Language, Race and Gender

By Maelis Goodstein, Year 12

Language is a crucial part of every culture and is used daily. There are about 7,000 living languages in the world. We use language to express ourselves, and our ideas; we use it to communicate – to understand each other – and it may structure the way we think. So, if language is so important to us and our world, why does it continue to promote racial and gender inequalities?

In the English language, the simple terms we use to prefix our last names are gendered. A married woman is usually given the prefix “Mrs.”, while an unmarried woman is given the prefix “Miss.” However, a man is given the prefix “Mr.” regardless if he’s married or not. Why does society feel the need to distinguish whether a woman is married or not? In the 1950’s, a new term was invented to prefix women’s last names, “Ms.” This term is used regardless if the woman is married or not. In addition, society typically only uses the pronouns “he” or “she,” but this isn’t very inclusive for people that are gender-fluid or don’t identify as a man or woman.

We don’t have a specific non-gendered pronoun to use – we mostly use “they” to describe a non-binary person. In Sweden, for example, they’ve created a completely new pronoun to use for gender-fluid or non-binary people – “hen.” Most languages do not have a non-gendered pronoun to use. Another example of  some gendered, everyday words we use in the English language, are the words we use to describe careers – “policeman/policewoman,” “fireman,” “male nurse/nurse,” “waiter/waitress,” “chairman/chairwoman,” “postman,” and “air host/air hostess.” These terms are also not inclusive for the people that identify as neither gender. This creates a bigger question: Why do we feel the need to distinguish whether a person is a man or a woman or everything in between?

This problem of gendered language extends into foreign languages as well. In both French and Spanish, even if a group of people has just one man, the group is referred to as masculine, e.g., “ils” in French and “ellos” in Spanish. In French, when a man refers to his wife, he calls her, “ma femme.” This literally translates to “my woman.” It gives the man dominance and ownership over the woman – his wife – who is her own person. In German, a young girl has no gender, but a turnip is considered female. Languages like French, Spanish and German are extremely gendered languages as everything is given a gender, from trees to tables; this, once again, makes gender-neutral people feel left out and unaccepted in these societies.

Language that perpetuates racial stereotypes – linguistic racism – has been around for a long, long time. We don’t even realize that it’s built into our language. In general, “black” things aren’t good, “black market,” “blackmail,” “blacklist,” etc, while “white” things are considered pure and good, “white knight,” “white magic,” even “white lie” means a less severe lie. It’s been ingrained into our minds to associate “black” with the bad and “white” with the good. In Catholicism, heaven or ascending to heaven is associated with a white light, representing goodness or purity; so this message is even ingrained in religion – which reaches a wide range of people. Some common phrases we use even have racist origins. “No can do,” and other broken English phrases were used to make fun of predominantly Chinese immigrants that couldn’t speak English properly. “Sold down the river,” is tied to the slave trade in the Americas when slave owners would literally sell off misbehaving slaves to other plantation owners, down the Mississippi River.

Overall, language does perpetuate racial and gender inequality, and it has been for centuries. It is so ingrained in our language that we don’t even realize it. However, now that new generations are coming of age and are realizing how discriminatory our language is, we should make an effort to change it. If other cultures can make up words to be more inclusive, why can’t the English language, one of the most widely spoken languages on earth?