Category Archives: Language

Casual ableism and sexism: still not OK

Sitting around a table with a bunch of attorneys.  One guy describes a multi-party case involving parties who are blind.  He says:  “We call them the ‘two blind mice.'”

My brain chokes momentarily.  I call him out:  “you gotta be kidding me!”

No one else says a thing.

He says, “sorry you were offended.  People have different senses of humor.”

Earlier in the meeting, he consistently referred to female judges and magistrates as “The,” for example “The Krieger” or “The Tafoya.”  Male judges were just “Hegarty” or “Watanabe.”

Called him on that, too:  “Are we only The-ing the women?  Or the men, too?  I want to know how we should use our determiners.”  I was actually sort of cracking myself up with those questions, but appear to have been the only person amused.

Don’t think he really knew what I was talking about.  I did get an eyeroll from another woman in the room for that one.

I’m guessing I’ve been added to everyone’s list of humorless women.  Whatever.  Way too old to give a fuck about that.

Or maybe now I’m The Robertson.

Prejudice leaks

I wonder about the term “micro-aggressions,” because they’re neither.  They seem to me to be prejudice leaks, neither aggressive nor — because they reveal an entire worldview — micro.*

We all have internal worldviews that are full of prejudices and assumptions.  Some true, some false; some examined, some unexamined; some praiseworthy, some benign, some offensive.  Then we encase the whole mess in the persona we are presenting to the world.  A thick exoskeleton of personality that is all most people ever see.

Image: Michelin Tire logo - human figure made of tires, with the effect of a puffy, tire-encased human.

Many people choose to encase themselves in an open-minded persona.  Maybe it helps them fit in to a liberal social circle or workplace.  Or maybe they genuinely believe they are open-minded.  It’s important to their self-image.  Or maybe it’s important to you to believe they’re open-minded.  They’re your friend, teacher, colleague, doctor, pastor.  You want to believe they see you as you are.

Then they say:

I’m so sorry your husband uses a wheelchair” ::furrowed eyebrows concerned face::  or

“are you the nanny?”  or

“where are you really from?” or

“you must be the first person in your family to go to college.”  or

“you’re so articulate!” or

is the father still in the picture?” or

“I know your kid has two moms, but who’s the real father?”

and a little fissure forms in the exoskeleton and the prejudice leaks out.**

Image: Michelin Tire logo - human figure made of tires -- with a small hole in his head and lines indicating a leak.

Suddenly you can see, in that small leak, the entire worldview that sits inside the protective exoskeleton.  That they view disability through a lens of pity.  That they have seen your skin color or facial features and constructed an entire narrative that has nothing to do with you.  That their views of LGBTQ families are stuck somewhere around 1950.

In many cases, it’s not aggressive,*** but it’s not micro.  It’s an inadvertent glimpse of an entire worldview you didn’t know existed, or didn’t want to know existed, or hoped against hope and experience did not exist, or perhaps they didn’t know existed or had been suppressing or had never stopped to think about or didn’t even have the framework to understand.

Prejudice leaks.

It doesn’t sound as cool as micro-aggression.  It sounds like something that requires padded undergarments.  But I honestly think it’s a more accurate description.

******************

*I realize I’m wading into an arena that has been the subject of a good deal of academic thought, research, and writing, and that I have 0.00 qualifications to take on that analysis.  This is a strictly non-academic view, from someone who has witnessed many real-life prejudice leaks that seemed neither micro nor aggressive.

**Not bad for someone who can’t draw, eh?

***There are plenty of cases where comments like these are aggressive, but in that case I wouldn’t call them “micro-aggressions,” I’d call them “prejudice” and perhaps also “being an asshole.”

Therapeutic Disclaimer: Not ungrammatical. Non-binary aware.

I need a therapeutic disclaimer in emails and other media that goes like this:

 . . .  [blah blah blah] they* [blah blah blah] them* [blah blah blah] their* . . .

*Non-binary-aware, not ungrammatical.

I need this because I was raised on grammatical correction.  It was how we expressed love in our family, just as many families express love by overfeeding one another, or teaching their young’uns to hunt or catch a spiral pass.

At a point slightly before I was able to consume solid food, my mother taught me — and corrected me — on the difference between “which” and “that.”  If you said something was “more unique” in our household, you got a quick lecture on how the thing could be unique or not, but could not be comparatively unique because that suggested there was more than one of whatever it was.  I believe my mother stopped drinking Pepsi for a while (actually, I don’t recall her ever drinking Pepsi; Fresca was her soft drink of choice) when they advertised it as “The Refreshingest!”  One year, she corrected a typo in my home-made holiday card.   That year was 2007.

Perhaps my favorite story, demonstrating the inter-generational quality to this bonding-through-grammar, was when — at the know-it-all age of approximately 12 — I wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post suggesting that some article or another was “male chauvinist.”  My grandfather read it and provided this encouraging comment for my early efforts at politico-journalistic participation:  “I believe the adjectival form is ‘chauvinistic.'”  Seriously.  I am not making that up.

I have to add, of course, that I love my mother and grandfather, and that they prepared me well for a world in which you are in fact judged on your grammar.  No one taught me how to dress fashionably or wear make-up — we just weren’t a fashion-forward family

Image: three white people leaning on the side of a ferry boat. The young girl, around 9 years old, is wearing red shorts, a blue shirt and knee socks, the woman (holding a small dog) is wearing blue pants and a red shirt, and the man (with a scruffy beard) is wearing a short-sleeve button-down shirt and brown work pants.

— but dammit I know how to sound edumacated.

As an act of rebellion, I became a linguistics major and basked in the glow of descriptive grammar.  As an adult, I relish hearing and constructing neologisms, making prefixes and suffixes go where they have never gone before, and generally observing the way our brains interact with language when left on their own.  For all of this linguistic liberation, however, I still have a very severe case of GIS:  Grammatical Insecurity Syndrome.

One of the things I was taught alongside “which,” “that,” and never, ever “most unique,” is that singular verbs take singular pronouns, and that “they, them, and their” are plural pronouns.  I learned to police my language for this possible mismatch, and either change the number — that is, rearrange the entire sentence to be plural rather than singular — or change the pronoun.   And of course since I was a good feminist, I balked at the generic “he” and used the hell out of “he or she,”  “his/hers,” etc.  The random use of the generic “she” — which become popular when I was in law school in the 1980s — always seemed sort of strained to me, especially when used by male professors whose approach was otherwise pretty chauvinist . . .  I mean, of course, chauvinistic.

It’s time to leave all that binary shit behind.  It’s time to embrace they/them/their as singular, non-binary, pronouns.  And most of all, it’s time not to care if many people think I’m just ungrammatical.  As always, XKCD says it best:

Image: 9 panel comic, two stick figures conversing. Person #1:

Image Description and Identity

Sometimes I try to take on big questions; today we’re going to keep it light and only tackle the nature of identity and the relationship between author and reader in interpreting an image.

It all started with a question about image descriptions. Image descriptions are a way of making the images in webpages more accessible, primarily for readers with print disabilities. Screen readers will read accessible text, but when they encounter a photo, say (to take an image at random)

Image: Photo of golden retriever.

the screen reader can’t read it or render any useful information from it unless you add an image description. To make sure that print-disabled readers aren’t left out, I would add the description “Image: Photo of golden retriever.” I can put that either in the body of the blog, or in the “alt-text” field of the photo when I upload it. Here, I did both.

When adding image descriptions, I’m always challenged by how much detail to include. The photo above is easy: there’s one major feature and it’s quick and easy to describe. When I describe people, I’ve tended to describe them using a couple of basic characteristics: gender; age(ish); race; and perhaps an additional detail or two (color of clothing; glasses; sitting/standing). When someone is in a wheelchair, I say that; when they’re not, I don’t say anything.

For example, I described this photo

Image: slighly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.

as

slightly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.

When I started adding image descriptions to the large number of people photos in the presentation we put together to introduce CREEC, I started tripping over the question of how — if at all — to describe race and ethnicity.  Many of the photos depicted people whose races were (1) obvious; and (2) known to me.  For example, this awesomely cliched photo that Tim and I had taken around 2002 as an Official Fox &  Robertson Photo:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  (Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

I described it:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

That was easy:  I’m white; Tim’s white; I know our races.  Tim’s disability is visible.  All the props on the table probably aren’t that relevant, but my view is that the description helps convey the posed-ness of the photo.

But what about photos depicting people whose race or ethnicity was either unknown to me or not easily described?  This, in turn, raised the obvious question whether it is relevant at all. I felt torn between trying to achieve accuracy for print-disabled readers and adding unnecessary focus on race and ethnicity. I posed this question on Facebook, and deeply enjoyed the ensuing discussion.

When adding image descriptions to photos, what do you do about perceived vs. known vs. visible ethnicities? For example, if I’m in a photo with an African-American woman, I would say something like, “White woman in white shirt and jeans; African-American woman in dark shirt and skirt.”  Easy.  But what about describing someone whose ethnicity is likely neither white nor African-American but is not known to me? Or someone who “looks” “white,” but I know would be annoyed by being described as “white.” Describing degrees of skin tone seems weird.

A surprising number of people responded with something like, “I don’t describe race.”   From Andrew Montoya:

Generally I do not comment on race/skin tone in alt text unless it’s germane to the picture.

From Carrie Lucas:

I don’t describe skin color.  If race is important to the picture, or skin, hair, etc, then describe it.  Otherwise just say “person” or “people of multiple races.”

My response (edited for coherence):

But that would mean that (respectfully) I’m making the decision for the reader when race/color/ethnicity are relevant. I try to be complete and objective in descriptions, though completeness is never possible and there is always editorial discretion.

If you don’t mention race, do you say “woman in a wheelchair” “older woman” “young girl” or just “person”?   What matters?  Gender? Race? Age? Disability? Hair color? Skin color?  At what point are we short-changing a blind reader who just wants to know what the photo looks like.

Carrie:

  I wouldn’t say race; I would say “dark colored skin, light colored skin, olive colored skin.”

Me:

But if I say that [Chinese-American colleague] has “olive skin” don’t I leave out something important, that is, that he’s Asian?  Or do I have to anatomically describe his eyelids?

Andrew:

But then where do you draw the line? How much detail do you use to describe the individual’s clothes, type of glasses, how the hair swoops over an eye, where the person’s shadow falls against the all white background even? It seems a line must be drawn somewhere lest you lose the content to the details of the description. So unless race is part of the relevance of the picture, I prefer to let people be people.

I will state that a person is in a wheelchair or using other equipment if it’s relevant. I rarely mention age, unless it’s relevant to the description (i.e., saying “cranky man” doesn’t convey the image as well as saying “cranky old man” for the stock picture of the muppet in the theater box guy). I do often state gender, as it seems a natural descriptor, but generally only for pictures where there’s only one gender present. However, stating a race or skin color where it’s not relevant to the picture seems odd and forced to me. As for determining relevance, I think that I’m already editorializing by having used the picture. I intend it to convey a particular thing by using it, so that’s where I focus my alt text description.

Corbett:

Some descriptions I have seen include information that is visible such as describing the skin tone but not assigning racial identity. So the description might say: “a light skinned female appearing person sits in a wheelchair. A dark skinned male appearing person stands nearby wearing a dark suit with a light shirt and plaid tie.”

Good point:  you can’t assume gender either.

Carrie:

It depends on why you are including the picture; whether race is important to the purpose of the picture.

Me:

But I think that’s circular, in the sense that “importance” is created by the interaction of creator and reader.  Should my purpose be the be-all-and-end-all of the decision?  I totally agree you have to make choices or you’d spend 3 paragraphs describing the building in the background of the photo, etc. But the question of when race is relevant seems to me to be one that the reader should make.

Carrie:

Yes, you are the author.

Me:

Don’t you often see things in photos that the photographer or user didn’t see or intend? I think we’re heading into lit crit territory!!!

That is, it was starting to sound very vaguely like the discussions of author, reader, and text that my much smarter classmates were having in 1981.  Which, to me, meant that I was way in over my head, and thus could start making shit up with impunity!

Then my law school roommate, Kristin Robinson, chimed in.  She was a grad student in American Studies (IIRC) when the two of us and a med student shared a house in 1985, and we’ve only recently reconnected on Facebook.

Long descriptions include information that is relevant to understanding the reason (instructional goal) the image has been included. It highlights salient information. So, if race or other aspects of people’s appearance is salient, you would include it. If it isn’t, you wouldn’t.

So perhaps in a strictly educational context, the teacher’s purpose is more important than total transparency.  Kristin also provided a helpful link to guidelines for describing science and technology images in the educational context.  The very first guideline is

Brevity. The most frequent recommendation from respondents was for more brevity in description. Simply put, it takes people with visual impairments more time to read books and articles than people without visual impairments and the process should not be further slowed down by unnecessarily long image descriptions.

For all my pontificating about the need for enough detail to let print-disabled readers interpret the image, I may also be annoying the crap out of them with verbose image descriptions.

Here’s where I end up.  Once you start describing people — that is, going beyond something like “three people in the background” — you owe it to your readers to give a description sufficient to let them decide what features are relevant.  To my mind, that includes at least (perceived) gender, age, race/ethnicity/skin tone, and [visible] disability/lack.

There will always be filtering and interpretation in the descriptions and I realize that my perceptions (and thus descriptions) will not always be accurate.  That I may describe someone in a way that suggests the wrong identity, or that suggests an ethnic, gender or disability identity where the subject would prefer to be just “a person.”  So I’m making a decision that affects not only the reader but the subject.

Ultimately — perhaps by dint of what I do for a living — I don’t think I should be deciding for the reader that race and other identities don’t matter.  I may use a photo for one purpose, while my reader perceives other meanings.  When I see a photo, my eyes and brain (with its inevitable set of life experiences and preconceptions) conspire to give it meaning.  Sometimes that meaning may be different from what the photographer and/or author intended.  My goal in creating an image description should be to try — with acknowledged and inevitable limitations — to provide the opportunity for a print-disabled reader to have that same conspiracy of brain and ear to give their meaning to the image.

Veterinary euphemism.

Last week, our sweet little puppy, Holly,

Image: photo of golden retriever puppy's face, close up.

hunted down, killed, and partially consumed a bird.  So while that photo may look cute, it’s really a MUG SHOT.  This has predictably caused stomach problems of the kind that has me running after her with a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Nature’s Miracle.*  The problems became serious enough by yesterday (I’ll spare you why) that we took her to the vet, who asked, “how long has it been since her dietary indiscretion?

Which means, apparently, “how long since she ate weird shit.”

But I love the new terminology!  Here, I’ll use it in a sentence:  “No, I didn’t eat the entire bag of potato chips.  I merely committed a dietary indiscretion.

The term could be especially useful for Tim, who regularly commits dietary indiscretions by pouring A1 sauce — often followed by hot sauce and salad dressing — on random food:  pasta; salad; cereal.  (Love you!)

So while few of us are indiscreet enough to prey on innocent but apparently disease-ridden birds, I thought the term was useful enough to escape its veterinary origins for wider application.

Holly  is now on the mend on antibiotics and a “bland diet” which is vet-speak for “foul-smelling glop in a can.”**

********

* While this may sound like something that cures cancer or allows humans to fly, it is in fact just a cleaning fluid that removes dog poop stains and odors, which is, indeed, sort of miraculous when you have a puppy.

** Originally typo-ed “fowl,” which would send Holly all the wrong messages in this situation!

 

How to ensure that your lefty Jewish friends do not take you seriously.

I do not have the knowledge — or the kevlar underwear — to opine on the situation in Gaza, but I’ll say this:  nothing seems better designed to ensure that Jewish lefties simply tune you out than the choice to use inflammatory — borderline anti-Semitic — language.

I’m a liberal and a Jew, and would be the natural audience for arguments that Israel has — what’s the technical foreign policy term? — seriously fucked up this time.  But when I hear words like “genocide” or “apartheid” or see images of Israeli politicians with blood on their hands, I don’t think, “Hmmm, that person has an interesting point I should think about.”  I think, “asshole.”  Or, with slightly more nuance, “grandstanding asshole who is more interested in left-wing tribal solidarity than actually having a rational dialog.”  And ultimately:*

Image:  Graphic of the small toolbar from the upper right side of a web browser that offers the choices of minimize (a flat line), restore (two small squares), and close (an X), with a red arrow pointed to the X.

 

 

 

 

I know this can be said of almost any fraught issue in American politics today.  If you say either “baby killer” or “the government wants to own my uterus” you are not interested in having a rational discussion about abortion; you are expressing tribal solidarity.   I’m firmly convinced that tribal solidarity drives most political opinion.  Once you’ve identified as a Republican and that has become part of your identity, it’s hard to say, “you know, perhaps we should treat children arriving at our border with compassion.”  Your tribe has made it a mark of in-group-ness to decry these children as shock troops of an invading horde of Obama-inspired future Democrats,** and taking a contrary position would be as hard as making a Red Sox fan cheer for the Yankees.  It is similarly hard, I think, to get most Democrats to even admit that people who oppose abortion might do so from deeply-felt, well-thought-out reasons and not simply because they hate or want to suppress women.***

So ultimately if your goal in discussing the situation in Gaza is  just to express tribal solidarity with your co-opinionists, go for it.  Use whatever inflammatory language makes you feel like part of the in-group.  If you actually want to have a rational discussion with people who just might share some of your lefty views, you might want to reconsider.

***********

* Well, no, ultimately what I feel is fear, because historically when people start down this road, things do not end well for Jews.

** Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

*** Two additional notes about this.  First, these two examples are in no way intended to suggest some sort of faux balance.  In my view, Democrats remain largely right, policywise, and Republicans largely wrong.  Second, I think tribalism is stronger on the right than the left because one of the substantive values of the right is conformity, while one of the substantive values of the left is iconoclasm.  Which makes it all the more ironic and, to me, disappointing to hear left-wing tribalism.

 

 

I love “cis” and “neurotypical” and “non-binary.”

Because they reject the default setting.

“Cis” is the opposite of “trans,” as in cisgender, meaning (more or less) “identifying as the gender that [society tends to] correlate[s] with the body parts you were born with.”

Neurotypical” is used to describe people who are not on the Autism spectrum. 

[Update from the comments:  Unstrangemind explains that “neurotypical is the opposite of neurodivergent. The opposite of Autistic is allistic. I know many people who are allistic but not neurotypical.”   I love this even more — two different ways of rejecting the default setting.]

Both of these terms reject the concept that the opposite of transgender or autistic is “normal,” and I love them for precisely that reason: they reject the default setting.

I love reading the thoughts and experiences of people who are trans, or autistic, or non-binary, which is being “on the spectrum,” but just another spectrum. I love that parents are more and more open to listening to kids who don’t want to live as the gender they were physically assigned.

I love fat activism, which says beauty norms are contingent and health and happiness come in many shapes and sizes. The fact that we now insist that women have flat stomachs and men have six-packs seems as random as fashion, and as open to change if we all open our minds.

I love universal design, which says you can build a structure for every body, not an archi-typical structure that you then have to retrofit to accommodate people whose bodies and abilities don’t fall within a narrow part of that spectrum. A structure that accommodates all of us from the start.*

Why, I’ve asked myself, would a cis, largely neurotypical, straight, nondisabled, averaged-sized person find these concepts so compelling? Because they reject the cubbyholes society creates for all of us. My theory is that every time a trans*, autistic, non-binary, fat, and/or disabled person makes society pry open its language and — following close behind** — its minds, we all win. It pushes back against the default setting and makes it easier for us all to be who we are and find or create our own cubbyhole, or none, or multiple.

I love Robot Hugs pretty much any day, but this comic was timed perfectly for this post, which had been rattling around in my head for a while.

2014-07-21-Gender Rolls

Image description by the artist:

GENDER ROLLS:

Daily Gender Check:

Roll Three:

Roll 1d8

1 – Agender

2 – Genderqueer

3 – Trans

4 – Genderfluid

5 – Cis

6 – Non-Binary

7 – Questioning

8 – Bigender

Roll 1d10

1 – Dapper

2 – Femmetype

3 – Twinky

4 – Sophisticate

5 – Androgynous

6 – Leather

7 – Flexible

9 – Queerdo

10 – Nonconforming

Roll 1d12

1 – Princex

2 – Dragon

3 – Beefcake

4 – Shortcake

5 – Dudebro

6 – Gentleperson

7 – Cumberbatch

8 – Butch

9 – Bear

10 – Dandy

11 – Otter

12 – Queen

A: What did you get today?

B: Genderqueer femmetype dudebro

A: Tough one.

B: Nah, I’m going to totally rock it. You?

A: Agender sophisticate dragon.

B: Nice.

*************

* That said, the next person who says a building is “accessible without looking all disabled or hospital like” gets whapped upside the head (gently but effectively) with a soft, non-fatal, but memorable wheelchair part.

** I’m a linguistics major and happy to talk about how language shapes thought — I wrote a thesis on it! — so ask at your peril!