In our American Dream Game Workshop, we talk a lot about pronouns. That’s because we have one character in the game who is a trans woman and another who has non-binary gender expression. And when scenarios come up in the game that affect either or both of these characters, we get into some pretty tough conversations. Usually these stem from players’ curiosity and confusion, but sometimes it’s downright resistance.
I can’t keep all these pronouns straight!
How am I supposed to know what to call anyone anymore?!
‘They’ is plural. I just can’t use it for one person.
These are comments coming from cisgender people (meaning, people whose gender identity corresponds to what they were assigned at birth) who arrive at our sessions fired up and ready to learn about race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, and disability. Yet this topic is such a challenge for so many of them, we sometimes think they would spend the entire two-hour session arguing about it if we let them.
The impact of this pushback is harmful, which is why we work to help people evolve their thinking past these kinds of reactions. But I don’t believe the intent is hateful — at least in the case of the participants in our workshops. My sense, instead, is that this struggle is mostly about the unease and discomfort that comes from the feeling that everyone and everything around you is changing, and how could you possibly be expected to keep up. This underlying frustration and self-doubt can look on the outside like exasperation and total shut-down.
Most of us experience these feelings in some aspect of our lives where we’re less knowledgeable or lack confidence. For me, it’s Common Core math. Grade school math is always changing and when my daughters ask me for help with their homework, I usually don’t even know where to begin. What’s worse, I have struggled with math for as long as I can remember and I definitely haven’t gotten over my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Blakely, making me miss playing foursquare with my friends during recess to correct my marked-up worksheets.
So when I’m staring down my kids’ math problems, a lot of emotions start to bubble up inside of me that are about a lot more than math. I feel annoyed at the actual words being used (what the heck is a number line?!); impatience that my kids can’t just memorize their multiplication tables like I did (or tried to do); the shame of my 8-year-old self when I could never finish my math homework; and embarrassed that my grown self can’t figure any of this out now.
What does all of this look like at our kitchen table on a weekday evening? Exasperation and total shut-down.
Not knowing what to do and say when the stakes are high does not feel good. And instead of admitting we’re struggling with new concepts and asking for help, we tend to push back or lash out.
I’ve been working on getting better at the math thing and, in the process, learning that this “new math” might not be so bad after all. It’s more flexible. It encourages kids to think about how to solve problems in all sorts of ways versus the math by rote of my childhood.
This is why I know that folks struggling with pronouns can get better, too. The words we use change all the time. Think about “friend” (it wasn’t always a verb!) and “literally.” We may hate these new uses for a while, but we adapt. And we’re fine.
My math meltdowns have no effect on the direction of math curriculum design and, even worse, they mess with my daughters’ motivation, confidence, and skill-building.
Pronoun meltdowns won’t get us anywhere either. As a society, we’re making some progress in talking about and pushing for more acceptance around gender identity. Getting mad about that won’t stop the movement. But it will bring harm and hurt to others.
So, let’s get to the root of these meltdowns so that we can do better. Let’s not allow our attachment to “is it a boy or a girl?” get in the way of learning how to be more flexible and accepting of our fellow human beings. It’s about a lot more than language, after all.