Learning About ‘They’: How A Common Pronoun Can Be A Toxic Racial Reference
Note: This article is not about the use of ‘they’ as a gender identifier.
We had some rioting and looting last month when the Floyd/BLM protests kicked in. Just one night. But that is not what this is about either.
After that night of looting I talked to a friend in Florida who is originally from here in New York state, but relocated to a gated community (why?). She immediately started in with “all they want is…” followed by a rant that bunched every person of color into one group called ‘they’. I stopped her and broke it down for her but she chose willful ignorance and emotion. I told her that was a racist generalization and she hung up.
But my mind kept working through the brief exchange and the use of this incredibly common pronoun. I thought about how often I had used it in the same way about a group of people I disagreed with (Trump voters, for example). As the weeks passed and the complexities of racism in America started becoming a reality to a lot of white people, I started hearing this usage a lot. On both sides. They hate America. They want to destroy history. They only care about money. They only care about power. You get my drift.
This is not a small thing because this simple four letter word instantly divides us, regardless of the fact that every individual is their own unique set of flaws, imperfections, and qualities, both good and bad. ‘They’ implies a completely shared point of view that is rigidly adhered to or a person becomes ostracized. This is a partial definition of facism where ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong and ‘we’ will not tolerate the difference.
When I was growing up, the term ‘melting pot’ was an optimistic description of the idealized American population. All kinds could live here and blend together amiably, with no ‘they’. It was and is a myth, not because I want it to be one, but because the experience of the others (not my tribe, religion, political affiliation, gender, etc.) is not equal to my own. I am a white, male, middle class boomer, perhaps the most privileged caste to ever live on this earth. But that privilege came from our exploitation of the ‘others’.
You may wonder where this is going. Maybe I’m stating the obvious. But that is exactly the point. Anti-racism requires personal assessment of our thoughts and actions in a different light, from a variety of perspectives. It isn’t easy, no matter how good your intent, because this is programmed into us as assumptions and beliefs that are deep and that we are often unaware of.
BLM and other movements for social justice are actively breaking up these assumptions and biases. And many people are terrified by that and do what terrified people do: they lash out like my Florida friend. But all of us have to push back, call them out, call ourselves out. It is the task of our time and failure is not an option.