Feminist Aspie

Assuming “he”: The microaggression we’ve all committed!

on January 6, 2013

In case you hadn’t figured it out, I’m rather new to this whole thing. I’ve been following a few feminist Twitters and blogs for months now, particularly The Everyday Sexism Project; because of this, I now notice sexist “microaggressions” that I wouldn’t have thought twice about before. As you can imagine, this annoyed me, so for a week I kept a diary of every example of sexism I saw/heard, which can be found here. Over the course of that week, I caught myself slipping up several times, by assuming an unknown person is “he”. Needless to say, I’m now actively trying to avoid that, and I question others who do this.

Assumptions of “he” are everywhere.. Discussing an unknown perpetrator of a crime is a major example; how many times have you heard someone say “I hope they get him” when there’s nothing to suggest the gender of the perpetrator? The other huge example of this is when referring to animals. Last month, somebody was describing this music video to me. To summarise, a wolf is being chased, fends off its pursuers using some weird magic, then turns into a human woman at the end. This isn’t surprising, really, because the song (by David Guetta ft. Sia, if anyone’s interested) is called She Wolf. However, this man (who had already seen the whole thing) referred to the wolf as “he” the entire time. When I asked him why, he said “I don’t know… I always assume animals are male”. Basic biology: If all animals were male, they’d be extinct by now!

This assumption that an unknown person (human or otherwise!) is male extends to almost all apects of life. If somebody online does not use their name or any pictures of themselves, they are almost invariably referred to as “he” (that’s where I messed up during my sexism diary experiment!). Within days of going home for Christmas, I was sick of correcting people who assumed my tutor was male. Also of note is someone else pointing out a pump which had been left at £25.01 and saying “That guy fails”. No. As far as I’m aware, men-only petrol pumps don’t exist. 😛

Of course, assumptions of “she” also occur… usually when referring to bad drivers. Whenever people are hindered by a bad female driver, they often refer to her as “Mrs” during the resulting muttering. (I’ve never heard anyone refer to a bad male driver as “Mr”, but I digress.) However, they often do this without seeing the driver’s face, with no way of knowing the driver’s gender. Like I said, I’d never really noticed this before the sexism diary experiment. Assuming that an unknown person is any gender is detrimental to both sexes by perpetuating gender stereotypes; the worst part is, even people who consider themselves to be feminists also trip up.

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6 responses to “Assuming “he”: The microaggression we’ve all committed!

  1. Sam Loy says:

    I’m reminded of this little conundrum: A boy is in a car with his father when it crashes. The father dies, and after the boy is raced to the hospital, the surgeon says, “I cannot operate on this boy. This boy is my son.”
    The goal of any conundrum is to work out what’s going on. This one – though simple in solution – stumps quite a few people.

    • I first read that riddle in a logic puzzles book when I was a kid, and I must admit I had to check the back of the book for the answer! Years later, when studying feminism-related topics in A-Level English Literature, the teacher used the same riddle. As I’d heard it before and knew the answer, I kept quiet, but I was amazed at how many people – all very intelligent, many of whom would consider themselves feminist – didn’t get it. It’s certainly a very good way to highlight the issue of ingrained sexism.

  2. cynicallyidealistic says:

    I committed a terrible act of microaggression in the middle of a gender studies class, when I referred to the author of a feminist article I was reviewing as “he”. Its amazing just how ingrained this sort of language is! Something everyone needs to be made aware of. Thank you for this blog!

    • You’re welcome! 🙂 Thank you for being so honest. Like all habits, it’s incredibly difficult to stop. I still slip up occasionally, especially regarding animals. Sadly, it’s become automatic for almost everyone…

  3. […] hat-tip to Sam Loy for reminding me about this in a comment on my last post. If you haven’t read that comment already, though, please look at this first, because I […]

  4. autisticook says:

    I encountered two of them in the space of a 15 minute conversation. I mentioned my therapist and the woman I was talking to said, “Yes, maybe she can help you with that,” even though I hadn’t referred to their gender. Couple of minutes later, she also referred to any hypothetical judge as “he”. (I noticed because one of my best friends is a judge, and she told me there were far more women in her line of work than there are men).

    Granted, we don’t have the versatile “they/them/their” solution in Dutch, but I do try to say “hij of zij” (he or she) whenever I don’t know the gender of the person.

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