Monthly Archives: April 2014

Who Counts as an American?

This blog post was inspired by a post on Skepchick, entitled “No, Meb Keflezighi Was Not the First American to Win the Boston Marathon Since 1983.”  Author Jamie (no last name provided) shows headline after headline from major news outlets declaring that Meb Keflezighi was the first American to win the Boston Marathon since 1983. Unfortunately, that statement erased the win of Lisa Larsen Rainsberger, an American woman who won the marathon in 1985. Was she not an American? Did she not count because she was a woman?

I wish I could say that this was a rare occurrence and that this particular linguistic tidbit was the first time I’d seen it happen. However, as we discussed before, men are considered unmarked and women are considered marked in our culture. Another term that is useful to know (besides unmarked and marked) is “erasure.” Erasure is what generally happens when one group is marked and one is unmarked. Because the unmarked is considered the “default,” a group containing only unmarked people can be described as “people,” whereas generally a group of only marked people will be specifically called by the name of that marked group. By describing a group of only men as “Americans” while ignoring American women, journalists who discuss Meb Keflegizhi’s win are participating in the erasure of American women.

The erasure of women is an incredibly common occurrence, especially in the language of sports. Why are the two associations called the NBA and the WNBA? Why is there a World Cup and a Women’s World Cup? When was the last time you heard someone refer to MLB games as “Men’s Baseball?” When was the last time you heard the Indiana Fever referred to as just “basketball” and not “Women’s Basketball?” Why do we consistently erase professional female athletes in favor of male ones?

I think it’s important to put these discrepancies into context. For a long time in the US, sports were for men and not for women. There weren’t professional female athletes (apart from unusual circumstances à la A League of Their Own) and even public schools did not have to have any female teams; financial resources for athletic competitions were something only the boys received.Then Congress passed Educational Amendments of 1972. As part of the amendments, any educational program receiving federal funding could not discriminate on the basis of sex. If there was a boy’s basketball team, there now had to be a girl’s basketball team (or equivalent funding in a different sport with more interest). This landmark legislation is known as Title IX.

Things have improved dramatically for girls and women wishing to compete in school sports in the K-12 and collegiate level since 1972, but unfortunately this has not translated to all that much more interest in women’s sports. Language follows culture, and until the culture changes, the language will not change (for the most part).

So what can you do? Well, on a non-linguistic note, you can start following women’s sports. I know that seems hard because they’re not as accessible as men’s sports, but because we live in the age of the internet, I believe it’s possible. Get together at your friends house and watch a rousing game of WNBA (as opposed to the MNBA, naturally). If you’re not that into sports (admittedly, I am not outside of the linguistic issues and the athletes I know personally from tutoring), you can keep a close eye on what you say. Take after an academic counselor I know, who when asked what team she counselled for proudly stated “Men’s Football.” (It should be noted that there was no women’s team.)

Also, congratulations to Meb Keflezighi on being the first American to win a Boston Marathon since 1985!

Share Button

“Political Correctness”

The term “politically correct” is an interesting term in and of itself. Think of all the times you’ve heard someone use the phrase “politically correct.” Almost no one uses it in a positive way. It is frequently followed by other phrases like “run amok.” The people who use it are clearly implying that using different words than they’ve always used is a hindrance to communication, and even a form of mind control. The fear of the “political correctness gone mad” scenario is so strong that many are quick to believe the most ridiculous of urban myths. For example, a story circulated that a British school changed the lyrics “Baa Baa Black Sheep” because it was deemed racially offensive, and this spurred similar rumors that the phrase “black coffee” or “blackboard” were also banned.

But so-called “political correctness” is there for a reason. As we as a culture collectively become more accepting and more progressive, we use language more carefully. We change words that were once used, because they are offensive. Why does political correctness inspire so much fear in people?

On the one hand, this fear is partially motivated by a more general fear of language change. In many cases, we are just as worried about non-politically correct slang (for example, using a preposition to end a sentence, where there are obviously no political roots) as we are about PC  (politically correct) language. But PC language seems to attract a much stronger vitriol. Why? Is it because we’re all a bunch of racists, sexists, heterosexists, ableists, ageists, etc.?

I don’t believe so. Many people may support the goals of PC language but they don’t believe that changing language does that much good. What difference does it make, they argue, whether we call a group of people by their old name or by their new name? It won’t end a bigger issue like racism. And why does it matter if we call a person a “fireman” rather than a “firefighter”? Women can still be firemen; the word is neutral and it doesn’t matter.

But these words do matter. Some studies have found that people who hear a word like “fireman” are more likely to picture a man than when the word they hear is “firefighter.” That may not sound like it matters, but children form opinions on what type of careers they can pursue based on what they see and hear. If a little girl hears an occupation with a “-man” suffix, she is less likely to think of herself in that career. Small children are very keen observers of gender stereotypes.

And just like using gender-neutral language matters, so does using the correct terminology for underprivileged groups. Calling a group by a different name may not seem like a big deal for people in positions of privilege. Why does it matter whether I call an underprivileged group one name versus the other, as long as I treat them the same? By insisting on referring to the group by a name that is outdated, or even offensive, a privileged person makes an assertion of their power over that group. That is oppression. Refusing to use the word that the group themselves would prefer to be called is essentially using one’s power to say “No, I’m going to keep using the word that my group gave to you, and you have no say in the matter.” By using the correct terminology, you show sensitivity to that group. You show that you value their input, and that you listen to them. Listening is the most important thing a privileged person can do to show that they respect those with less power.

I believe that most people who read this blog know the advantages of sensitive language and make sure to use that language in their day-to-day lives. But we all know people who have complained about PC language too. If you have a friend or relative who has lamented “political correctness run amok,” you can gently ask them: what do they think PC language is and what are its goals? What is wrong with it? What would be a better alternative? How do power relationships factor into their opinion? If you get them to think about it a little, maybe they’ll change their tune. Or you can at least tell them that “black coffee” story is BS.

Share Button