"you guys": change language, do no harm, but can we please leave space for learning and growing?

First reactions: the language police

I've recently learned that calling a group of people you guys may be considered insensitive to transgender people. 

My first reaction to this was an inner eye-roll, and thoughts along the lines of, "Oh come on, that's going too far." 

The same reaction I had to learning that the word crazy is not to be used -- in any context -- because it's insensitive to people with mental illness. Why are people policing my language this closely? Is this really important? Who determined this is now inappropriate speech?

I've always thought of guys as gender-neutral, and you guys represents a group of people of any gender -- in the appropriate context. Clearly some people say "guys and girls," and in that context guys means men and boys. But words have different meanings in different contexts, and most speakers of any given language are able to distinguish among those contexts. 

Is you guys really so offensive, to the point where I am hurting people by saying it?

Stuff I believe

I believe language matters.

I believe people have the right to be called by their preferred name, both their personal names and their gender identity.

I believe in striving to be antiracist, antifascist, antihomophobic, antitransphobic, antisexist. 

I believe all black lives matter.

I believe strongly in freedom of expression of all types, and that free expression may have consequences, such as the cancellation of a speaking engagement, a Twitter storm of protest, a decline in sales, or the loss of a job. 

I believe in empathy, compassion, and that all people deserve an opportunity to learn and grow.

Second impressions

So I started to ask myself some questions.

Why am I resistant to this change?

Why do I accept other changes in language, but feel this one is "going too far"?

If I say, "This is going too far, if I want to say you guys and I know I'm not transphobic and I think it's fine if I say this, then I'll say it," how is that different from right-wingers who refuse all language change, who insist it's their "right" to call people whatever they want? 

How is you guys different from the cringey expressions of my youth -- Indian giver, sitting Indian style, Chinese fire drill, Dutch courage, braves and squaws, to Jew him down, I was gypped. Paki shops, and "take-out chinks" and "bull dykes". 

How is this different than faggot or nigger? (And not in any reclaimed sense!) Or words generally considered less offensive, but that I so deeply loathe, like gal and ladies and girls' night out

There's only one thing different about you guys: it's my own common practice. 

All those words above once were, too -- and for many people, still are.

So if I'm hearing that you guys makes trans people feel excluded and less accepted, then I should stop using it. 

You guys is very ingrained into my speech patterns. But speech patterns are not inviolate. There's no lack of available substitutes. 

I must point out a bit of irony here. Many people feel folks is a good substitute for guys. I painfully trained myself not to use folks when writing for and about people with disabilities, because it was considered demeaning and infantilizing. No one in the guys discussion seemed to know about this. Perhaps it's old and outdated, but it's something I learned, and I adhere to it.

And please don't tell me about y'all and all y'all. Now we're all going to adopt expressions from the Confederacy? No thonx.

Change -- but give people a chance

My initial resistance to the you guys question also gave me more insight into the thoughts of people who resist language changes. 

People don't enjoy hearing that their ordinary, everyday speech has somehow become tainted and offensive. Often, they don't understand or respect the people who are asking for (or from their perspective, demanding) this change. Possibly they are angry and feel victimized by their own exclusion -- whether we understand that or not.

I'm not excusing the behaviour of people who refuse to change language with the times. I'm just saying that perhaps we could be more patient.

My resistance to you guys also revealed a distinct lack of compassion and empathy on the part of many progressives -- for anyone who uses a word now considered wrong.

If we want people to change -- to accept change -- to enter into the process of change -- we would benefit by understanding their opposition. 

There are no antidotes to raw bigotry and hatred. I don't think we need to walk a mile in a bigot's shoes and feel compassion for their hatred. At the same time, it does no good to blame and shame someone for taking five minutes longer -- or a week longer, or a year longer -- than you did to get to the same point -- say, the point where guys seems anachronistic and inappropriate.

More woke than thou

In progressive circles there can be a mentality of othering, of in-crowd/out-crowd based on language use. People who are More Radical Than Thou use the up-to-the-minute words as exclusionary themselves. 

I rarely use slang, and I'm always a little late to the lingo. One day, we said more evolved, then suddenly people said woke. And if you didn't know what woke meant, you were a Becky, and now you're a Karen. The use of which is sexist, regressive, exclusionary, over-simplified, and everything we say we don't want to be. I don't say woke and can't even think it without air-quotes. If it has meaning to you, then of course you can and will use it. For me there are other words that express the same meaning.

I remember the withering looks I got for saying Bradley Manning five minutes after others were saying Chelsea Manning. I am in full support of Chelsea Manning as a whistleblower, a truth teller, and a war resister, and am in total support of gender expression and identity. But I had been using the name Bradley Manning for a long time and my brain hadn't completely made the switch. Is that really worthy of scorn?

If a diehard leftist like me, who wholeheartedly supports every aspect of human rights and language change, can get caught in this trap, what can we reasonably expect from people who discover these changes somewhat later? 

When people who use the "wrong" word are the other, who does that serve? Who learns, who grows? How does that further the struggle for equity and justice?

If we want people to change, we need to give them the space to do so.

(Posted with thanks to my Facebook friends who made this such a rich and meaningful discussion.)


With God's Help said...

I can't say "folks" without thinking of DoFo but if that's the right and inclusive expression to use these days I can adapt. Thanks for helping me realize some of the words I thought were ok weren't, it's good to have friends who are willing to help you grow.

allan said...

This site notes that "no can do and "long time no see" are rooted in anti-Asian racism.

I assume (from the context at that site) that the info is correct, but I've also seen "going Dutch" cited as being a racist term and not being a racist term (alluding to Dutch doors)

allan said...

"Folks" will be forever associated for me with George W. Bush and September 11, 2001. In his first public statement on that morning, he said: "We're going to get the folks who did this."

laura k said...

That's three strikes against "folks". It's out.

The English were at war with the Dutch repeatedly over a long period of time. From that, we got:
- going Dutch, or Dutch treat, meaning you're cheap.
- A "Dutch wife" meant a prostitute -- if you look it up now, you'll find sex doll or a large body pillow. Either way, not a compliment!
- The original meaning of "double Dutch" meant to speak unintelligibly.
- "Dutch courage" means drinking alcohol, like doing a shot before asking your boss for a raise.

There are others! Here's a list. I had never heard of Dutch Rudder! Cute.

I learned this while reading the Sam Pepys Diary online, from the etymologist in the group, the esteemed Language Hat. Very trustworthy source.

And WGH: thank you for saying that. <3

Amy said...

Excuse my ignorance, but why is guys transphobic? I can see it being sexist (like using "men" to include men and women or "he" as the default pronoun, etc.), and I suppose anything that singles out people by gender can be transphobic, but I wouldn't immediately see it that way.

As you know, I grew up always saying "You guys" to a group of people of mixed genders and also even to groups of women. I probably still do though I seem rarely to address groups these days. And I think living in New England since 1970 has also eroded many of my NYisms.

If I were asking a question of more than one person, I think I'd more likely say, "What do you all think?' Or what do you all want to do? I can't see saying, "What do you folks want for dinner?" Or what do you people want to do? I also could see saying, "What does everyone think?"

Did you see that some airline---I think in Japan---will no longer greet passengers in English with ladies and gentlemen but instead with "everyone" or something like that?

Your post will make me more sensitive to the "you guys" expression.

laura k said...

I don't think people hear it as truly transphobic, anti-trans, but they hear it as an exclusion.

I've also always heard "guys" as gender-neutral (did I say that in this post?). I don't think that's NY-based, though. My friends who grew up in California all say the same thing.

Anyway, as far as trans people, as I understand it, guys is considered a gendered term, and anything gendered excludes non-binary and gender-nonconforming people. In this good article (from 2018!), there is this:

>>In my reporting I heard from several people who said that the word is particularly troubling for trans and gender-nonconforming people. “As a transgender woman, I consciously began trying to stop using guys some years ago,” says Brad Ward, a college counselor at a high school in Atherton, California. She added, “When I’m included with a group that is called guys, there’s some pain, since it takes me back to my male days in a way that I’d rather not go.”<<

That's just an example. The article is very good, as is this one -- from 2015! Although it mainly talks about sexism.

This is one of those things I am accepting without truly understanding. The way I see it, I can't truly understand a trans person's experience. But if I'm told that this word excludes and hurts someone, then I can try to not use it -- whether or not I truly get it.

Amy said...

Thanks, Laura. I will take a look at the linked articles, and I think I already understand better how it might trigger upset in trans people. And I agree---why use a word or expression that offends people if it can be avoided?

I am still struggling with whether to use Black or African American. In my lifetime alone, the accepted terminology has changed from Negro to Afro American to Black to African American and now it seems back to Black. I don't know at this point which is the least offensive term to the most people.

laura k said...

I remember Negro being the term of respect, too. In my world it replaced colored.

I believe that either Black or Af-Am is OK, but Black is a larger and more inclusive term, in that there is anti-Black racism everywhere, and not all Black people are Af-Am. Anti-Black racism in the UK or in France, for example.

Meaning it's OK to refer to Black Americans as African American, but Black acknowledges all Black people. This is my understanding, anyway.

In Canada, people HATE when Black Canadians are referred to as Af-Am... but there used to be a school of thought that "American" means all of the Americas, including the Caribbean. That's why I used to write USians -- because using American to mean people from the US was considered US-centric. Language!

Amy said...

Thanks, Laura. That's helpful.

As for USian, that is just too weird for me. I wouldn't even know how to say it, and no one would know what I meant if I did. I can see saying "People from the US," but that's a mouthful. And I hear Canadians using American all the time to refer to people from the US and never to refer to people from Mexico or Canada. Yes, we all live on the North American continent so we are all North Americans. But I do think that 99% of the world hears "American" and thinks---from the United States of America---not from North America or South America or any nation on those continents other than the US. And unlike some of the other terms you mentioned, I honestly see nothing offensive about that. But maybe, as with guys, I am just missing something.

laura k said...

Oh yeah, no one says USian. It was just a thing I wrote (and sometimes still do) in this blog.

I used to get comments on a regular basis about how arrogant it was to call the US "America" -- then that stopped and suddenly no one said that anymore. Yes, for sure, the whole world understands American to mean people from the US. Everyone here says "American" and "Canadian" and if you want to include both you say "North America".

The official name of Mexico is actually Estados Unidos de Mexico - United States of Mexico. But no one calls it that and people from there are called Mexicans. And I've never heard anyone object to that.

You're not missing anything. It was ridiculous.

Amy said...

Thanks! I appreciate that. :)

allan said...

I believe that either Black or Af-Am is OK, but Black is a larger and more inclusive term ... not all Black people are Af-Am.

I don't like the term "African-American". While I'm not in a hurry, it's *SEVEN* syllables! And clunky. I know I'm comparing apples and yachts, but one of my grandfathers was born in Scotland and I have never thought of myself as Scottish-American. A hyphenated term makes sense if you were born in one country and moved to another country (though thinking of myself as an American-Canadian is just silly), but otherwise? I don't get it.

laura k said...

I just wrote this whole long comment and then realized Allan might be being sarcastic.

At least I realized before posting! That's new for me.

allan said...

No. Not sarcastic.

laura k said...

Oh! Go figure.

Allan, I'm guessing you don't know this, but being "anti hyphenation" is a major right-wing dog-whistle in Canada. Some English speaking Canadians whose families have been in this country for many generations (mostly of Scottish and English descent) don't like that people newer to Canada still identify with their original countries.

You don't think of yourself as Scottish American because you've never identified with your heritage. You didn't eat different food growing up, or learn a second language, or attend cultural/religious events that were Scottish. You're part of the dominant culture in that respect -- you're white, with an Anglo last name. Your family has been North America long enough to be "just" American.

People who came over later identify with both their homeland and their chosen country. In the US and Canada, it's very very common for people to just say they're Italian, Irish, Pakistani, etc., without the Canadian or American part.

I will never ever ever understand why this bothers right-wingers so much.

Anyway, for Black Americans this was a way to acknowledge their heritage and their roots.

Amy said...

I had to laugh at this exchange. Couldn't you have asked Allan if he was being sarcastic before writing, deleting, and then rewriting your response? :)

I am pondering whether I ever hear (or read) these hyphenated references. I'd say rarely except in the context of African Americans or sometimes Asian Americans. I don't hear people being referred to as Italian American or Polish American or Russian American or whatever very much at all. Instead someone might say their ancestors or grandparents or parents came from one of those countries. I never think of myself as Jewish American or German or Romanian or Polish American. I am an American who also is Jewish and has ancestral origins from those three places.

I think African American started being used because calling someone "black" was too obviously a reference to race whereas African American was equating it with terms like Italian American---indicating a place of origin. But since those other hyphenated labels are not used very much in most contexts, maybe the continued usage of African American has taken on a pejoriative meaning---like they are not truly American (as in, "Send them back to Africa"). And also, as you pointed out, Black can be used more universally for people in countries besides the US.

Labels are problematic for so many reasons, but yes, most people---black, white, whatever---want to acknowledge their heritage.

allan said...

You didn't eat different food growing up

Salmon wiggle says hello.

being "anti hyphenation" is a major right-wing dog-whistle in Canada. ... I will never ever ever understand why this bothers right-wingers so much.

Of course it is. I'm not surprised in the slightest. (How dare those people refuse to be called what I want to call them?) I'm not bothered or offended by anyone's hyphenated self-description. Anyone can do anything in that regard. Maybe it's some latent prejudice, I don't know.

Wouldn't racist Canadians want people from Pakistan to say they are Pakistani rather than Canadian? That way, they wouldn't be sullying the lily-white image the racists have concocted for themselves. Mags is a racist. What does he think?

laura k said...

I had to laugh at this exchange. Couldn't you have asked Allan if he was being sarcastic before writing, deleting, and then rewriting your response? :)

Not really. But I didn't delete it, I copied and saved it, then pasted it back in.

To my memory, Black was not dropped because it was a reference to race. African American was adopted because it acknowledged African heritage. This was very new and bold at the time.

laura k said...

Wouldn't racist Canadians want people from Pakistan to say they are Pakistani rather than Canadian?

You'd think, right? They use the hyphenated identity as proof that "those people" are not really Canadian.

Do you remember a guy in the Times Square area saying something about "people whose grandparents didn't speak English"? I almost hit him. Seriously, I practically disassociated.

Maybe Mags will tell us what he thinks.

laura k said...

Also, I think why we don't hear Polish American or Italian American (etc) is because in context, people will just say "I'm Italian, and we..." or "My family's Polish, so...". They are American, and if they were in another country, they would identify themselves as American. But in the US, they identify their heritage. Same in Canada.

laura k said...

Salmon wiggle, yeah. But not haggis!

Archandrogyne said...

Excuse my necro comment.

What's wrong with using "y'all?"

It's not "from the confederacy," it's from the South. The language here is mainly shaped by Black people! It's wrong to discount it.

laura k said...

Archandrogyne, thanks for that! I'm originally from New York, and I associate y'all with people like George Wallace and Bull Connor -- or with people who they spoke for. And also with the Southern Belles.

Obviously that's an incomplete picture. But I grew up with a strong bias against Southern white people, and I don't want to sound like one.

So my association may be wrong, but it's indelible.

Archandrogyne said...

That's understandable, cheers!