March 10, 2018

Gender in the Classroom Part 2: What’s in a Pronoun?

Reading Time:   3 mins

What’s In a Pronoun?

We, she, he, I, you, it, and them.”

We, she, he, I, you, it, and them.”

We, she, he, I, you, it, and them...”

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Mary White, made us sing these pronouns everyday. It’s a song I sang as I typed them above. It’s a song I’ve taught the students I’ve tutored. Sure, there are more pronouns in the English lexicon than in the chant above. Yet, this was how Mrs. White helped a class of twenty-something eight and nine-year-olds remember what pronouns are. We knew which pronouns to attribute to singular nouns vs. plural nouns, and we also knew which ones were qualifiers for males, females, and objects.

This was well over 20 years ago when gender normatives were widespread. There was no overt opposition: If you were born with female gonads, you were a girl or woman. In which case, your pronoun was ‘she’. Conversely, if you were born with male gonads, you were called a boy or man. Your pronoun, in that case, was ‘he’. Today, the world is a more diverse place. People are challenging the identities that they are not comfortable conforming to. They are denouncing the male and female binary construct. Individuals who do not fall within gender normatives are referred to as non-binary, a descriptor for any gender identity which does not fit the male and female binary.

Though I grew up in a traditional Haitian household, my parents did not assign gender-conforming roles to my brother and me.

I had to take the trash out, mow the lawn, paint, shovel snow, and rake leaves. It’s the reason why as a young girl, I knew the difference between a Phillips screwdriver and a flat-blade. My brother had to vacuum, wash dishes, dust, sweep, and mop. We took turns doing our gender-nonconforming chores as well as the conforming ones. Despite having been raised without these biases, I haven’t always been open-minded in regards to other non-normative ideologies.

As an advocate for marginalized people, a teaching artist whose pedagogy is informed by social equity, diversity, and inclusion, and as a human being, it is important that I create equity in the classroom and in my interactions. I am meeting a lot more non-binary people. I am learning that what Mrs. White taught me about pronoun attribution wasn’t wrong, but that today, in 2018, pronouns are being used differently than they were when I was in the third grade.

There is no formula as to how an interaction with a non-binary person should flow.

In one instance, I am learning that when I meet someone and introduce myself, I should state my name and pronoun, giving the other person the freedom (should they wish), to do the same. I’ve been told it is okay to ask someone what their preferred pronoun is if it isn’t offered. I have, however, heard that doing either of the aforementioned could potentially oust someone who wasn’t prepared to come out. I am also learning that it is okay to not offer my pronoun or ask for someone’s pronoun first, but to allow the other person to self-advocate.

The matter of pronouns is a delicate subject for both binary and non-binary individuals. I realize that above all else, it’s about honoring how a person wants to be addressed. To call someone anything other than how they want to be addressed is calling them out of their name and minimizes how they see themselves. We don’t have to agree with it. We don’t even have to understand it. We should, however, respect people’s choices to name themselves.

What’s in a pronoun? It’s a non-binary individual’s value — the opportunity to show up as their whole selves and to be called by their right name.

AnJu Hyppolite is a Brooklyn-born, Queens-bred award-winning actress, author, advocate, poet, and copy editor who works at the intersection of theater arts, literacy advocacy, and social equity pedagogy. She is a current member of the Teaching Artist Affairs Committee.