George Song

Being an Ally Means Getting It Wrong Sometimes

August 28, 2020 (updated September 4, 2020)

Recently, there was an exchange at work that bothered me. It happened in a small private Slack channel about social justice. The company’s HR manager announced that she added a “Preferred Personal Pronoun” field to the HR system. It’s a select-one field with three choices:

  • He/Him
  • She/Her
  • They/Them

Another person in the channel, who is part of the community impacted by this issue, suggested a couple of changes:

  1. Remove “preferred” from the label

    Affected person: Remove the word preferred from the “Preferred Personal Pronoun” label, since preference implies that it can be ignored.

    HR manager: “Hmm, I didn’t pick up on it that way,” but will look into removing the word from the label.

    Possible intention: Trying to be more inclusive.

    Unintended outcome: Your offhand remark invalidates my feelings and experiences. It makes me feel like my gender identity is something I have to justify, when most people are moving though life without having to even think about it.

  2. Use a text field instead of select-one

    Affected person: Use a text field instead of select-one to allow people to put whatever they want as their pronoun.

    HR manager: Will look into adding an “other” selection with a text box.

    Possible intention: Good point—there, problem solved.

    Unintended outcome: Other? Can I feel even more, well, othered?

Intention vs. Outcome

Of course I don’t know exactly how both of them felt, and the situation is far more nuanced and can’t be reduced or summarized neatly, but hopefully you get the point that words do matter.

It may seem like an exaggeration when you’re part of the privileged group, but interactions like this can make a person feel further marginalized, dehumanized, and even attacked, regardless of the best intentions.

Another trope reinforced by this interaction is that the affected person is, once again, in the position to do the educating, rather than the privileged person doing their own research and critical thinking. Regardless of intention, it makes the effort seem meaningless and the outcome careless.

One of My Own Mistakes

In a private follow-up conversation with the affected person, I asked for feedback on my own interactions with her. She pointed out that during the hiring process, the company doesn’t formally ask candidates for their pronouns, and that I asked for her pronoun well after an offer was extended. She made couple suggestions:

  1. I should have asked the first time I met her.
  2. I should have offered my own pronoun before asking.

By not taking these simple steps, I reinforced harmful gender normative behaviors. I certainly never asked for pronouns from other people we’ve interviewed or hired. Why is that?

From her perspective, these are the mistakes I made:

  1. I assumed how a woman should look and sound.
  2. I didn’t attempt to perceive her as a whole person until she was hired.
  3. By not offering my own pronoun, and by not asking people who appear to fit neatly into the gender box, I othered her.

I had to ask myself, in my entire life, how many times have I been asked for my pronoun in a way that questioned my gender? How many times have I had to struggle with myself about what my pronoun is? Exactly zero. By assuming my experience is the normal experience, I actively caused harm to another person that I care about.

She suggested Natalie Reed’s excellent The Null HypotheCis article as a more in-depth exploration of reframing the gender question. I encourage you to take the time and space to read, reflect, and gain a bit more empathy.

Justice Work Is Hard Work

You may think, why make a mountain out of a mole hill? Wasn’t it great when things were simple and clear cut? The fact is that things are not, and never were, simple and clear cut. They were only conveniently simple and clear cut when you choose to go along, perhaps even a little uncomfortably, with the side that wields the power.

Most of us wield power of some kind, even if we belong to a marginalized group. None of us can do the right thing all the time. I mess up, and you’ll mess up too. The key is to listen, recognize, acknowledge, educate, and activate.

Keep learning how to accept critical feedback graciously, even if it makes you feel bad. Keep learning how to spot injustices, big or small. Keep learning about and keep expanding your own capacity to make meaningful changes to correct those injustices.

So, About That Pronoun Field…

One month after the Slack exchange, the select-one field with three choices is still labeled “Preferred Personal Pronoun” in the HR system.

Update (September 4, 2020)

After another misstep in changing the pronoun field as a response to this article, and an impassioned follow-up by the affected person in the Slack channel, the HR system now has a text field labeled “Personal Pronoun.”

One. Step. At. A. Time.