The Power of Pronouns

I remember during one of our first class discussions on Dawn, Dr. McCoy admitted that she had always experienced problems in trying to read the “ooloi” species within the novel as neither male nor female but sexless—she caught herself having implicitly assigned a gender to the ooloi even as they were constantly referred to as “it.” Similarly, I found myself in a battle against my own unconscious inclination to read Gan from Bloodchild as female, even though he is described as a male and referred to as “he.” I’m not sure whether this had to do with the fact that throughout the semester, a great deal of protagonists in Octavia Butler novels we’ve encountered thus far have been female, such as Anyanwu, Mary, Shori, and so on, and that that guided my assumptions. It’s also possible that, within Bloodchild, given that the story involves a pregnancy, I unconsciously assumed that Gan was a female, since according to the logic of the “real” world only females can become pregnant (as far as I know).

Yet after having self-consciously trained myself to try as hard as I could to read Gan as a male, I was affected in an entirely different way by the story. Who knew that the seemingly space-alien idea of a male pregnancy could make me feel, for lack of a better word, so uncomfortably weird? Anyway, the main reason I bring these issues up is to discuss the importance of pronouns, and how the way they are read affects identity formation. For instance, at the talk given yesterday by Black and Pink organizers kyem brown and Julia Sáenz on Queer/Trans Incarceration and Black Communities,” one of the discriminatory practices pertaining to the incarceration of trans folk concerned the fact that, as they noted (and whose source I cannot dig up at the moment), New York prison law regulations dictate that transmen and transwomen must be filed and processed according to the name and gender assigned at birth. This is despite the fact that such a practice disregards the name and gender with which these prisoners identify. So as far as I understand if a transwoman refers to herself or has changed her name to “Jane,” as an inmate in prison she will still be forcibly referred to as, say, “John” and “he/him” if that was the name and gender assigned at birth. There can no doubt be some traumatic consequences in having your identity so easily effaced and disavowed simply by the use of a pronoun or name.

Now admittedly, given my own positionality, this is not an example to which I can closely relate. Yet its essence rings true in other, albeit “lighter” circumstances. For instance, as someone with a name commonly associated and read as a “girl’s name”—I have heard numerous times how Nikita is a relatively common name for Indian girls—I have experienced my share of instances in which someone has mistaken me or assumed that I must be a female simply because of my name. The most recent iteration of this occurred just yesterday. This Friday, I have to attend a conference and will therefore have to miss class, so I emailed one of the people in charge so that she may provide me an official notice that I can give it to my Friday teachers. (And to be honest I really can’t afford another unexcused absence.) So anyway, she agreed, and sent me a formal excusal from my Friday classes. Here is one of the lines:

“Though Nikita will be missing classes on April 10, please know that she will be representing SUNY Geneseo, sharing her research experience and interacting with students from 21 other SUNY institutions.”

This kind of thing happens so frequently that at this point I usually don’t bother to correct anyone unless it becomes necessary in my opinion. I don’t want to cast blame, but rather show how easy it is to misread and presume someone’s gender identity from a name, or how such a miniscule thing as the use of a pronoun can profoundly alter or disavow someone’s identity. Although for me it is just annoying and even slightly humorous, I’m sure that for others, for whom these kinds of linguistic offenses are part of their daily lives, the consequences can be much more profound.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Pronouns

  1. Interesting post Nikita. Just the same as you mentioned that Dr. McCoy and yourself mistakenly refer to the characters in Octavia Butler’s novels as a sex that is not assigned to them, I sometimes find myself doing the same thing. Interestingly so, I only began to realize it more when Dr. McCoy began to point it out when she refers to Nikanj as a ‘he.’ The value of class discussions are very invaluable as I speak for myself. Certain things are, as Clarissa point out in one of her recent post, “only obvious if it is brought to one’s attention” whether in the discussion, footnotes within a text, or like Butler’s Afterword to “Bloodchild” which compelled readers to think about why it would be seen as a slave story.
    In reference to the speakers from the Black and Pink organization, though I was unable to attend, I am displeased at the New York prison law regulations which disavows the importance of transmen’s and transwomen’s identity. Since I have entered in Geneseo, my sensitivity to certain topics of grown to the point where sometimes I cannot enjoy acting without thinking about how my actions may affect someone else from another group. Now I am not saying I dislike thinking about my actions because it takes away from enjoyment, but I want to stress however, that it is because of that thinking I am able to enjoy acting differently without negatively affecting someone else. That is a result of the value of the classroom discussions – something law regulators seem to lack. This, my friend, I strongly believe is what Butler tries to invoke through her characters for readers to realize and think about. As if to say “realize, think, and grow now. You can have a greater enjoyment later.”
    And finally, about your name. I must admit that I had thought “a girl’s name?” when you first said your name back in our African American Literature class. However so, I ensured to not act up such assumption knowing, as a result of a past experience, that it has become “normal (what is ‘normal?’)” for names to sound differently than the sex we expect them to be associated with. I can see the humorous side as well, and I am laughing right now too. Let me pretend to be you and imagine what you thought as the class said their name as Dr. McCoy requested. “Okay, it’s about to be my turn. Let’s see the faces as I say my name. I want to be amused.” And though that may not be your thought, surely, that would be my thought if people continued to associate my name wrongly and frequently. Nevertheless, one has to even understand how the destructive the power of pronouns to one’s identity was developed. We are taught these pronouns. To understand is to reteach and relearn. This re-teaching and re-learning is exactly what the Oankalis are doing.

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