How Everyday Language Centers Some People and Excludes Others

Here’s a headline I saw recently: “Black female physicist pioneers technology that kills cancer cells with lasers.

And here’s a prediction: If the physicist had been a white man instead of a black woman, he would’ve been simply called a “physicist” — not a “white male physicist.”

As comedian Hannah Gadsby put it, straight, white, able-bodied cisgender men are viewed in our society as “human neutral.” The rest of us are “other.” We’re notable for not being men, not being white, not being straight, and so on.

Take this exchange I had with a coworker recently. He said that a certain piece of backpacking gear came in two varieties — women’s and unisex. It isn’t particularly uncommon for outdoor gear to designate the option that isn’t “women’s” as “unisex.”

I pointed out that it’s interesting that the option that isn’t specifically for women is seen as universal, for all humans. My coworker said, “Well, the women’s model is made for someone with wider hips and breasts.” And the unisex one isn’t.

I let the matter drop, but I wanted to say: “What type of person doesn’t have wide hips and breasts? Is that person unisex?”

We do this regularly, treating the dominant group in society as normative and other groups as deviant. White people are often described by their gender, whereas people of color are described by their race. “White” is the default form of personhood, so it’s only remarkable and worth mentioning when someone isn’t white.

A mostly straight, white, able-bodied audience is “mainstream.” A mostly black audience is a black audience. A beauty product made in the skin tone of white people is “nude,” while products made in darker skin tones, if they exist at all, are called something else — like “brown” or “chocolate.”

On a mountain near my home, a sign about Native American history in the region is titled “We Were Not Here First.” In this case, “we” is non-Native Americans. Even as the sign educates readers about Native American history, it also excludes Native Americans from its audience.

Where this becomes even more serious is in matters of health care.

Prior to 1993, it was common to exclude women from biomedical research. Women often have different symptoms, risk factors, and outcomes than men, and they metabolize drugs differently. The gap in medical knowledge about men and women still exists, even though it’s better now. Women still receive inferior medical care as a result.

For me, heteronormativity — the normalization of straightness — was harmful. I grew up having feelings for girls I couldn’t understand. Girls liked boys — only boys. I assumed I just wanted to look like the girls I liked.

By the time I was old enough to know it was even possible for women to love other women, I’d already buried my feelings for them so deep I could hardly find them. I spent decades dating men, looking for the right one and never finding him, and it took years of therapy to recover the feelings I’d repressed.

It’s a small gesture, but one way to start changing these patterns is by de-centering the dominant groups (men, whites, straight people, etc). Call a white man a white man; don’t just call him “a man” and allow the whiteness to be assumed.

And for pete’s sake, don’t treat the norms or needs of straight white men as “mainstream” and those of other groups as niche.

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.