Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Pronoun awareness is essential

You have probably heard that the singular “They” pronoun was the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2019. But in case you’ve been too busy putting away holiday decorations (or in my case, freezing several gallons of turkey stock after simmering the holiday turkey carcass for an astonishing 24 hours) I will bring you up to speed. They/them are widely used personal pronouns for many people who identify as non-binary, people who don’t consider themselves male or female. I have a cousin and several friends who use they/them pronouns, so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to practice, but I still mess it up more than I’d like to admit.
Sharing your pronouns, when you meet a new person, or adding your pronouns to your name tag or email signature, are ways to normalize acceptance of the fact that many of our neighbors, friends, and relatives simply don’t feel comfortable in the boxes labeled “male” or “female.” We are living through a culture shift, where many people under thirty are completely at ease sharing their pronouns in a group setting. Meanwhile a lot of us older folks, who have spent our whole lives meeting someone new, making a lightning quick decision about which gender box they fit in, and moving on from there, are floundering a bit, much like a cartoon character who has inadvertently run right off the edge of a cliff, with their legs still scrambling in mid-air.
But like learning any new skill, pronoun awareness does get easier over time. The key thing, if you realize you have mis-gendered someone (for example, you called a non binary person who uses they/them pronouns “he”) is to apologize, correct yourself, and move on matter-of-factly. Just say, “oops, I’m sorry, I meant they,” and continue on with your conversation. Don’t say, “oh my God! This is so hard! It’s just that I’ve been calling them “him” for so long, it’s really difficult to get used to it, I feel so terrible! Can you ever forgive me? Please don’t get mad!” At this point, the person you’ve been talking to is probably exhausted!
So in the case of pronouns for non-binary people, “They” is elegant and definitely deserving of their status as Word of the Year. (Did you see what I did there?) But now I am going to tell you about a time when you should not use the word “They.” This part is directed to my white readers, which I realize is most of you. One of the main objectives of the organization I am part of, Showing Up for Racial Justice, is to involve white people in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy. This struggle takes place on many fronts: in our educational institutions, in our court system, in access to food, healthcare, and housing, and, most importantly, inside our own selves.
A major barrier to what many racial justice advocates call “deconstructing toxic whiteness” is that most white people think that racist people are Those Bad People Over There. We don’t understand that because racism is systemic and foundational to our nation, we have all been indoctrinated with racist ideology to greater and lesser degrees. (Mostly greater). It is painful to admit it, but we have all absorbed toxic lies about white superiority. From the first moment we realize that white people tend to live in greener, safer neighborhoods, attend better resourced schools, and have longer life expectancies, do we wonder why that is? Or do we just not think about it very much, or perhaps believe that some kind of pathology in Black communities leads to these grim statistics.
I used to think that racism was a terrible problem, but I didn’t think it was my problem. But now that I am a few steps further on my anti-racism journey, I understand that I have inner work to do, and like any practice, there is always more to learn and more growth to strive for. And like any practice, that growth happens when we’re in our learning zone, not when we’re in our comfort zone. We simply have to be willing to be uncomfortable, or we are never going to get anywhere.
A common occurrence during difficult discussions about white supremacy, is that we white people like to distance ourselves from it. We want to stay in our place of comfort, where we don’t have to take a hard look at whether the privilege we enjoy is coming at someone else’s expense. We just don’t want to admit that We Are The Problem! So as I work to learn more about how my Black neighbors and friends are impacted by all of the injustices mentioned above, I have to look out for my tendency to name injustice as something that exists outside of, or separate from, me.
So when I name a problem related to racial injustice (and let’s be honest, what problem isn’t related to racism?) I name the race of the perpetrators. And I include myself. So if I am talking, for example about police violence, I will say, “Black communities have long been speaking out about racism in police forces, but we white people have a nasty tendency to look the other way while our neighbors’ rights are violated.” 
The reason it’s so important to say we white people when we criticize racism, is because that is how we will truly begin to break it down in ourselves, which we simply must do if we want to be skillful accomplices to our Black neighbors in dismantling systems of oppression. As long as we are saying “those white people,” we are distancing ourselves from our own white supremacy and we won’t humble ourselves enough to make any progress.
One of my non-binary friends described their initial awareness of their place outside the gender binary as wearing a very uncomfortable, ill-fitting garment. “Male” didn’t feel right, and neither did “female.” But using they/them pronouns, and naming themselves as non-binary, felt like putting on comfortable clothes. If I use the wrong pronouns when referring to them, it’s a little like I’m trying to force them back into that ill-fitting garment. So even if it might make me a little uncomfortable, to push myself outside the grammar rules I grew up with, it’s so very important to make some breathing room for my friend. In the same way, while it might feel psychologically easier to say “those white people” instead of “we white people,” if I want to do my part to break down oppression in this world, I need to go towards, not away from, that which makes me uncomfortable.
Along with our willingness to be uncomfortable, the humility to admit when we mess up is perhaps the most important tool to take with us on our journey towards anti-racism. So is being able to say, “I’m sorry.”
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District, and is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. Joanna serves on the Board of Directors of WomenSafe, and enjoys working with her allies to dismantle the Patriarchy. She lives in East Middlebury with her family, and welcomes feedback for this or any column: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com

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