Several years ago, when my daughter was quite small, I was watching a group of kids play kickball at the park. At some point along the way, the ball went sailing through the air and the kicker was off and running, quickly rounding the bases. The poor little kid in the outfield was right under the ball, hands out . . . and he missed it. Some of the other kids gathered around him, jeering and yelling. The one comment that stood out for me was this one:
“Can't you catch a ball? What's the matter with you? You mentally challenged or something?”
Now, when I was a kid, we would have said something similar, except we would have used the word, “retarded.” The sentiment was the same, however. No matter how politically correct we try to make our speech, the underlying attitudes and values will out.
I have lately found myself in a position where I come in contact frequently with a person I won't name or describe here in order to protect my innocence. Let's call him “Al.” Al seems like a nice guy. He's laid back and cool in many ways. He goes way out of his way to make sure he is politically correct in all that he says. For instance, he thanked me for completing a “herculean task” — and then immediately backtracked and tried to find a non-gender-based thing to say instead, he landed on Psyche-ian? I just blinked.
It is often difficult to be female in a male-dominated profession. Some men don't know what to say or how to deal. They have pre-conceived notions of what women are like and frankly, some of those notions involve concepts like “can't understand technology” or “not good with computers” or worse, “not logical” or “overly emotional” or maybe even just plain “not as smart as guys.” Some guys try really hard to shove those thoughts aside and deal with the woman in front of them as an individual, allowing her to prove her own worth.
Some instead rely on new-speak to try to shield themselves from being seen as a sexist. Unfortunately, changing the words is not the same as changing the attitudes, no matter how much our culture may try to tell us otherwise. If we find ourselves consistently feeling defensive about our speech patterns and worried that we may offend, then what we probably need to do is examine our underlying values and belief systems.
If you're afraid people might think you're a racist, then what you're really afraid of is that you might BE a racist. And you probably are. This is something I have struggled with, since growing up in the south. I was in all honesty raised to be a racist. My parents picked what school I would go to based on the number of black people there. The fewer the better. I missed out on going to a larger, better funded school for middle school and high school because my parents felt it would be better for me not to go to school with blacks. They were afraid of the black kids, as if all of them were carrying weapons and waiting in the hallway to slit some poor little white girl's throat or possibly worse.
I believe that their attitudes were mainly due to ignorance, an ignorance they attempted to perpetuate by keeping us kids from having any more access to different types of people than they had.
Still, that's how I was raised. I'm aware of those biases and tendencies in myself and I hate them. I could get defensive and self-righteous, letting my actions and body language practically scream out “I'm not a racist, dammit!!!” but it wouldn't change a thing. The only way I can change my biases is by confronting them head on and examining them and dissecting them and letting them die a natural death-by-logic, not by pretending they don't exist.
I've heard it said in reference to growing up that if you do everything your parents say just because they said it, then you are controlled by your parents and you have not grown up. If you do not do anything your parents say and deliberately do the opposite just because they said it, then you are still controlled by your parents and you still have not grown up.
If you treat an individual a certain way, whether you're openly hostile or deliberately over-pleasant, just because of their race or gender, then you are being controlled by your biases. Changing the words around won't fix that.