“I Taught Her Everything I Knew”

I still follow the Savannah Morning News on Twitter. Since I’m not on Twitter that often and when I am there are always at least a couple of people in my timeline who are ranting or RTing a storm, I don’t tend to see Savannah News tweets all that often. I will say that I don’t like how often the tweet is someone’s mugshot, telling of another arrest, or how often it’s a young man with brown skin, because I know for a fact there are plenty of young caucasian men committing crimes in Savannah, but I don’t usually see those mugshots in my timeline. But maybe it’s just my timing, and if I were on Twitter all the time, I would see a balance of mugshots. I suppose it’s possible. Anyway, the reason I still follow the Savannah Morning News is that my mom is still in Savannah, and I still have a lot of affection for Savannah and Tybee, and sometimes they post something that I might want to read. A big storm washing out the Tybee road, a baby whale off Tybee, the death of a rescued turtle at the Tybee Marine Science Center, controversy over trying to get rid of Orange Crush from the Tybee Beach, that sort of thing. I don’t usually click on obituaries, but this time I did.

Teinique Gadson died at the age of 40 yesterday.

Tenique Gadson's facebook header

Tenique Gadson’s facebook header. Her feed is filled with positivity and thanks (and God), and her energy and spirit make you (or me, at least) want to be a better person.

I never met her, but I’d seen her name many times in relation to non-profits in Savannah (17 miles from the city of Tybee, where I lived) that were devoted to helping low-income people/families. When I started acupuncture school and we had to talk about where we might open a community acupuncture clinic in the future to help provide affordable healthcare to low-income/oppressed communities, I immediately thought of Savannah, and Teinique Gadson was the kind of person that I expected to be emailing in a few years if I did decide to head back there. Anyway, she did a lot of work that helped a lot of people, and probably didn’t get paid anywhere near what she was worth, as is the case with most community non-profits. I’m sorry her life ended so soon, both for her and her family, and for the Savannah communities that benefited from her efforts. I hope that some of the people she helped were inspired by her and might choose to give back to the community in kind. Since in addition to the work she did herself helping individuals she also did a ton of volunteer wrangling, I’m pretty sure there will be people carry on in her tradition.

So I clicked through to read this obituary. It mentioned her involvement as a teen with Youth Futures, and how it led her into community-building as a career and into the Executive Director position at the Neighborhood Improvement Association. I hadn’t known much about her background, just her current activity, so I would have liked to read more than 2 sentences about how she got there. I mean, this was an impressive woman, and an inspiring one. I wanted the obituary to outline her accomplishments and challenges and paint a real picture of this person who was so important to so many people in the community. That’s what obits usually do for civic leaders. But it didn’t, really. Then it quoted the previous ED of the NIA, Edward Chisholm, and I was super bummed. He’s also an impressive person who does a lot for the community, but here’s the quote:

Chisolm said he identified Gadson early for her intelligence and as a “person who cared about the organization, the work.”

“I taught her everything I knew,” he said, adding that he “basically hand-picked her. She was very, very insightful, very smart with great ideas. She loved people.”

I like to think that Mr. Chisolm didn’t mean to turn a tribute to Ms. Gadson into self-congratulatory praise about his acumen as a mentor. I like to think that the reporter didn’t realize he just changed the focus of the story from the amazing woman who died to the man who is still living. I like to think these things, because if they’re true it means that these guys don’t subconsciously think that the male accomplishment of recognizing talent trumps the female accomplishment of having and using talent. But it’s Savannah. It’s the U.S. And we are continually socialized this way. So I doubt they thought they were saying or doing anything disrespectful, and I’d guess that Ms. Gadson herself would have been touched to hear Mr. Chisholm say how special she was.

The next time they’re talking about someone special, though, I hope they’ll stick to the part about how special that person was, and not how awesome someone else was for recognizing it. Probably there are some people reading this thinking that I’m too sensitive, that having a great man say in public that he recognized a woman (or anyone) as a worthy successor is high praise indeed. Erm, sure, but there are better ways to laud a mentee than to congratulate the mentor. It could have said something more like:

Chisolm said Gadson distinguished herself early with her intelligence and as a “person who cared about the organization, the work.”

“She absorbed everything that was available to learn, and when it was time to choose my successor as Executive Director of the NIA, she was the only pick,” he said, adding that, “She was very, very insightful, very smart with great ideas. She loved people.”

I know that this is a small thing. That it’s a couple of words. That compared to what’s going on in Baltimore and Nepal right now, this is nothing. But Teinique Gadson kicked serious ass, and those couple of words do make a difference. And for women to be recognized equally for the work they do, one of the things that needs to happen is for men to stop taking credit for discovering them.

An additional post went up on the Savannah Morning News site this morning so that former mayor Otis Johnson could add his praise of Ms. Godson. As Johnson was one of the leaders of the Youth Futures program that gave Ms. Godson her start, it made sense. He said:

“She was evidence of what we were trying to do with the  Youth Futures Authority,” Johnson said, adding she came to the  authority as a young person and worked her way up to director of NIA where she was a founding member.

“I have always been very proud of her  progress,” Johnson said. “She was a sterling example of what we were trying to do and did do, at the Youth Futures Authority.”

“It really distresses me greatly that she was taken away at such an early age.”

Rest in peace, Teinique Godson.

Hey, You Guys: A Personal History

Fetus

Being inside a womb by myself, I was never included in group address. Also, I don’t think my parents were the kind of people who talked to the belly or played music to increase fetal development. It was the 70s. While pregnant with me, my mom smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish (her words).

Baby/Toddler

“Be a good girl.”

“You’re such a pretty girl.”

“Kids! C’mere!”

As a very little kid, the only mixed-gender group I was part of was the group with my two older brothers. We mostly were referred to as a group as kids, not guys, so while I was frequently referred to as a girl (and frequently a little girl) when addressed directly, the group address usually ignored gender.

Childhood

“Boys and girls, stand for the pledge [of allegiance].”

“Attention, boys and girls!”

“Okay, kids, line up in pairs.”

“Everyone, blah blah blah.”

As kids in school, we were frequently referred to as boys and girls* by adults. Individually, we were just referred to by name. Kids referring to each other used names individually, and I want to say the plural you for groups without an extra noun. /me thinks backs to elementary school and asking a group of kids to do something. Yeah, mostly the plural you. Very occasionally there would be a, “Hey, you gu-uys,” exclamation, but that was mostly imitation of tv, not a form of address that we used with each other in conversation.

Adolescence

All Boys: “Those boys are jerks.”

All Girls: “Those girls are mean.”

Boys and Girls: “What are those guys doing over there?”

As we grew into adolescence, you guys started making more of an appearance, and adoption rates were skyscraper-high. We referred to boys and girls all the time, but in direct address had started adding guys to the lexicon, including when a group included both genders. This was the turning point for the language in my personal history of you guys as plural noun of direct address. Here’s how it seemed to break down.

Singular Male Plural Male Singular Female Plural Female Plural Mixed-gender
Indirect He, him, that boy, [name] Them, those boys She, her, that girl, [name] Them, those girls Those guys
Direct [name],”Hey, you” You, boys, guys [name],”Hey, you” You, girls, guys You guys

In some cases we’d still use the specific-gendered plural noun, like to ask, “Hey, boys, do you want to play kickball with us?” But, most often, guys was becoming the norm for male plural direct address and for plural mixed-gender references of any sort.

The Electric Company-style, “Hey, you gu-uys!” got a little resurgence in this period when The Goonies came out, too.

Teens — 40

You guys had come to mean any group of people, regardless of gender. It was used on me all the time, and I used it on others. That said, you guys still also served as a plural of specifically male people. In a mixed group, context would determine the intent.

“Are you guys going to Carolyn’s party after the football game?”

Here, you guys meant all members of the group, any gender. (Because everyone was supposed to go to Carolyn’s party.)

“You guys have it so much easier when you have to pee while we’re snowshoeing.”

Even though the group was mixed-gender, the comment was directed only at the men in the group, based on anatomy and its relation to heavy snow gear. Yes, guys = penises in this case.

Occasionally people used gendered plural terms on me like girlsladies, or gals. I disliked them all.

  • Girls sounded like a group of little kids, and by the time I was 16 I didn’t like being called by this label, even though I sometimes still referred to myself (pretty often) or groups of women (rarely) this way.
  • Ladies had all kinds of specific connotations about class, abilities, and weaknesses. I always hated it, and tried never to use it. Primary exception was a brief stint in 1998 when a group of co-workers (including me) would break into Ladies’ Night on a regular basis.

  • Don’t even get me started on what an unappealing word gals is. My first boyfriend’s mom used to say gals all the time, and I flinched every single time.

During this period of time, ongoing socialization around the term you guys and experience parsing its intent based on context caused me to take this as a fluid language thing, and I was never bothered by being included in this form address. I certainly used it constantly on others, including all-female groups. Oddly, while I didn’t mind being included in you guys in direct address at all, I really disliked it when default singular male pronouns like him/his were used in a situation that could apply to me. Despite being a hardcore feminist, I couldn’t quite get on the hir bandwagon, because I thought it was kind of dumb — it looked like a typo for hair or his when written, and since no one around me had ever said it out loud, my reader’s vocabulary assumed it was a homonym for either her or here, which was just confusing.

Aside: during the teens and twenties portion of this period (when I was pretty flat-chested), in the handful of times when my hair was cut very short, I was frequently misgendered and called a boy or a man.

40+

Holy moly, gender diversity explosion and feminist apocalypse and mass confusion.

More awareness seeped into the general population (or at least my portion of it) about transgender issues, non-binary gender identity, etc. People (in some circles, anyway) started paying more attention to pronouns and how they fit with gender identity. At AdaCamp, a conference for women in open tech (woman was later defined as, “someone who identifies as a woman in a way that is significant to them,” to be more inclusive) attendees were asked to put their preferred pronouns on their name badges to prevent misgendering in conversation.

The “singular they” became a hot topic, with heads butted between modern grammarians and people referencing Shakespeare’s use as evidence of correctness. I started seeing ze and zir and other gender-neutral pronouns I had no idea how to pronounce. I decided the singular they was a good path when in doubt.

Backlash against you guys started in earnest (again, in my corner of demography). At first, I thought it was kind of silly. For 40 years, you guys had meant any group of people! Common usage, changing definitions, etc. In that same time I’d definitely seen other words change meaning or connotation, so why was you guys being accused of erasing women from the narrative, when it was so harmless and widely understood? That’s what I thought to myself.

Then, at the end of a dev cycle that had included several women developers, a male developer said, “Congrats, bros,” when the release went live and I really didn’t like it. Would “Congrats, guys” have been better? I thought so. Guys had clearly acquired an ungendered usage over time (in my opinion), whereas bros was definitely gendered, and in tech was gendered in such a way as to be pretty problematic (read: sexist dude who thinks women’s role in tech = booth babes or video game rape victims), right? So guys was still okay? Guys vs. bros aside, even though though I had been one of the people pushing for more diversity (including welcoming language) in the project, I was too intimidated by the guy (yes, an actual guy) who had congratulated the dev bros, because I just didn’t have the energy that day to defend against the backlash I expected if I were to bring up that bros wasn’t inclusive language. Why was it all so exhausting and complicated? Argh!

Then, at the Community Leadership Summit before OSCON, a woman gave a lightning talk about you guys, and how it made her feel left out/invisible when it was used as a form of address or reference when she was in a group of male developers. That made me think, “Hm. I don’t want to use language that makes people feel bad if I can avoid it.” I tried to stop saying you guys. Holy crap, so hard. Talking with Leslie at the event, she said she likes to use the word humans, but I think that sounds weird when I say it, plus I think of the Community Human Being mascot, which has always totally creeped me out.

(The “epically neutral mascot” is still referred to as he twice in this clip. Yes, sure, they could be referring to the person inside the costume, but grammatically that’s not what they said, so it comes across as default gendering.)

I tried substituting folks, y’all, people, plural you, generic heya, and other variations into my daily expressions. I probably used one of these replacements about 95% of the time. There was about 5% of the time when I forgot, or when I actually was referring to specific people who were male and used the word guys intentionally.

What happened in the 5% times? There have been a few scenarios.

Scenario 1: I caught myself and then fumbled a replacement phrase.

“Hey, you guy — er, you all, sorry, I’m trying to stop saying you guys to mean groups of people that include women — are you ready to leave for dinner?”

Result 1: A little awkward, but good-intentioned. Responses ranged from casual disinterest to nodding approval to weird looks, depending on the group.

Scenario 2: I missed it and no one noticed, including me.

“Hey, you guys, blah blah blah.”

Result 2: No one noticed, or at least no one brought it up, and since I didn’t notice either, it went uncorrected. In these cases it’s usually people who don’t care, so while I wasn’t setting the best example, I also probably wasn’t offending anyone. Unless there were people in the group who were offended but afraid to say something. Bah.

Scenario 3: I missed it, and someone other than me noticed.

Me: “Hey, you guys, blah blah blah.”

Someone Else: “Hey, you said you guys, and it made me uncomfortable.”

Result 3a: Caught! I apologized, saying something like, “Ack! I try not to do that, thanks for catching it and letting me know, it helps me remember.”

Result 3b: What? I was actually referring to a specific set of people who were male, so you guys was totally appropriate! Wasn’t it? Example:  I meant Barry and Alek, and referred to them as “the systems guys,” meaning “the 2 [male] guys that handle systems on this project.” I explained this, but the idea that the group to which I was referring would always be male-only was at issue as an undercurrent around expectations of gendered jobs and hiring. My brain could follow this, but at the same time, rebelled at the thought that we have to actually remove guys from the vocabulary altogether to prevent misinterpretation. This was the situation most likely to trigger defensiveness for me.

Now

So where does that leave the well-intentioned liberal intersectional feminist? Definitely avoiding using guys to mean a group that is mixed gender or could be mixed gender. Only using guys to refer to specific guys, and not when using any other descriptors that might be non-specific, thus tainting the specificity? I understand not wanting it used both ways (despite common usage patterns), but what’s the ruling on gender-specific usage?

[I really want to embed “I’ve Heard It Both Ways” from the Psych musical episode, but wow is USA clamped down tight on copyright and video.]

Can you have it both ways? If we say don’t use guys to mean groups including women because it assigns everyone in the group with male gender shouldn’t that mean that using guys to mean men is okay?  I find it confusing and exhausting when even the specific use is seen as offensive. The fact that I want to be sensitive to how language affects others just makes it more annoying, because I care about the answer.

What’s even worse — I have typically used dudes interchangeably with guys as both a non-gendered and a gendered pronoun, so I have been trying to stop using that one, too. Even though it is super fun to say! And has a lot of really specific cultural reference points for my generation!

Oddly, when referring to multiple animals of the same sex, I totally say girls or boys instead of guys, but then that brings up a whole different set of confusing language issues around anthropomorphization and infantilization that are far too obnoxious to think about when I should be having brunch.

3 cats snuggling together on a bed.

The girls.

Have a great Sunday! :)

*Does anyone else think it’s weird that we do that? Boys and girls, I mean. Would we pick any other difference and use it to segment a group of kids (or adults, for that matter, as with ladies and gentlemen)? No wonder we grow up so obsessed with that difference. What if classes were started with, “Attention, short kids and tall kids!” Or fat/skinny, rich/poor, white/black, outgoing/shy, funny/boring, or any other binary that’s really a spectrum? Sorry, tangent.

Appropriate Words

or, Being Sensitive and the End of Wheaton’s Law.

[Note: This post was originally going to be titled Meaning vs. Intent; or, Why Sensitive Language Is Hard but Important, but I forgot I already had a title when I started writing, and I didn’t remember until after I hit publish. This is that post from the the “week of vs” list.]

Part I: Lamer Than Lame

I attended AdaCamp SF two weeks ago, a conference by/for/about women in open technology and culture. I’ve been running in feminist circles since I was a teenager, and with the LGBTQ cause for just as long (though back then the initials weren’t as many), so I’m pretty used to the rhetoric around language and the power it has. I have to admit, though, that while we were going though the rules and processes that would run the weekend, there was a bit about using appropriate language had me rolling my eyes.

I think everyone in the English-speaking world is aware of our complicated slang rules. “Nigger” is a word that we should never use. Unless it’s a rapper? Definitely Paula Deen shouldn’t. Definitely I shouldn’t. I actually think that definitely rappers shouldn’t either. You can’t “reclaim” a word and take away its negative power unless it has, in fact, lost its power in the end. As long as that sensitivity exists, the word should just not be used. They didn’t tell us not to use words like “nigger” or “fag” at the conference; I think they assumed that everyone knows that’s unacceptable language.

Words we were informed at the conference that were considered inappropriate had more to do with dis/abilities. So when we were told to avoid words like “lame,” “crazy,” “idiot,” and “stupid,” I, like many others, rolled the aforementioned eyes and thought we were going a bit far in the quest for sensitivity. I may have started singing Nerf Herder’s Lamer Than Lame in my head. But by the end of the weekend I had changed my tune.

Yes, “lame” technically refers to being “unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot,” not to being “uncool,” but would someone with that kind of disability really take offense when the word has so clearly taken on an alternate meaning in our culture? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact is that what’s happening here is that a word that references a specific kind of person has been substituted to mean something derogatory. The way we blithely exclaim, “That’s so lame!” is not really any different from the way a generation ago it was common to exclaim, “That’s retarded!” or “That’s so gay!” We are mostly caught up to the fact that the latter two aren’t okay. But the reason why it’s not okay is something we are failing to internalize and apply to other words.

Any time we use a person’s physical characteristics (including brain/mental ability) as a negative adjective, or a cultural symbol as a pejorative descriptor, we have done a bad thing. What’s disappointing is that we do it so unconsciously, and out of habit, but we really don’t need to. There are other words, more descriptive words, and most people are capable of coming up with those words. For those without the mental wherewithal to tap into a good vocabulary, there’s always a dictionary or thesaurus (look it up on your phone!). In the meantime, here are a few example substitutions, depending on context.

  • Lame — disappointing, bad, uncool, boring
  • Stupid — a bad idea, not fair,  has problems we’d need to solve
  • Crazy — shocking, not well thought out, appalling, acting strangely

Basically, if you’re using a word or phrase like one of these that gets applied to all sorts of things in a negative manner, but doesn’t convey a specific meaning, pick a word that does convey a specific meaning. After a weekend without words like this, I began to realize how often they’re used in our culture, and how much nicer it is when they aren’t. There’s a reason kindergarten teachers don’t let the kids call each other stupid.

So let’s stop using words that can make other people feel like crap.

Part II: Cunt vs. Dick

Thinking also about language people use to talk about women negatively (bitch, cunt, etc) that are not actually descriptions of behavior, I have to wonder why this one is so skewed. Yes, I want people to stop using words like “bitch” and “cunt” to mean “a woman who’s doing something I don’t like, disagree with, or find annoying.” But if “cunt” — the female genitals — is a word that shouldn’t be used to mean things other than female genitals, why is it okay to use “dick” — the male genitals — the same way?

“Don’t be a dick,” or Wheaton’s Law, is a mainstay of geek culture, but it’s ultimately predicated on the same misuse of language that calling someone a “cunt” is. “Don’t be a jerk” would get the same point across, but we gleefully use “dick” instead. Why? I like Wil Wheaton as much as the next nerd — I even bought the Codex and Fawkes poster for the cafe — but just because he’s cool doesn’t mean that this phrase doesn’t perpetuate a bad habit, and a negative one, despite the goal of creating better behavior. Ah, the irony.

From now on, I’m going to try not to call anyone a dick, or tell them not to be a dick. If I want men to stop using the words for my body parts to mean bad things, I should return the favor. So I will.