Becoming What We’re Called

Alice Walker
Alice Walker

I’m in a Creative Nonfiction writing class right now, and for yesterday’s class we read Alice Walker’s essay, “Becoming What We’re Called.” The essay is about Walker’s reaction to a friend saying, “I’ll see you later, you guys.” to a group including her. Walker’s reaction is to tell her that she doesn’t particularly like being class a “guy” Her essay evolves into an insightful piece about being woman, being black, and being proud of who one is.

She then moves to a powerful part of the piece where she describes finishing Warrior Marks a film about female genital mutilation that she made with a friend. She describes the premiers of the film in many European and American cities, and how many women would call them “you guys” each night, when asking questions about the fim.

The women asking us these questions seemed blind to us, and in their blindness we felt our uniqueness as female creators disappear. We had recently been in societies where some or all of a woman’s genitalia were forcibly cut from her by other women who collaborated–wholeheartedly, by now–with men. To us, the refusal to acknowledge us as women seemed a verbal expression of this same idea. It made us quite ill.

For me, this is where the essay hits its heart: the dissolution of femininity inherent in “you guys.” The removal of the female gender, or the debasing of it to something other; to the masculine. I find this bit of the essay particularly compelling.

She continues, ending with this bit, describing her friend:

When I look at her I see a black woman daily overcoming incredible odds to live a decent, honest, even merry life. Someone who actively nurtures community wherever she goes. […] I don’t respect “guys” enough to obliterate the woman that I see by calling her by their name.

I find this debate about the use of “you guys” to be particularly compelling. While in Ecuador and using Spanish, when I was in mixed company, we were called “chicos.” I have a particular memory of one of my male peers, an American, saying goodbye to a group of women at the table. He got up and said, “Chao….chicas.” with a long pause there in the middle. Then he turned to us and said, “but if I were still sitting with you, you’d all be chicos.”

We looked at him like he was about to get a beating, and he laughed it off. We often made fun of these language absurdities. But upon return, I found English similarly lacking. Now, I don’t know what to call people. I often say “you all” or use some sort of general term of endearment like, “hello, dears/lovelies/friends.” But I still don’t have the vocabulary for mixed groups. And it gets awkward. Especially when you recognize the fact that some people don’t even identify with male or female.

It makes me wonder, do we really become what we’re called? Or does it just make it that much harder to become who we really are, in the face of the normalization of gender?

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16 thoughts on “Becoming What We’re Called

  1. In my opinion, “guys” is completely gender-neutral used in that sense (the 2nd person plural). I’ve used it my whole life for boys and girls. And now to be told it’s anti-feminist…well, it’s just kind of annoying to me, to be honest. It’s the same as when people get upset about the word ‘woman’ because it has ‘man’ in it – that’s not the etymology at all, ‘woman’ because it’s current form because of ANALOGY to the word ‘man’, not because of derivation from it.

    So I don’t know. It seems a little hypersensitive to me. Because then, if instead of ‘you guys’, you say ‘you ladies’, people might get upset because we’re being called out and separated based on their gender.

    I think the dividing line should be the intention behind the language. Nobody (that I’ve ever known) says ‘you guys’ in order to marginalize or masculinize women. You don’t have to like it, just as in how I don’t particularly like ‘y’all’, but it just doesn’t seem like something worth being upset over. There are much bigger breaches of women’s rights out there.

  2. It’s in dealing with subjects like this that I’m grateful for my Texan vocabulary, wherein any group of people is “Y’all.” :p

    Seriously, though, I never really thought about the absurdity of things like 1 man making a group of mostly women “Chicos” instead of “chicas,” even though I know that is true. Nor did I EVER make the leap to “you guys,” because it’s always seemed so generic.

    Maybe sticking to “you all,” “y’all,” and “everyone” is the best idea.

  3. Tiffani, I totally agree about the aspect of intention. I’ve used “you guys” for awhile as well, and I do think it has started to take on gender neutrality. But it’s still rooted in the patriarchy, I think, because it’s not “you gals” or whatever, it’s “you guys.” So I guess I have mixed feelings about it.

    “y’all” is good stuff, Shell524. I think we should all use it all the time.

  4. I try to use “you folks” or “everybody” when I think of it, but I also default to “you guys” as being gender-neutral in modern US speech for people under 50.

  5. I like the word “human”.

    As in: ” See you humans later!”

    It’s to the point and makes people think you might be a robot. Or an alien. Either way, pretty cool.

    Actually, I usually use “y’all”, or “folks”.

  6. I like to use “people”. That’s what we are. So in mixed company it would be Hello People! But never You People. I HATE the phrase You People, it’s homogenizing to me. Like everyone inthe group is the same type of person or people.

    Everyone is also one I use frequently, along with Hello Guys and Gals!

    But I will admit to have using the Guys term to mean male and female. I never thought of it in the way you present it here. Good Stuff.

  7. I was just visiting with some friends on this very subject last weekend. I’m not sure why the objection to y’all, personally (Texas resident) I find yall wonderfully gender neutral. I am a woman, with all the beauty and baggage that brings. I’m not asking anyone to pay homage to it, just don’t ignore it.

    It reminds me of the days when we introduced ourselves as Mrs. John Doe. All of who I am was reduced to three letters – Mrs. The sum of all I amounted to was reduced to my marital status.

    In this day and time I have regained my first and last names while staying married. Perhaps in time, my gender will be returned as well.

  8. I’m working on switching over because people find it offensive. I don’t, but I’m not going to insist on using a phrase that I know really makes some people upset unless I have good reason to. And I don’t apart from it being short and easy and informal. “All” is more awkward, but it’s what I use. (Or y’all when in places that wouldn’t draw stares.) The funny thing is that Spanish has ungendered form for y’all, but we really don’t. (“We” being most English speakers – y’all is regarded with suspicion where I live.)

  9. I’m from the UK where it sounds quaint, but I use folks. Because not everyone is a guy, especially when you’re in a customer service role trying to be polite.

  10. I don’t respect “guys” enough to obliterate the woman that I see by calling her by their name.

    Chrissy, would you explain the context of this statement a bit more?

  11. Sure, Donna.

    Walker pretty much continued to list the traits of her friend as a strong, solid woman who she respects. That is the last line of the essay. I don’t respect “guys” enough to obliterate the woman that I see by calling her by their name. She’s talking about how women are obliterating their identities by referring to themselves as “guys.” At least, that’s my interpretation.

    The lack of respect for “guys” seems to stem from somewhere else, though. She talks about FGM in the middle of the essay, and I think it might stem back to that.

    I’m not sure. Pretty much the quote is in context of how much Walker respects her woman friend who uses “guys” as a gender neutral term. Walker seems to think it’s entirely gendered, and that by calling her friend a “guy” she’d be removing her identity as a woman.

    Hope that helps a bit.

  12. I used to use “guys” as gender neutral, but my daughter uses “guys” to refer to boys, and contrasts it with “girls,” so I’m trying to find other words.

  13. Yes, Judgments do persist.
    Having beautiful friends is to me the grand experience. To enjoy them for their heartfelt joy expressed continues to be of prime significance as the years pass on.

    What you call me is not the key. It is the intent behind your words. Words are the stumbling blocks.
    Just as the ability to discern their heartfelt meaning. Looking behind the voice and the words used, as long as they are not abusively directed….that’s the test for me, the hearer of the words.
    If those words come from the heart – rejoice. If not- forget it.
    It don’t matter.
    Move beyond judgment. In all areas of life.

    THAT is now our challenge.

  14. I love Walker’s essay and I wholeheartedly agree with your summation. Patriarchy has disappeared us in every way except the pornographic. We’re even called men now and somehow women have been duped into defending it. It breaks my heart. Thanks for your thoughtful response to this.

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