By Regie Marie Plana-Alcuaz, (she/they), teacher and Committee for Action on Social Justice—Status of Women Action Group member, Surrey
1. (of a habit, belief, or attitude) firmly fixed or established; difficult to change.
2. (of dirt or a stain) deeply embedded and thus difficult to remove.
“You guys,” “Oh boy,” “Man!”
Terms like these are so ingrained in our everyday language that we don’t even pause to reflect on how much of our language centres and privileges men. There are many people that don’t consider these terms to be offensive because they’re used so frequently; I have often heard male-dominant language used in spaces including union workshops, classrooms, and staffrooms. But these terms are not gender-inclusive at all.
Male-dominant language reinforces a system in which men hold greater value over all other genders. Terms such as mankind, freshman, policeman, chairman are still very much the default in daily speech. Sherryl Kleinman’s thought-provoking essay “Why Sexist Language Matters” notes that it is a “symbolic annihilation” to subsume women under male-based terms, which makes it infinitely easier to render this group invisible and therefore do with them whatever the dominant group wants.1 It may not be identified as an act of violence, but it is an erasure that, along with other patriarchal norms, makes it easier to dehumanize women.
Take a moment to reflect on how often you may have used these words unthinkingly. As educators, it’s important we consider the implications of the language we use in the classroom and the norms we choose to perpetuate.
We’ve come to understand that gender is a spectrum, not a binary. When we think about the variety of genders that have become more visible these days, we realize just how many people are being excluded by using male-dominant language. More effort should be made to communicate in ways that are gender-inclusive. There are many gender-neutral terms to address a group: folks, you all, people, team, friends, scholars, buds, epic humans—take your pick. Personally, I like theydies and gentlethems, because it’s punny. Whatever your preference, it’s a step toward gender equity that you can take right now, while modeling gender-inclusive practices for your students.
The use of inclusive language extends beyond verbal language. In my school, the first time the nameplate for my classroom door came in, the title was “Ms.” because apparently, whoever took the order from our secretary might have assumed that “Mx.” was a typo. Thankfully, this was corrected after a couple of weeks. I identify as a non-binary woman. Although my gender expression is non-binary, I identify more, am coded, and socialized as a woman, and experience all the issues associated with that. The use of Mx., in my opinion, challenges people to take stock of their own beliefs, and allows for dialogue to challenge current norms.
Whenever you can, please gently assist your colleagues in being aware of gender-inclusive language. Persist without being unpleasant. The appropriate time, place, and opportunity to make corrections should be considered. People are typically more sensitive and less amenable to being corrected in public, for example. If time allows, an explanation can be helpful, otherwise a follow-up might be possible, depending on the situation. Relationships matter a lot in this work.
In essence, the effort to try to be more inclusive in your language may take some time, but is totally worth it. It takes a while for people to break habits so it’s important to be forgiving. I experience the occasional slip myself, but mistakes should not discourage us from making an effort. By attempting to widen our perspective, we become more accepting of possibilities. Moreover, it is rewarding when we deepen relationships with family and friends who see our efforts to understand them as individuals!
1 Sherryl Klienman, “Why Sexist Language Matters,” Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 2002: 5y1.org/download/997c4ff4d5b1dc117e9bd2b9a4470152.pdf