31 May 2005

Younger and wiser

My eleven-year-old sister not too long ago was listening to a discussion between my mom and me about a certain genderqueer college student back home who had received hate mail from a conservative group on campus. She asked why they would do that. I gave her an honest but a little flip answer, and she pressed the issue. She was not asking a rhetorical question. She seriously wanted to understand why anyone would be bothered by someone who was not a boy and not a girl. I ended up providing a fairly long discussion of privilege, power, and threatening the status quo, and I think she started to intellectually understand. But this kind of ... not homophobia exactly, nor classical sexism or misogyny ... bigotry just didn't really make sense.

My sister also continues to find baffling the idea that anyone would be bothered by the idea of two men or two women being married. This bafflement, also, is not rhetoric: the idea simply doesn't make sense to her.

Her middle school includes in its curriculum a number of books about what it was like to be Black in the South under Jim Crow. I think she sort of understands institutional racism, and she was reading one of these emotionally challenging books around the time that she asked about this genderqueer college student. In our discussion we compared that racism to modern institutional homophobia and sexism, and that bigotry to modern bigotry. I do feel like it's important for her to know and understand these things, and yes, she's fully capable to doing so as a precocious eleven-year-old, but it's almost a shame to introduce such issues to her. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone shared her innocent bafflement?

To her credit, my sister is bothered by immediate things, and understands that they're problematic. She has often complained about a certain response from many of her friends: "Yes I support same-sex marriage," these eleven- and twelve-year-old girls say, "but it's not like it matters to any of us." My sister doesn't quite articulate the problem with this attitude yet, but she recognizes that there's a problem, and I've tried to suggest both a way to understand it and a way to counter it.

My sister, as I said, doesn't seem to mind that there is college student who is neither a boy nor a girl. It seems that in my sister's world-view there are a number of distinct genders, including:
  • boys. Boys are weird, annoying, and sometimes have cooties.
  • girls who are older than my sister. Girls who are older than my sister are cool.
  • girls who are younger than my sister. Girls who are younger than my sister can be fun to play with, especially when my sister can pretend that she has a younger sister, but sometimes they get annoying.
  • big brothers. Big brothers are boys, my sister reluctantly admits, but they aren't as bad as _boys_, and only very rarely have cooties.
  • friends. My sister's friends are all smart, all come from upper-middle-class families with educated parents, and all play basketball. And some of them are starting to notice my sixteen-year-old brother (who is objectively cute, a star debater, sings, and has a steady girlfriend).
  • grownups. It's not clear whether grownups are actually real people or if, like teachers and her friends' parents, grownups are just there to make snacks and discuss homework.
  • Daddy.
  • Mommy.
In the abstract there are "boys and men", "girls and women", and "people who aren't either boys or girls", and in the abstract most grownups fit into the first two categories. But in practice they are all in the third category, and even the definitions of "Mommy" and "Daddy" have more to do with the actual people and less to do with their genders.

There used to be other categories. "People with beards," if my memory is correct, was one of them, and "babies!" might still be another. My sister knows that girls and boys can't play in the same sports leagues because boys are weird and annoying. My sister is also fully aware of other gender-based segregation or specific integration, and generally approves of the affirmative-action kind and disapproves of the classical sexism kind. We live in a pretty white town, one with a not-entirely-positive record on institutional racism, but I think the only role that race plays in my sister's actual life (almost all her classmates are white) is that they have some sort of Native American cultural appreciation programming each year in school.

I wish gender and race played less of a role in my life. Instead, I regularly enjoy laughing with my Indian and Latino friends about spicy food, and Jewish jokes are not uncommon around here (gay jokes are even more common). I often make comments about how "boys are weird", and even though my gender distinctions are accompanied by informed feminist commentary, I wonder whether they need to be made.

I would rather be proactive, intentionally finding male friends to dance with to remind everyone that social dance need not be gendered, or intentionally supporting female friends who want to be math or CS majors. We still need to be sensitive to race, to whether and how it correlates with other social and economic dimensions. But it's been years since I've attended an anti-racism, or even an anti-sexism, workshop, and I'm feeling behind. And there's something very attractive about a romanticized eleven-year-old outlook: race doesn't exist, boys have cooties, girls are either cool or little-sister material, and no one else has a gender.

Or maybe I just like the part where grownups' only job is to provide for kids.

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