The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday September 27th

Sexist Language Is Wire in Cage

"We're also supposed to like 'freshman,' 'chairman' and 'mankind.'

"Get over it, some people say. Those words are generic. They apply to everyone. But then how come so-called generics are always male?

"What if generics ended in 'white'? Freshwhite, chairwhite and whitekind.

"'Hey you whiteys!' Would people of color like being called 'one of the whites?' We don't think so.

"The term 'guys' makes women invisible by lumping them in with men. Let's quit doing that. When you're talking to a group of customers, gender doesn't really matter, so why not replace 'you guys?' Or, simply say, 'What can I get you?' that would take care of us all.

"Thanks for your help."

This is the text of a "you guys" card designed by a professor and two former students at UNC. It begins to get at the problems of sexist language.

The language issue is very serious, though it does not seem that way at first. I was resistant the first time someone called me out on my use of "you guys." I thought, "They've gone too far!"

But language is very powerful. Some linguists argue that it controls the very way we think.

Surely it has power over us. Imagine the message young girls get as they grow up and hear only "chairman," "fireman," "postman," "businessman" and "freshman." Who do they learn to think they can be when they grow up?

To many of us who argue against the use of sexist language, the issue is not whether such language is offensive but actually that it is harmful to women, just as racist language is harmful to people of color and heterosexist language is harmful to queer folks.

When a social group is faced with a whole system of inequality, each aspect that perpetuates the system is ultimately harmful. Throughout their lives, women might face the wage gap, domestic violence, sexual assault, verbal and emotional harassment, and many other problems simply because they are women.

Feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye relates the system of women's oppression to a bird cage: The "bird" is trapped because all the wires of the bird cage work together.

If we look only at one wire, it is easy to wonder why the bird does not merely fly around it. But the big picture more clearly reveals the whole system of wires working together to trap the bird.

Sexist language is one of the wires of the bird cage of women's oppression. When we focus on language alone, we can easily think that it is no big deal.

But if we step back and look at the big picture, we can also easily see the connections: Women are made invisible in the language (they disappear into male generics); women are invisible in history books (their work was not considered as noteworthy as the "real" work done by men) and, in fact, women are culturally visible only when objectified in fashion magazines, pornography, popular music and all over the silver screen.

If women are visible only as sexual objects and are otherwise made to seem less important than men (read: less than human), we can understand how the rape mentality originates. A man who rapes actually believes women are of little more value than what they provide by being sexual receptacles (and reproducers) for men. That is why so many men who rape think they are only engaging in harmless sex or that the woman wants it - that "of course she wants it if her explicit purpose for living is to satisfy men sexually!"

Sexist language is one wire in the bird cage that contributes to a culture that condones rape. Making women linguistically invisible feeds the mentality that they are not really all that important. This is why I argue that sexist language is not only offensive, but is actually harmful to women. But one does not have to actually feel offended to be harmed.

Some would argue they hate tip-toeing around to be "politically correct." This insults those of us who understand language can be harmful. I do not want things simply to be correct or not correct based on what I think meets some nebulous PC requirement. On the contrary, I try to do what I can to ensure my daily actions do not bring harm to others and are as entirely inclusive as possible. I understand the effects of my language, not just whether it is "PC."

One of the best things about working on language is that everyone can do it. Though changing speaking habits is very difficult, doing so is crucial, for changing the way we speak will necessarily change the way we think.

Chances are, no one you see today will reprimand you for using sexist language. But this does not mean you should not work toward changing once you are conscious of the problem.

It is especially important that structures already in place take the lead in providing a good model.

The Daily Tar Heel, as a reputable campus newspaper with one of the largest readerships in the country, should take the lead in initiating this change.

The DTH should change its stylebook, which overrides the AP stylebook, to ban the use of sexist terms. "Freshman" should be changed to first-year-student. After all, would "freshwhite" and "chairwhite" ever be allowed to print? Let's start taking women seriously and use inclusive, nonsexist language.

Linda Chupkowski struggles with the little changes every day. Email her with questions or comments at Linda_ Chupkowski@unc.edu.

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