain god or gods. It does suggest your values, but it is ignorant to assume that all members of a certain religion believe certain socio-political "truths."
My being a Catholic does not necessarily mean that I think a wife's duty is to submit to her husband or that I am in favor of only men being priests or holding higher-level positions within my religion. My being a Catholic does not mean that I am against birth control. It doesn't even mean that I am pro-life. It doesn't mean that I vote Democratic. It doesn't mean that I plan on having as many kids as possible. It doesn't mean I drink a lot, or even at all. It doesn't mean that I am against pre-marital sex, against same-sex marriage or against divorce. It doesn't even mean that I believe in papal infallability. (Which of these being Catholic means I "should" do/believe or not is another matter, but you don't know which of these I actually do/believe just by knowing what religious group I identify with.) It does mean that I probably believe in God, but there are also people who call themselves agnostic Catholics. Or call themselves Catholic and go to church every Sunday yet haven't an ounce of faith.
Since I grew up Catholic, it does mean that I started out in a culture that had certain values, but the same can be said of me growing up in middle-class suburban southwestern PA. But no one would suggest that just because women are not really 100% equal in the United States that what is best for me would be to leave the States. Or at least, not as many people as seem to suggest that being a member of X religion is fundamentally bad for all women who are members of it.
Yet, it seems that some feel that by believing in God the way that I do, in the structure that I do, it means that I am oppressing myself, or at the very least, allowing myself to be oppressed. They seem to feel that I should remove an important part of my life for the sake of my autonomy as a woman.
But as an autonomous human being? I've got the right to believe in what I want to believe in. What I *do* believe in.
I don't think that being Catholic hurts me, no more than being an American does. I also think that in a different society, where Catholicism has a lot more influence over society and law, my answer could very well be different (or I could point out that just because the overarching culture is hurting me as a woman, it doesn't mean that the religious aspect of it is hurting me. Or I could believe that Catholicism makes it hard to be a woman, but that it's worth it for my beliefs. Or... etc, etc) And while there are parts of the Catholic structure I would like to see changed? It doesn't mean the solution is to leave the church. For some, that might be the solution, but you know what? I get to decide what's right for me.
It's fine to criticize patriarchy in religion. It's fine to look at something and say "That's oppression!" in religion or out of it. Where you cross the line is suggesting that I can't see that, and that you know what's best for me. If I'm making a mistake, it's mine to make. If I'm doing what works for me? Let me do it.
That goes for any woman -- any person, even! -- who is a member of a religious group, or who isn't. I trust you to evaluate your religious beliefs, and you should trust me to evaluate mine. I, too, am an autonomous, thinking human being.
. . .
This post sparked by a snippet of conversation that I overheard, and while I'm unsure what the whole of the conversation was, the snippet reminded me of other conversations I've heard or had, and all of that together made me put this up.
Wed, Aug. 20th, 2008, 02:33 pm
"It's easier to just ignore it."
"That's just the way the world is."
Those words are not helpful. I know how the world is, and yes, it's easier in the short-term to ignore it. But if you ignore it, that's why later, if I say "Hey, that's offensive" I hear: "Well no one ELSE ever got offended and I say that sort of thing all the time!"
Tue, Aug. 19th, 2008, 03:48 pm
This morning I was on the bus heading out to campus to meet j00c3
for lunch and also apply for graduation, and I saw an older gentleman who I sat somewhat close to. I thought little of him, til a few stops later, another gentleman stepped onto the bus. I was shocked because the second man looked so much like the first that I had to check to make sure the first was still there! The two men looked at eachother briefly, then the newcomer sat down and never looked at the other gentleman again.
I've decided that should I ever write a horror story, it will start like this:
"I stepped onto the bus this morning for my daily commute and as I scanned the seats, looking for an empty spot to sit in, I saw a woman who looked just like me. It was as if I had found a mirror, for everything about her, from the tip of the slightly upturned nose I've learned to hate to the way she pulled her hair back was identical, or at least so nearly so that even I was fooled. So I sat down next to her."
Tue, Aug. 19th, 2008, 03:10 pm
I am (finally) graduating from college in December.
I will have a BA in Japanese/Linguistics, a minor in Korean, and an East Asian Studies Certificate.
...no wonder it took so long. Heh.
Fri, Aug. 15th, 2008, 07:19 pm
I'm angry today.
I've been stressed out a lot recently, with trying to graduate, starting to wrestle law school applications, classes starting up soon, a move. The Olympics are on, and there's so much that disgusts me re: treatment and attitudes toward women athletes, not to mention racism.
A few friends of mine seem to be in bad situations lately, too, which frustrates me to no end, and makes me want to scream on the inside and cry on the outside.
And then something comes up that offends me, or more specifically my feminist sensibilities. (In this case, Rush Limbaugh. See: Echidne of the Snakes
, which is where I first saw this lovely bit of sexism.) So I get offended, and complain to anyone around me and what I get is "he was probably being sarcastic. Rush Limbaugh does sarcastic things!" Well, yes. And there is a sarcastic element to his comment, but that's also the offensive part. It's not like Limbaugh was saying sarcastically that Edwards liked a woman who (ugh) did something with her mouth other than talk, so it means that Edwards wouldn't possibly like a woman who gives blowjobs rather than talks. There is absolutely no way it can be taken like that.
And it just gets me so angry. I know not everyone gets it. I'm glad in a lot of ways that guys don't, because they aren't told by culture day in and day out that they should shut up and put out. But you know what? It makes me so sick. Because women are
told that nothing is as valued as their beauty/sexual prowess/virginity, not always overtly (though I bet fashion and teen magazines still give out advice saying, "If a woman talks to much she's unattractive.") and so it's not really funny when someone points this out. It's just plain offensive. And it offends me that other people defend vile things like that. It pulls the rug out from under my feet and makes me feel vulnerable, makes me feel that my being offended doesn't matter, that me feeling sick to my stomach when I read that quote is just me being hysterical.
But I'm not hysterical. I have a right to be offended when people say offensive things. And I promise I won't condemn you as a horrible person for one or two offensive things you say. We all grew up in a culture that trains us to have certain values and see women and people of color and homosexuals and transsexuals and basically everyone Other than white middle-class men in a certain light. I say offensive stuff myself despite my best efforts. And I need to be called out on it when I do, and so do other people.
What people that say offensive things don't need is for what they said or did to be defended. Otherwise it keeps going, more people get offended. More people feel silenced because complaining about this thing that creates not only an emotional but a physical reaction is treated as hysterical. Defending someone that did something sexist just makes it worse. It might seem to smooth out feathers, but it's just crushing dissent, which only perpetuates a culture where it's okay to say that a woman should put her mouth to good use, not by talking, but by pleasing men.
Note: This was going to be a rant on the much broader, related topic of men that don't get it and how that hurts women, best intentions be damned. I decided that I could not make that post right now for a number of reasons. On the other hand this post is meant a bit broadly, and the fact that I focused on one particular event is just because that's what was in my head, so that's what y'all get.
Sun, Aug. 10th, 2008, 07:25 pm
So while I was on vacation, I read Talking from 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen. It discusses men and women's speech in the work environment, and specifically different speaking styles which create an impression of a huge gender gap. In it, she also talks a lot about women in general, and the expectations placed upon them, such as how women are socialized (on whether or not the differences are mostly learned or biological, she punts, so I use socialize here because of my own bias as well as because there ARE negative repercussions for not following these norms) from a young age to talk in such a manner that is not considered "aggressive," and how this is seen as weak and not suitable for a work environment. However, since this is also the way we expect women to speak, and is considered properly feminine, a woman who tries to adopt a more "assertive" speaking style is punished for being too... masculine. Whereas men who train themselves to speak in a more assertive manner are seen as more masculine and it's completely positive. She also veers away from conversation to talk about issues of gender differences, such as sexual harrassment and how women in the workforce are marked* in most fields, especially in high-status positions.
Some of her examples were from the field of law, both in terms of students and practicing lawyers. I make no claim that I am not terrified at the prospect of entering a male-dominated field like law, and the book gave me quite a bit to think about. I both am glad for reading it and wish I hadn't, because it's nice to see the research and case studies and data and her perspective and to know what's going on in a lot of cases, to know how to deal with communication problems that might arise, but it's also frustrating because it just reminds me how I'm going to start a bit lower on the hill to becoming a law partner solely because of my gender.
Of course, I won't let that frustration keep me from doing my best. Nor will I worry to the point of shooting myself in the back. But it reminded me that I do have something to worry about and in a way it validated that worry. I know that that is more because of my preexisting fears than because of any new information the book provided.
Anyway, I highly recommend the book. It's very friendly to laypeople, and gives a good feminist perspective while still being completely fair to both genders (not that a feminist perspective would be unfair to one gender, but it would be easy with this subject matter to suggest that one style is better than another, especially when talking about what I see as very feminist issues. Tannen makes sure to avoid this, saying that her personal preference is for her style of speaking (of course!) and that no way is better in all situations nor is any way bad in all situations.)
*marked: used in linguistics to denote that something is not the plain, natural form. i.e., box is plain and boxes is marked for plural. Tannen says men are what we consider the plain form in the workforce and women marked. I completely agree with her assessment.
Sun, Aug. 10th, 2008, 07:24 pm
Just got back from vacation with j00c3
and his family. (Or, more appropriately, just got back from Juice's family vacation to which I was graciously invited.) It was awesome.