I want to talk about words again. Specifically, one type of word – “they” or “them.”
I’m just going to come right out and say it -“they” is a risky word.
Just to be clear, it is not a bad word, by any means. The word ‘they” has lots and lots of uses, starting with a simple way to refer to a group of people and continuing on from there. It is excellent as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, especially in a language that has yet to come up with anything better, or at least anything that has really caught on. ‘They’ or ‘them’ can be really useful words in many different contexts, and I am not trying to claim otherwise.
However, “they” can also be a divisive word. When you pair the word “them” with “us” it takes on a new meaning. ‘They” starts to mean “not us.”
This is when it gets risky.
It is very easy to use the word “them” when talking about a group of people of which you are not a part. I might say “them” when I’m talking about cisgendered men or allistic people as these are groups which are definitely not me. However, what if there was a good chance that I was also talking TO cisgendered men or allistic people?
From my perspective, it always feels a bit weird when someone is talking to me, and then refers to a group of which I am a part as “them.” Recently I had a short back-and-forth with someone on a forum who, while talking to me, repeatedly referred to females as “them” and “they.” It was odd. I think he perhaps did not realize that he was talking to a female-bodied person.
Now, that particular instance was not particularly offensive. It was just strange. However, it can get offensive, or at least bothersome, quite quickly and easily. Especially when it’s paired with an “us.” I think it is very important, when writing, to stay aware of word usage. To notice who we are referring to as “them,” to pay attention to the manner in which we are doing to, to notice if we are separating “them” from “us.” And then to think about if that’s something we actually want to do.
I mean, sometimes it is a thing we want to do. Sometimes I am explicitly addressing a very specific group of people. Or maybe there is a group of people who I really do not want to be addressing. Maybe I want to create distance between an “us” group and a “them” group.
But then, maybe I don’t. In which case, I need to be careful. When I wrote my post Autism and Race, it was something I put a lot of effort into. The “us” I wanted to create was everyone on the autism spectrum, regardless of race. However, because I am white it would have been very easy to start saying “them” when referring to autistic people of color. Doing so, however, would have created a divide that I really did not want. The same thing can happen when I am talking about disability. I want “us” to be everyone with a disability, regardless of visibility or severity. Sometimes, though, I am specifically talking about people with disabilities that I do not share, such as people with physical disabilities or people who are non verbal. If you are a part of one of those groups, I still want you to be part of “us.”
Which brings me to another important point – I generally assume that my readership is diverse (at least partly because I want my readership to be diverse). Do I want someone reading my blog to suddenly find themselves (gender neutral singular) as part of a “them?” Well… maybe sometimes. But mostly no, no I do not. So whenever I write, I try to keep this in mind. I think everyone who write should keep it in mind.
When talking *about* a group of people, referring to that group as “them” means that you are not talking *to* them. Is that really something you want?
It’s something to think about, at least.