Pronoun Usage, Identity, and Privilege
This discussion of pronoun usage, identity, inclusiveness, and privilege
took place on WMST-L in September 1999. For additional WMST-L files now on
the Web, see the WMST-L File List.
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 10:05:36 -0400
From: Karen Weekes <kweekes @ ARCHES.UGA.EDU>
I've been on this list for a few months, and I am really impressed with
how helpful everyone is, so I hope you can give me some advice as well.
I'm teaching a multi-cultural Women's Studies class this semester, and my
class of 100 is very diverse (especially given the demographics of my
university in general). Last week I was talking about the concept of
white privilege, and I found myself tangled in pronouns. Do I say
it's something "we" experience, since I'm white? If I do, I feel like my
inclusive "we" means I'm talking only to a certain portion of the
classroom, which heaven knows especially in a class designed to deal with
multi-culturalism is not my intent. But if I say "they," then I feel like
I'm setting myself off outside my race, as if to say that "they" all have
a problem but "I" have enlightened myself beyond that. This may sound
ridiculous, but I caught a funny look on a couple of black students' faces
when I said "we," so I feel certain that at least a few people are
noticing this. I know the obvious answer is to avoid pronoun usage, but
that's not so easy to do in the middle of a lecture unless you're just
reading something verbatim (which is not an effective way to lecture for 50
minutes, to me).
I mentioned this to a fellow teacher over the weekend and she suggested
that I talk to the class about it, which I will probably do, but given the
fact that it's a lecture class of 100, I don't know how honest a
discussion I can engender on the topic (people are obviously a lot less
willing to pipe up in a huge class). Any other suggestions/comments?
I sent this question to a teaching list I'm on, by the way, and got a
whopping one response--I'm hoping this may strike a chord more here, altho
I'm a bit disturbed that the participants in the teaching list didn't
seem to have anything to say about it. But that's another topic....
University of Georgia
kweekes @ arches.uga.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 11:02:29 -0700
From: Sharon Barnes <sbarnes @ UOFT02.UTOLEDO.EDU>
I realized after I hit "send" that I forgot to directly address the
pronoun issue! Duh! I say "we" and I've had good responses from my
students of color who are generally relieved to have a teacher conscious
enough to address the issue at all. There's my other one cent.
sbarnes @ uoft02.utoledo.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 11:27:10 -0400
From: Sara Murphy <sem2 @ IS4.NYU.EDU>
On Fri, 17 Sep 1999, Karen Weekes wrote:
> I'm teaching a multi-cultural Women's Studies class this semester, and my
> class of 100 is very diverse (especially given the demographics of my
> university in general). Last week I was talking about the concept of
> white privilege, and I found myself tangled in pronouns. Do I say
> it's something "we" experience, since I'm white?
White--and standing in front of a lecture hall in a large public
I think your colleague who suggested that you raise this as something to
be discussed with the class--even if it is such a large lecture-- is
absolutely right. this is is the topic of your
class, it seems: race, class, and gender privilege--and how it is
If I do, I feel like my
> inclusive "we" means I'm talking only to a certain portion of the
> classroom, which heaven knows especially in a class designed to deal with
> multi-culturalism is not my intent.
Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding you, but you seem here to presume that
multiculturalism and inclusion are the same
thing. But if we had an inclusive world, we wouldn't need the hope that
various multiculturalist initiatives and projects hold out for us. It
would seem that part of your project in teaching this course is to explore
the ways in which race shapes economic, social and cultural
experience--and you can only lead students to that investigation if it
seems youre capable of acknowledging [some of] your own position and
investments in this. Can't you be talking to everyone but of only certain
members? We do it all the time, don't we?
But if I say "they," then I feel like
> I'm setting myself off outside my race, as if to say that "they" all have
> a problem but "I" have enlightened myself beyond that.
Right. But there's another problem that you are hitting on here, I think.
And that is that "white privilege" is not monolithic or completely even.
You might be white and have considerably less cultural and economic
capital than some people of color--or perceive at any rate that you do.
"white" has for so long been such an invisible category that its fractures
and faultlines, which have been so much more pronounced effects in the
southern u.s. than in the north historically, are often difficult to talk
about and see. Yet among other things isn't this partially what is at
stake in a lot of the arguments against affirmative action?
This isn't just about pronouns, of course; it is about how to teach these
topics. How to acknowledge your own identity position and what impact that
has and doesn't have. What about assigning reading m aterial--for
instance, there are several books recently published on whiteness in
america? What about movies--I saw To Kill a Mockingbird again a while ago,
and was thinking that precisely because this is an old movie that on the
one hand seems very distant from us and our students and on the other is
concerned with issues of race and class and violence that are contemporary
it might be an interesting film to use in class.
sem2 @ is4.nyu.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 09:40:51 -0700
From: MGROTZKY @ CASTLE.CUDENVER.EDU
I'm glad the pronoun question came up. Since in WS we often talk about
groups of women of which we may or may not be members, and, if we are members,
we may not agree on particular issues. I sometimes want to express solidarity/
support for particular stands, even if I'm not a member of the group, so I feel
like saying _we_, but I don't feel I can appropriate the group, especially
since I feel that being feminist means having and showing respect for women
both as women and as members of their own cultures, ethnic groups, or
sexual preference "categories."
I teach on Saturdays, and my classes tend to be small, so discussion is often
easy. In a large group, discussion could easily be much harder. In this case
I think I'd ask for written comments. I'd consider presenting the class with
a situation or two or three situations and asking what they'd say and why
they would say it. Then I'd categorize the answers and read representative
answers to the class. When I decided what pronoun usage seemed best to the
class and at least reasonably comfortable to me, I'd tell them what I was going
to try. The student participation might sensitize the group to the issues
involved and to the importance of the use of language.
The other thing I thought of is using _most_ or _many_, as in "Many whites
who live in the Midwest feel...." It would, I think, make using "they"
more natural. I would then refer to all groups as "they"; if I wanted to
express personal opinion, I would identify it "People who feel as I do believe
that...." or "I personally would choose...."
I'll be very interested in what the rest of you have worked out on this issue.
mgrotzky @ castle.cudenver.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 12:00:38 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow @ BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
I certainly do understand your dilemma. But it could be that the looks on
the faces of your students of color were because they were pleasantly
surprised to hear a white person own her privilege, not because they felt
I do say "we" when I talk about white privilege in class--but mostly, I say
"I." I have found that this is especially effective because so many of my
white students have never been asked to think through white privilege
before; if I speak about white privilege in the abstract, they tend to
distance themselves from it. This is often a protective strategy (one
based in the privilege that allows some of us to protect ourselves from
"distasteful" topics like oppression).
When I talk about privilege, I speak specifically to all the ways _I_
experience white privilege in my daily life. I draw from Peggy Macintosh's
article "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming
to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies" (1988, from
Andersen and Hill Collins' _Race,_Class,_and_Gender:_An_Anthology_), but I
make my examples specific to my own experiences. That way, my white
students can see an example of someone's owning and being accountable for
her own privilege, and they do not report feeling like I am "accusing" them
of benefiting from the oppressions of others.
I must say, I have always gotten very positive feedback from students of
color, queer students, students who are not from christian cultures, etc.,
about my approach to speaking about all kinds of privilege. In addition, I
have found that if I own my own privilege in the classroom, then when we
address male privilege (which is not my privilege) or class privilege
(which has only recently become my privilege), I can speak about "them"
(men, people with class privilege) and not come across as claiming some
kind of charmed, privilege-less identity for myself.
I sure hope this helps. I do think it is a great idea to bring this up,
explicitly, in class. Even in a class that large, when we offer
explanations about our choices, we set examples for our students (i.e., if
the teacher is being that careful with language, language must be
Best of luck, Karen.
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 13:31:26 -0500 (EST)
From: Laurie Finke <finkel @ KENYON.EDU>
One of the ways I have stumbled upon to teach about privilege was suggested to
me by a student who discovered this when she was doing research for a web site
we did on homophobia. Left handedness. Being right-handed in this culture
confers privileges that left-handed people don't have. I have found that
students find this example less threatening than examples from race or
sexuality. They seem much more willing to own their privilege as right handed
people (I usually have two or three left handed students in a class) than they
are as white or straight.
Just a thought.
finkel @ kenyon.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 12:41:05 -0500
From: Amy Wink <Winkamy @ ESUMAIL.EMPORIA.EDU>
Height would work too--speaking as a short person. :)
Amy L. Wink
404E Plumb Hall
Division of English
Emporia State University
Emporia, KS 66801
WinkAmy @ emporia.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 13:49:12 -0400
From: Lori Anne Parker <laparker @
I think your idea about talking with the class about it is a good one. Even
if the class is large. In my experience with classes like this -- I've
found it really beneficial to admit openly when and how talking about
something feels awkward. These conversations are such difficult ones --
especially because they so often do go undiscussed. In the past, I've found
that my students really appreciate it if I do talk openly enough about these
things even to the point where I will open up and sometimes, if the subject
is _excruciately_ complicated, even admit that I myself may not have any
idea of how to begin talking about the subject(s) at hand, except for the
fact that it is something that needs talking about.
I think opening the discussion up like this ends up functioning in different
ways. A few results include:
1) students are "relieved" of the feeling that they have to *know* or feel
comfortable about a topic before speaking. If the instructor admits that
he/she is having a difficult time then the students see first hand that it
is ok to have a difficult time and ok to not have the answers.
2) concerning dynamics between students and instructors, students have told
me that having an instructor who was willing to admit that she, too didn't
have the answers was really interesting to them and that it showed them I
was also there to listen.
3) I think this kind of move often opens things up and is an action which
*in practice* challenges traditional pedagical, instuctor/student dynamics.
- Lori Anne Parker
bd27594 @ binghamton.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 11:22:35 -0500
From: Lisa Burke <lburke2 @ NJCU.EDU>
The dilemma you face is a complex one, but one that can be meaningfully
resolved. One general way is to utilizing an intersectional approach to
analyzing the issues you discuss, getting to the core of how race, class,
gender, sexual orientation intersect to nurture identity and experience. (I
suspect, however, that you are already discussing these categories in some
way.) Creating that perspective creates the kind of environment you need to
address the difficulty you face in pronoun usage.
Practically speaking, using "we" is honest and accurate and is the place where
change really happens. I am sure you are familiar with Peggy McIntosh's essay
"Unpacking the Backpack of White Privilege." That essay was particularly
helpful in my summer class to generate the kind of dialogue that needed to
Although a lecture of 100 students is a large group; having a classwide
discussion is not an impossibility if you want to open it up to student
comments and responses. You might try thinking of yourself as a facilitator at
a public meeting or speakout or arrange for small group meetings and then
whole class discussion. One other idea might be to try to fishbowl format.
(Email me privately if you want instructions on that format.)
Feel free to respond to my email.
LBURKE2 @ njcu.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 13:51:34 -0500
From: Women's Studies List [mailto:WMST-L
@ UMDD.UMD.EDU]On Behalf Of
Do you then use the discussion of handedness as a bridge to the discussion
of race, class, sexual orientation and gender privilege?
Barbara G. Taylor
mailto:btaylor @ comp.uark.edu
> One of the ways I have stumbled upon to teach about privilege was suggested
> to me by a student who discovered this when she was doing research for a web
> site we did on homophobia. Left handedness....
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 13:12:20 -0700
From: sapinoso <sapinoso @ ROHAN.SDSU.EDU>
Subject: pronoun related
In light of the discussions on pronoun use, I thought I'd post a
related question. In the introductory to Women's Studies class that I am
teaching, we started the semester out by talking about diversity and
difference, and their importance. I'd really like to talk about white
privilege as well. From my students' responses to Gloria Yamato's
"Something about the Subject Makes it Hard to Name" it is apparent many of
my white students are unaware and unintentionally racist, and are having a
hard time seeing their privilege.
Here's my dilemma, while I really like
the McIntosh "Unpacking" essay, I also feel a little weird using it and
other readings/techniques that deal with confronting white privilege
because I'm not white. I'm concerned with how my students will take a
lesson on recognizing white privilege from a non-white instructor. I
don't want to seem like I'm finger pointing, while at the same time I
really do want them to be introspective about their actions and
Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.
sapinoso @ rohan.sdsu.edu
Date: Sat, 18 Sep 1999 09:49:49 -0400
From: Beverly Ayers-Nachamkin <bayersna
Karen, you might find my article "Diffusing Linguistic Dichotomies"
(_Women's Studies Quarterly, XX_(1&2), Spring/Summer 1992, pp. 111-115)
useful. It addresses the very problem you describe, largely in the
context of an Intro to Feminist Perspectives class. Briefly, I try to
teach myself and my students to use the linguistic construction, "those
of us who...". In part I say:
"If instead of saying 'I don't see why _they_ don't just get out there
and get a job,' one says, 'I don't see why _those of us_ who are on
welfare don't just get out there and get a job,' the desire for an
explanation is increased. When one verbally/linguistically makes common
cause with all people, one's questions and comments attain personal
relevance. It seems to create a sense of personal responsibility for
exploring plausible explanations, ones that are cognitively satisfying
for oneself rather than explanations that match one's biased
expectations about an Other."
After much practice I have arrived at the point where I (white, lesbian)
can say something like "For those of us who are black..." or "For those
of us who are heterosexual..." without missing a beat; and by
mid-semester most of my students are using the same construction with
very little prompting from me.
Hope this helps,
1015 Philadelphia Ave.
Chambersburg, PA 17201
bayersna @ epix.net
bayers @ wilson.edu
Date: Sat, 18 Sep 1999 12:21:03 -0400
From: Janet Gray <jsgray @ PRINCETON.EDU>
Subject: pronoun related
In response to Joy Sapinoso's question about how to point out white
privilege in the classroom if you're not white...I don't know yet if
this will work, and I am white, but one thing I try with difficult
issues like this is to get at it by storytelling--clearly theorized,
historical storytelling. This semester, in two different classes, I've
assigned readings about how "white" people became white in the United
States. I chose parts of _Whiteness of a Different Color_ by Matthew
Frye Jacobson (a 'white' man), and I'm sure there are other useful
readings. Jacobson brings in the history of immigration and immigration
laws, together with the impact of 20th-c antisemitism, on the formation
of a limited range of racial categories, 'whiteness' being the
privileged one. With my students, I expect the book to help uncover the
diversity of their whiteness (many come from recent immigrant families),
and to move on from there. We'll see if this works; my guess is that
spreading out the source for the discussion of racial privilege could
take the heat off the instructor.
gray @ tcnj.edu
Date: Mon, 20 Sep 1999 12:54:24 +0800
From: Norman Owen <ngowen @ HKUCC.HKU.HK>
[In response to Beverly Ayers-Nachamkin]
An interesting idea, which may very well work for you and for the
original questioner, in essentially multi-ethnic American classrooms. But
I can't see myself trying it, as a 6' tall, 200+ lb. American teaching a
room full of ethnic Chinese undergraduates who are quite literally half my
size and my age at the University of Hong Kong: "Those of us who are
Chinese ..."? Or even, with my all-female class on Gender & History,
"Those of us who are women ..."?? [I mention my size and age only to
emphasize my extremely visible "alterity" here.]
I do believe that we (all of us who teach) need to situate
ourselves relative to the material we are teaching, and pronouns are one
way to do it. When I talk about the Vietnam War, and what America's
intentions were, I'll usually use "we," unless I want (in that particular
paragraph) to stop and talk about decision-makers and public opinion and
my own views. (In courses on the Vietnam War back in the US I used to
begin by describing exactlly what I had done, and hadn't done, during
those years, making sure that the class knew that I knew that I had no
right to any kind of moral superiority.)
In Gender & History I obviously have to acknowledge up
front my "masculine" perspectives, and as the occasion rises try to
describe where that comes from and how I (personally) may have changed it
I also, to pick up another thread in this discussion, often find
it necessary to "call" the Chinese on their own (considerable) racism, if
only in general terms. It's certainly not as effective as if I were doing
this from an insider perspective, but if the alternative is to let it go
unquestioned, that's just not acceptable. Exactly how and when to do is
always delicate, but I don't think we (teachers) can afford *not* to
challenge the assumptions of our students, even if we risk offense.
And, of course, I also frequently use the "we" of scholarship ("We
simply do not know, and possibly never will know, exactly the relationship
between 'patriarchy' and the neolithic revolution") and the "we" of class
and classroom ("We [= most of us in HK today] tend to compartmentalize
religion more than many societies in the past/elsewhere").
Since I never give lectures verbatim from notes, I'm not 100% sure
how I deal with these locutions in practice, but I think I can hear myself
saying the following:
"I (as an American/as a man) ...
"We (as Americans/as men) ...
"We (as the scholarly community) ...
"We (here in HK today) ...
"You (as HK Chinese/as women/as people born after the VN war ...
I think any/all of these can do, but they need to be kept clear and (IMHO)
*honest*. I don't anticipate immediate and automatic deconstruction of
each "we" by the class, but if it occurs, I want them to know that I *am*
within the group reporesented. I'll often articulate the parenthetical
expressions above just for the sake of clarity, even if I don't usually
stop to explicate. "We -- Americans of my generation -- were taught that
Communism was evil, and that 'Red China' was a threat to all of Asia ..."
But I think -- after reflection, and I thank you all for prompting
this reflection -- that what I want to do above all is to establish
*responsibility* for statements, so that the reader/listener knows to whom
to attribute whatever remarks are made. If you're speaking for yourself,
say so. If you are speaking in some sense for a country or class or
gender, say so. Avoid that favorite of all locutions (at least among HK
undergraduates): "It is thought that ..." And thus try to get your
students to accept their own responsibility for who they are and
what they represent (even if unconsciously), to situate *themselves* in
the scholarly discourse and in life.
Whether any of this is applicable to those teaching in a
mixed-race mixed-gender US classroom, I do not know. YMMV.
Norman G. Owen "I'd like to be a guru, but I can't do the silences"
ngowen @ hku.hk (quoted in David Hare, Via Dolorosa)
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