Counteracting Sexist Spanish, While Respecting the Language

It’s important to distinguish sexo (English “sex”) from género gramatical (English “gender”) in Spanish. Although both have the same two categories, masculino and femenino, sexo pertains to differences in human reproduction while género is a linguistic property that has no necessary connection with biological sex. Sexist Spanish has three forms:

a) The first occurs when the género masculino of a noun or adjective has a positive meaning but the género femenino of the same word has a negative meaning. When a man is a called a zorro (fox, género masculino) it means that he is “crafty and astute,” but when a woman called a zorra (fox, género femenino) it means that she is a prostitute.

b) The second form consists of the metaphorical use of adjectives based on male and female genitalia to signify, respectively, good and bad qualities. Cojonudo (from cojones, testicles) can be used in the sense of “stupendous, magnificent, brave,” while Coñazo (from coño, akin to “cunt“) may be employed to signify “annoying, tiresome, unbearable.”

c) The third and most discussed form is the use of the género masculino as unmarked or “generic” which can represent just one of the géneros (masculino) or both (masculino and femenino). For example, Los empleados deben venir (Employees must come) may refer to male employees (empleados) only or to both male and female employees (empleadas). Empleadas are not mentioned explicitly.

The Real Academia Española, traditionally the highest linguistic authority on Spanish, rejects the idea that the generic is sexist because it includes both genders, but its opponents rightly point out that languages are dynamic and reflect changes in society, which also must be factored into this discussion.

US scholars focus on this form of sexist Spanish, and to avoid it they use neologisms such as the slash (barra in Spanish) as in Latinos/as, Latino/a students, Latino/a Studies Center. There are, however, ways to avoid Sexist Spanish while staying within the bounds of respecting Standard Spanish and we as academics should follow them as much as possible. An excellent guide was issued by Spain’s Comisión de Mujeres y Ciencia (Commission of Women and Science). One of its important observations is that “The use of words . . . regardless of grammatical género, which designate human beings collectively or individually but don’t specify sexo (male or female) is not sexist.” [My translation.]

Examples are pueblo and persona, as in “pueblo Chicano” or “persona Latina.” The words puebla and persono don’t exist. We follow this guideline in the title of our book, Latino Peoples in the United States instead of Latinos in the United States. Finally, names such as Latino/a Studies Center are not necessary, because sexist language applies only to people, not things.

It is important to keep in mind that these methods are not perfect. Sometimes appropriate “collective” nouns don’t exist and individuals who insist on avoiding sexist Spanish may have to resort to other approaches, such as “doubling” (as in Latino and Latina immigrants) that are less than ideal. Doubling is considered “too wordy” by some.

Scholars who insist on the use of both genders for inanimate objects may follow this usage: Choose the form that agrees with the género of the noun in Spanish. For example, Latino Studies (from estudios, género masculino), Latina Library (from biblioteca, género femenino), Latino data (from datos, género masculino), Latina statistics (from estadísticas, género femenino). Too much of a hassle? Perhaps, but it certainly beats artificial neologisms pulled out of the air in the United States.

These neologisms are usually another example of US hegemony at work. I don’t expect that US scholars are going to drop practices that they have been following for years after they read my post. But I’d like to get the message out there and, who knows, maybe some people will start thinking seriously about it.

The Spanish language has been kicked around long enough in this country. White school authorities tried to suppress (including violently punishing) the use of Spanish among Spanish-speaking children at different points in US history. Then there is the white racialized “humor” of “Mock Spanish,” (No problemo, Hasty banana [for hasta mañana]) and the common white harassment of Spanish speakers in public. The Trump Administration early on hastened to remove the Spanish portion of the White House website.

I’d like to emphasize that I’m not a snob and my main concern is not so much with how scholars or students choose to refer to themselves as with how universities are following these rules in the names of curricula, departments, centers and libraries, and therefore giving them legitimacy. Universities are institutions of higher learning and should respect the linguistic integrity of academic Spanish.

“Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”: Latest Racial Battle over Language

Once again America is embroiled in a racial shouting match. We cannot even agree on how to talk about our latest racial crisis: the seemingly daily police and vigilante killings of unarmed African Americans.

This language battle was evident last spring after a group of students expressed both their concern about racial incidents at the University of Connecticut and their solidarity with the growing Black Lives Matter movement by painting “Racism at Storrs” and “Black Lives Matter” on the opposite sides of the campus “Spirit Rock” designated for student expression.

UConn Spirit Rock

(Image source)

Unfortunately, it did not take long for someone to paint over the words racism and Black to express their view that there is no racism on campus and that only color-blind language that declares “All Lives Matter” is allowed there. That language battle is reminiscent of the one anti-racists won on the same campus in the mid-1990s over whether the word “White” would be allowed in the title of the White Racism course I have taught there ever since.

What was especially sad about the most recent UConn battle over words, some two decades later, was how many European Americans, both on and off campus, supported that All Lives Matter brush over as they refused to acknowledge the simple fact that African Americans, in particular, are facing what seems to be an epidemic of killings by European-American men, both in and out of uniform. Think about it. The legitimate concerns of African Americans were literally painted over!

Driven by racism-evasive politics, the whitewashing of this nation’s serious racial crisis has also been thrust onto the national presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was criticized for the same insensitivity by also framing the issue as one of All Lives Matter. Later, after declaring that “All Lives Matter,” Martin O’Malley–another candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president–was shouted down by African-American protestors who accused him of being indifferent to their racism-specific concern. And still more recently protestors went after Republican primary candidate Jeb Bush after he glibly denounced O’Malley’s apology as yet another example of “political correctness.”

Unfortunately, the emergence of the “All Lives Matter” slogan is much more than yet another example of color-blind ideology run amok. It officially marked the beginning of the white backlash against the Black Lives Movement that conservative media like Fox News and Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump increasingly use to fuel their racism-driven ratings and campaigns.

This is of course nothing new: words matter in both exposing American racism and in keeping it hidden. When European Americans refer to the nation’s race relations problem they typically use vague, obfuscating, and misdirecting terms like race, the race issue, and minorities where-as African Americans and other people of color are more likely to deploy words like racism and the racially oppressed. In my recently completed study of how the social sciences in the United States mirror the larger society’s racial language I document a constant battle between what I refer to as the linguistic racial accommodation enforced by the nation’s white power structure and the linguistic racial confrontation pushed forward, whenever they can, by the racially oppressed. I found that the use of racially accommodative language like framing the nation’s systemic racism problem as its “Negro problem” or of one of simply the prejudice of a few racially-bigoted outliers is the usual state of affairs and that only when there is a successful challenge to the racial status quo is the language of the racially oppressed forced into the national discourse.

That was certainly the case in the late 1960s after civil unrest broke out in scores of American cities when a presidential commission actually identified “white racism” as this nation’s major problem. Fast forward to not long ago, nearly a half century later, when in response to Black Lives Matter protests Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders–with the help of a recently hired African-American press secretary aligned with that movement– released the most explicit “racism and racial justice” presidential platform in American history. Sander’s platform outlines his position not only on the physical violence African Americans endure but also on the political, legal, and economic violence we face daily.

It remains to be seen how long our current racial language battle will last and what will come of it. But there is growing evidence that African Americans and other racially oppressed people will no longer allow our concerns about systemic racism to be painted over by not only conservatives but by racism-evasive progressives who attempt to promote their own legitimate concerns by whitewashing those that are specific to us. Hopefully while this battle continues it will fuel an honest discussion of one of this nation’s most important social problems; one which includes a large and robust conceptualization of systemic racism which enables us to move beyond specious debates like “who is a racist?” and whether, by some strange logic, a movement that insists that “black” lives matter in the face of what appears to be an open hunting season on African Americans by angry white men with guns somehow implies that “white” lives don’t.

Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Conceptualizing Racism: Breaking the Chains of Racially Accommodative Language, will be released in November. His current book project is tentatively titled, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism.

“We Still Live Here” : Documentary about the Wampanoag

The standard Thanksgiving narrative in the U.S. is that when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, it was the Wampanoag of Southern Massachusetts who met them and helped the settlers survive. Yet beyond that dominant Thanksgiving narrative, few know much about the Wampanoag (h/t to Minal via FB and Colorlines). There is a new film“We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân” target=”_blank”, that documents the incredible effort of the Wampanoag cultural revival through language. Beginning in the 1990s, the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond Wompanoag communities initiated the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project after uncovering a trove of documents from the sixteenth century. The documents were written in their native language, which hasn’t been spoken in over a century and a half. Here’s a short clip (4:15) from the film:

Watch A Language Is Not Just Words on PBS. See more from INDEPENDENT LENS.

The story begins in 1994 when Jessie Little Doe, an intrepid, 30-something Wampanoag social worker, began having recurring dreams: familiar-looking people from another time addressing her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie was perplexed and a little annoyed — why couldn’t they speak English? Later, she realized they were speaking Wampanoag, a language no one had used for more than a century.

These events sent her and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities on an odyssey that would uncover hundreds of documents written in their ancestral language, lead Jessie to a earn herself a masters degree in linguistics at MIT, and result in something that had never been done before – bringing a language alive again in an American Indian community after many generations with no native speakers. With commitment, study groups, classes, and communitywide effort, many are approaching fluency. Jessie’s young daughter Mae is the first native speaker in more than a hundred years.