Updated: Aug 18, 2020
You might not fully understand what I mean by that so let me explain. I am a female. I identify as a female. I was raised in a world where I was viewed as female (expect for that old lady in the 7th grade lunch room who always gave me a ‘boys’ bathroom pass).
Now, why does it matter whether you call me a non-male versus a female?
It matters because how you label me will determine how you describe me and the standard you choose to go by when perceiving me. If you choose to describe me as a non-male then I will automatically be compared to and described as things that are NOT male. Someone may think that I am too short, or that I have a lack of facial hair, or that my voice is too high. Looking back at those descriptions, you may start to think to yourself, “Wow, she has a lot of deficiencies for being a non-male, poor thing.” That’s because I was being compared to a group that I don’t belong to. And if you compare me to a group that I don’t belong to, if you compare me to a standard that I can’t compete with simply because I’m me, I’ll fall short Every.Single.Time.
But if you describe me for what I am, which is a female, then you begin to compare me to other females, and all of the sudden, I am average height for a female, my facial hair is adequate, and my voice is, well, it’s a little raspy, but that’s not the point.
Now, think of another aspect of society. Let’s take race. If you called me non-White, well then, I would just be described as someone with too much melanin, hair that’s too tightly curled, with a nose and lips that are larger than the “standard.” Your perception of me will then follow and by comparing me to what our world has determined to be the “standard” race, my racial identity has now fallen short against this so-called standard. Granted, I am very well aware that this is how many people may view me anyway, but I’m trying to make a point here. And my point is that if I am described as who I am and not what I am not, then I am a brown-skinned African American woman with natural hair (locs to be precise).
Alright, let’s get to language. Think about how we choose to talk about a “standard” way of talking that people think is the only correct way. What happens to those who do not speak that way? They are described in comparison to the “standard” and perceived as less than, simply because they speak their own way. Example…In Mainstream American English (“standard”) we mark a plural noun with an ‘s’ like when we say “one dog” versus “two dogs.” An African American English (AAE)-speaker may say “two dog.” Now, most people would say that the ‘s’ was dropped. If we are comparing AAE against the “standard,” maybe we can say that. But, if we describe AAE for what it is and not what it is not, we would say, in AAE the plural is marked by the numerical word preceding the noun.
It’s as simple as that.
In the comparison to the standard instance, one may think, “Wow, that person doesn’t know how to use plurals correctly, what a shame.” But, in the call it what it is instance, one may think, “Ahh, that’s how they mark plurals in their dialect. Different, but makes sense.”
Let’s be clear, my use of the word “standard” can also be seen as a proxy for privileged, power, and dominant. Many of us can probably agree in 2017 that we shouldn’t compare a woman’s attributes to those of the more privileged gender, man. We also shouldn’t compare a person’s race/culture to those whose race/culture is in power, White people. And we shouldn’t compare someone’s way of talking to the dominant language/dialect, the “standard.”
Are there instances in this world where describing something in comparison to the standard is beneficial? Of course. If my almost 40-year-old heart was beating slower than the “standard” 40-year-old heart, that would be a problem for me. But, in the realm of things like gender, and race, and language/dialect, it is better for us to describe things not for what they are not, but simply for what they are.
For a deeper exploration of describing AAE for what it is, see my article in The ASHA Leader.
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