I am a white male in America, and I spent the majority of my formative years living in Iowa. I was teased some as a child because my family is Jewish, but I basically come from a place of privilege. I have never been told that I shouldn’t study mathematics because “girls don’t do math,” and I have never had to wonder if I was passed over for a position because of my color.
As a child, my parents tried to teach my siblings and me that these are not statements that everyone can make. My parents, both being anthropologists, tried to make sure that we understood that not everyone had the same kind of experiences that we had. We were make acutely aware of race- and sex-based teasing on the playground, and taught to question the assumptions of gender and ethnicity.
This, I think, is why something that a teenager on NPR said this morning bothered me. The young woman was being interviewed because of her involvement in NASA’s Space Camp. She said, “I want to be the first female on Mars pretty badly!”
Take a moment and think about what is wrong with that statement.
Implicit in the sentence quoted above is the understanding that if this person goes to Mars, the significance of that event will not be that she is the first person on Mars, but the first female. There is a tacit assumption that a male will be first, and that her best hope is to follow his lead.
I am certain that a number of people will think that I am reading way to much into this. I’m not sure that is the case. The way in which we use language is significant—whether consciously or unconsciously, the choice to highlight her gender, rather than her humanity, implies that she expects to take a secondary position.
The problem here is not any kind of overt, institutionalized sexism or racism. Rather, the issue is the privilege of white males that is generally taken for granted in our society. We tend to use masculine pronouns as the default, and we assume that men will take leading roles. This is something that we all do to some extent, and it is not likely to stop any time soon. That being said, we should try to be aware of it, and alter our language and behaviour when appropriate.