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?