Why Is ‘White Male’ the Default?

Maria Pawlowska wonders why our language is dominated by a presumption of white maleness.

I’ve recently had the dubious pleasure if having to undergo minor surgery. I wasn’t too excited about the whole thing, and particularly not about the local anesthetic, which as my GP kindly warned—was “extremely” painful. As a way of managing my pre-operative anxiety, I googled the surgery where my offending lip was to go under the knife. I clicked the “doctors” link and quickly located the pleasant North-African surgeon who was going to make me hurt real badly a few days later.

But after looking at the website for a few moments, I no longer cared so much about my doctor but was wondering, instead, why only female doctors have a “Mrs.” or “Miss” in parentheses next to their names (and no, none of the male doctors had gender obvious names!). There were no pictures on the website either. A “Dr.” simply signified a male doctor, and a “Dr.” with a qualifier identified the females. I’m not even going to go into the ridiculous British tradition of identifying all women by their marital status on everything from doctor’s notes to credit cards, but I will limit myself to ranting about the identification of their gender in general.

I’ve recently been re-reading some of Gloria Steinem’s classical essays and—in a way—I find it pretty awful how so much of what she had written about is still relevant decades later. The “white male” as default is one of these issues. It seems that the basic model for “doctor” is still male and so, even in my 21st-century, central London surgery, it’s the female doctors who need their gender identified as a deviation from the norm. In the medical arena, there’s one exception: nurses. Unless “male” precedes nurse, the assumption is the person in question is female. It’s actually not a coincidence that nurses, who as a prominent (male) British nephrologist recently told me, “are there to follow my orders,” are a predominantly female.

And this “white male unless stated otherwise” policy goes way beyond medicine. It’s just about everywhere you look. A white man who writes books is a writer and will be displayed in the “fiction” part of the bookstore. An Afro-American female is likely to be described as a “woman writer” or an “African-American writer,” and her books are likely to be displayed in “African-American literature” or “women’s writing.”

Of course, there are plenty of women who proudly stand in the “fiction” part of the bookstore next to their male counterparts. But have you ever heard about “male writing?” Or “dude flicks” for that matter? They’re just simply called books and novels if they’re for men and by men. The same goes for sports: he’s a basketball player, but she’s a female basketball player. And for academia: there are professors and female professors. The first being a white male, most likely sporting a beard and thick-framed glasses, and the latter being a somewhat unkempt, sexless creature who is nowhere near as likely to exude natural authority and wisdom. (Use Google images if you don’t believe me.)

♦◊♦

This may seem a non-issue to some, but language isn’t just a means of getting information across. It’s a tool we use to create our mental frameworks. I’m Polish. Slavic languages are different than English in that nouns have genders, and the gender of a word can usually be discerned from the last syllable. So for example, a male director is “dyrektor,” and a female director should theoretically be called “dyrektorka.” (Notice the feminine “ka” at the end of the word.) I say “should” because people really don’t like doing it. There is a huge backlash against it, accusing feminists of creating problems when they ask that the correct terms be used. Just so that you’re clear on that: some of my fellow compatriots think that arguing for the use of gender-appropriate terms is “argumentative and needlessly aggressive.”

So why is it still OK to assume that someone is male until specified otherwise? And how come there is such a strong insistence on using male endings? Well, quite simply, language is a powerful tool; there is a reason why people can (in some countries, at least) be convicted of hate crimes simply by being very vocally racist or homophobic. Our words create reality as they’re describing it. Men have dominated just about every sphere of public life for the best part of recorded history, hence the assumption of “maleness” for a vast majority of professions.

But now we have female doctors, lawyers, professors, and presidents. In fact, we have so many of them (even in heavily male-dominated areas like the physical sciences) that it’s no longer fair, or correct, to assume that the person in question is male. So how about we just collectively get over gender-stereotyping truck drivers, cardiologists, and pre-school teachers? I’m not saying we should aim to stop using gender qualifiers right this second. But it might not be a bad idea to pause and ask yourself why you think you need to specify that the doctor is female and the teacher is male. Is it important? Or is it just not exactly what you would expect?

—Photo Horia Varlan/Flickr

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About Maria Pawlowska

Maria Pawlowska is a healthcare analyst with a passion for reproductive health. She spends her free time trying to stop herself from compulsively buying new books about women, sexuality, gender and sometimes the odd primate study. Maria currently lives in London with her husband and you can reach her at m.pawlowska [@] gatesscholar.org. You can follow her on Twitter @MariaPawlowska.

Comments

  1. In America we addressed the issue of gender designation and language about 20-30 years ago. At various level of government and in the media, gender identification for most professions was changed to something neutral. Policeman and Policewoman was changed to Police Officer, Fireman was changed to Firefighter, Stewardess was changed to Flight Attendant, and so on. There was some initial resistance, but the changes have taken hold pretty well, especially with younger generations (as is usually the case). I agree that it does change the mindset. The neutral language gives a sense that the profession is more open to both genders, whether in practice it actually is or not. Though, here there has never been special designation for female professors or doctors, at least not in my lifetime. Maybe that’s just a British thing. Actually, English dropped the gender versions of “the” long, long ago when Old English started a more aggressive diversion from the Early German language, which modern German still uses today. I’m guessing that kind of structure would make the gender neutralization of a language a lot more difficult.
    In most American bookstores, there are African-American Studies and History and the same with Women’s Studies and History, but those are separated by topic. The authors themselves can be any race or gender.

    • martrevion says:

      Just my opinion. What it boils down to is How comfortable are You being You without being phony or pretentious or even caught up in the snares of people pleasing and trying to fit in and keep up with the jones’ and the rat race. The final question should be “what difference does it make. Now granted, some may feel the default’s needed because they Really Have No Earthly Idea WHO THEY ARE. Example, if preacher has to ask you to address him/her as Reverend so and so, you should wonder what/Not who put him/her in the pulpit in the first place. Even God himself said tell them simply “Iam”……………….

  2. We have a gendered version of a term whenever there’s a perceived scarcity of representation for a particular gender.

    That’s why we have phrases like male model, male nurse, and male rights.

    • “But have you ever heard about “male writing?” Or “dude flicks” for that matter? They’re just simply called books and novels if they’re for men and by men. The same goes for sports: he’s a basketball player, but she’s a female basketball player. ”

      And for sports, well, women can compete in “just basketball” where men also play, but men cannot play in “women’s basketball”. As long as the sex segregation is hermetic for men but open for women, the women’s side will be seen as affirmative action that wouldn’t exist on its own.

  3. Gender qualifiers have always bothered me too. My first experience of it, as a child, was working out what the ‘W’ in WPC stood for – WOMAN Police Constable. As far as I know the British police force has dropped its use, but it’s still commonly seen in news reports and the like.

    But truly, the other part of my gripe is grammatical. We still read reports of a “woman driver”, but never a “man nurse”. Female and male work just fine, thank you.

  4. But after looking at the website for a few moments, I no longer cared so much about my doctor but was wondering, instead, why only female doctors have a “Mrs.” or “Miss” in parentheses next to their names (and no, none of the male doctors had gender obvious names!).
    ah, but the male doctors did have gender obvious names, just not traditionally ‘western’ ones ;)

    Ive only seen “Mrs.” or “Miss” in parentheses if the woman doctor has a non traditionally ‘western’ first name. Some patients prefer women doctors and that practice lets patients know the gender.
    Although youre correct, the practice does automatically default maleness to being a doctor. Instead I suggest “m” or “f” in parentheses after the name of the doctor

  5. “Just so that you’re clear on that: some of my fellow compatriots think that arguing for the use of gender-appropriate terms is ‘argumentative and needlessly aggressive.’ ”

    I they may be correct depending on how the argument is phrased.

    More often than not, the argument in favor of changing language to be more [insert problematic grouping here]-neutral is that failure to use such language is offensive. People are told that saying “woman doctor” instead of “doctor” is offensive.

    However, this claim is spurious when the language in question reflects traditions or common colloquialisms. Very few people saying “Jim is a male nurse,” actually mean to insult Jim. By claiming that a statement not meant to insult Jim actually does insult Jim unintended words and meaning are put into the mouthes of others. By choosing to read a meaning into the statement which is not actually there, intollerance is being projected onto the speaker when the intollerance does not actually exist. Indeed, if it exists anywhere it is in the mind of the listener who makes a conscious choice to be offended.

    Placing the onus on the speaker to regulate her speach ignores the freedom of the listener to choose how to interpret it. When someone hears offensive speach where none was intended, it is the listener creating the problem, not the speaker.

    • Wrong, the onus is not always on the listener to not be offended.

      As a trans woman, I can be offended by language that would seem innocuous to a non-trans person, but would be pretty offensive to a trans person. Given the majority are not trans, they might not KNOW they are being offensive, but the meaning sure is there.

      • Just because you choose to feel offended does not prove that the speaker meant offence. And just because you call me “wrong” does not make you right.

        When labeling an inoffensive statement as “offensive” you are trying to force your views onto someone else, and you have no right to do that. They spoke an inoffensive statement, and you are actively reading offense into it. It is the job of ALL of us to try and understand the meaning of the words spoken by others. If you choose to assign “offensive” to inoffensive speach, it means you have done this job poorly, and you have approached their speach with a closed mind. You became so hung up on the possibility of offense that you were blinded to other meanings. None of this is the fault of the speaker.

        • That’s very interesting Mike. It’s a position which I hadn’t really considered, and I’m not sure I agree with… but interesting nonetheless. I need to think about it.

  6. Peter Houlihan says:

    I think its a real issue, but you may have picked the wrong example to draw awareness to it:

    For various historical reasons two honorifics persist for women, whereas there is only one for men. Whatever the reasons for this many women still prefer to specify themselves as “Miss” or “Mrs.” On this basis it makes sense that the correct honorific is specified for Female Doctor X and it makes equal sense that there is no need to do so for Male Doctor Y: We know hes a “Mr” because thats the only thing a man can be.

    I don’t think that it was specifying that Female Doctor X isn’t male so much as how she might prefer to be addressed. If there were still common distinctions between “Mr” and “Master” I suspect that the male doctors would have their titles similarly appended.

    This said, I’m a little surprised it was considered necessary at all, I can’t see many situations where a patient would be calling them anything except “Doctor.”

  7. Peter Houlihan says:

    Also, its important to remember that “male” is only a default in traditionally white male spheres. When it comes to men trying to access roles traditionally reserved for women it very much goes the other way.

    I don’t think the above applies equally to whiteness though, “white” is very mcuh a default in all desireable positions.

  8. Michael P says:

    “And for academia: there are professors and female professors. The first being a white male, most likely sporting a beard and thick-framed glasses, and the latter being a somewhat unkempt, sexless creature who is nowhere near as likely to exude natural authority and wisdom. ”

    Simply ridiculous. I sort of can’t believe your article is being published here. I will admit, I don’t know about the state of the professorship in the UK–but in the US, this is not at all the case. In fact within 50 years most professors here will be female.

    • Michael P says:

      I should mention that I think 50 years is an overestimation. That model assumes certain trends are slowed or reversed. But I don’t really, personally, believe they will be; probably the number is closer to 20 or 30 years to a predominantly (say 70%) female ivory tower.

  9. Michael P says:

    I’m also not sure the issue is as prevalent as the article would have us believe. Certainly I have read one too many articles online in which it is written, “male nurse,” “woman economist.” (A friend once asked me if that made him a “man editor.”) But aside from that, I think the youth of today do not encounter this often at all. Maybe adults past a certain age qualify things this way.

    Also, on writing: I disagree. You said, “A white man who writes books is a writer and will be displayed in the ‘fiction’ part of the bookstore. An Afro-American female is likely to be described as a ‘woman writer’ or an “African-American writer,” and her books are likely to be displayed in ‘African-American literature’ or ‘women’s writing.’ ”

    First of all, there is no “white male literature” section, and it is not likely that this hypothetical, hypothetically privileged white male author is writing about “white male culture”; so it’s not as if there is a section to which he could potentially belong OTHER than the fiction section. On the other hand, an author who is female and Afro-American is only put into the “African American Literature” or “Women’s Literature” section if what she wrote is primarily concerned with depicting the lives and special struggles facing such people.

    Now, I asked myself, does Toni Morrison get relegated to those sections (so to speak; honestly I think that those sections were created because there was seen a specific demand for this literature, and the creation of a special section accommodated its distribution; but I could be wrong)? No. Does Zora Neale Hurston? No. W.E.B. DuBois? Yes. MLK, Jr.? Yes. James Baldwin? Actually, no.

    On the whole, this idea does not pan out. And of course, when you take away the Afro-American restriction, it is completely untrue. The fiction section abounds with female authors. If they happen to write specifically about women and storylines most likely to interest women, perhaps they get put into the women’s literature section (if there even is one–in the two bookstores down the street, there is not, which I’m sure actually BOTHERS some women). But there are plenty of women in the fiction section. You seem to have realized this in your article, but you forget about it a moment later when you pull out the non-sequitur “dude flicks” followed by “male writing.”

    Now, if I trotted out the idea that maybe there SHOULD be a “Men’s Literature” section, I think that readers would say some variation of, “why? all fiction is white men’s literature,” or “we shouldn’t be segregating ourselves this way to begin with,” etc. In the first case, I hardly think so. The books of Vonnegut, Wolfe, and Eco are as much “men’s literature” as Asimov is “alien and robots’ literature.” In the second case, I don’t think it is segregation. It meets a need for people to feel that there are others out there concerned with the same ideas. When I see the “gay and lesbian literature” section, I actually feel an “oh, good, I don’t have to go SEARCHING.” And, just to point out–Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris (yes, men, but beside the point) don’t get put there. Why? Because their stories are essentially universal. Classification has to do with subject; not with author’s sex or skin color.

  10. thehermit says:

    “Why Is ‘White Male’ the Default?”
    Because- like it or not- white males are the primary creators of the civilisation. But i have no doubt the language will change slowly.

    • In America, but white males don’t make up 50% of this world’s population. Believe it or not, other skin colors besides ‘white’ exist and other skin colors have created civilizations in their own parts of the world.

      • And in those parts of the world, “white male” is not the default. Surprise…

      • thehermit says:

        Yes i believe other colors also exist. Meanwhile, modern surgery- just for example- is the invention of dead white males. Again, It is beyond the question one likes it or not. Yes it’s expressed in the language, so what? What’s the point?

  11. The Bad Man says:

    Much ado about nothing.

    Tell us more about how much you hate white’s and have penis envy?

  12. Monika Platek says:

    I like it a lot. It is very liberating to be see there are more people noting the language power that turns into absurdity. And how interesting that mentioning this makes some man immediately irritated – I read “The Bad Man” comment and laugh – why thinking and analysing should be taken as offence. You do not need dislike white man to see the discrimination pattern in the language, and frankly time to understand that it was Freud not women problem – we are not penis envy; we do not need one, and time to admit it – it is too late talk us into it!
    I really enjoy the article

    • The Bad Man says:

      I read this article and laugh…If this is the only thing you have to complain about then life must be really really good.

      • Michael P says:

        Neither one of you are contributing to the discussion. Be rational and don’t attack people; otherwise, man or woman, you are doing no good.

  13. Can’t really argue against it,
    so what’s coming next is some straight up reflection of male guilt.

    I bet you everything, that it wasn’t white males that thought to expel women writers, or black writers into the afro-american section, or into the women section. I’m quite sure they separated themselves.
    Also, I’m fairly certain that there are female writers to be found in most normal literature section, they just switch to the womens section when their books in some way speak to women specifically.

    Also, it sounds to me that female doctors in britain kinda just need to grow some balls (tehe, get it? balls? since we’re at language?) and drop the “Mrs.”, I’m sure it’s gonna be ok.

    Also pretty sure you Maria don’t really disagree with this, nor intended to install male guilt,
    but oh well, i clarified for you.. do i get a slice of your pay now?

  14. wellokaythen says:

    First, I’m reminded of a story my mother told me recently. She works for a company that made name tags for all the staff. All the men got “Mr.” with their names (or “Dr.” if they had doctorates) and all the women got “Ms.” (or “Dr.” if they had doctorates). My mother protested and made them change her title from “Ms.” to “Mrs.” Her argument was “I’ve been married to that man for 30 years, and putting up with him for 30 years deserves some small recognition, and I’ll be damned if the company was going to deny that incredible feat.” I would recommend letting the individual decide for herself what her title should be.

    Second, I think it’s high time we started destroying these stupid racial categories like “white,” “African American,” etc. For one thing, they are always in a state of flux, never fully consistent over time. Some of the groups of people who have “white privilege” today only achieved that status in the last century or so. In the nineteenth century U.S., if you were from Ireland or Italy or Germany or Poland, “white” society did not really think of you as white, but as something racially “other.” In apartheid South Africa, Japanese people were legally defined as white, while Chinese people were considered Asian and non-white. These categories have always been arbitrary and slippery and founded on illusions anyway.

  15. ‘NURSE’..’NANNY’.. are these not ‘FEMALE’ words just to name a few??!! I think its a great shame that the author comes onto a website designed to promote men’s issues and once again indulges in despicable male-bashing! STOP BASHING MEN! Find me one ‘womens’ website that would carry an article by a man attacking ‘female’ language! You want equality?! Then act equal and treat us men equally!

    • I don’t get it. How is this article bashing men?
      I don’t think it is, it is merely bashing the English language a bit.
      I don’t think MEN have a specific stake in English.. at least I don’t

  16. This could be an interesting topic on some sort of egalitarian, or even feminist, forum. But why is it here?

    I don’t see how this issue is a problem for men, that men need to figure out to improve men’s lives. It sounds more like a complaint ABOUT men, by feminists. So why is it posted here on TGMP?

    • Michael P says:

      To be fair, I think it falls under the category of raising awareness of what people think about men.

      Whether the article fully stands to reason is another issue…

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Women’s issues are men’s issues. Its impossible to address one without affecting the other. I don’t think the above article really holds water, but its definitely on topic.

  17. Janet Dell says:

    Bogeyman = Generic Term for Bad Person (not the man part)
    Devil = REALLY Bad Person , though not a gender term, the devil is always shown as male
    Gunman = Person who shoots someone , Note the man part

    Seems to me, when there is a term that denotes someone bad or evil it is perfectly acceptable to refer to that person as male or a male term.

    Anything that is neutral (manhole cover) or Good (Mother Nature) then we have to either keep it female or make it gender neutral.

    • God= by most people considered good, right? and Male.

      I think it’s more the fact that men are considered the main Actors in this world, it doesnt have much to do with good or evil.

      • Michael P says:

        “God” doesn’t contain the word “man,” and no, the concept of a strictly male god is much disliked by a significant segment of Western culture. Janet’s example of the devil is not great either, for this reason, since a significant portion of Western culture views women as temptations, instruments of the devil.

        But Janet’s point about male sex-specific language being used to describe bad things is valid.

        “I think it’s more the fact that men are considered the main Actors in this world, it doesnt have much to do with good or evil.” ??? Back this up? Saying it has little to do with good or evil is a big statement.

        • Yes, God is inherently male, else it is Goddess.
          “Back this up?”
          why? why should I? you don’t back statements like “… significant portion of the western culture…”
          etc, up. plus…
          I JUST DID!!! With God, remember?

          “Saying it has little to do with good or evil is a big statement”
          Uhm.. no, no it is not.
          Simply assuming that it IS about good or evil is a big statement.. a leap of faith actually.
          Burden of Proof MOTERFUCKAAAAA!!!! it’s on you.

          • People frequently say “God is female.” They never say “Goddess is female.”

            Burden of proof? Let’s review: “I think it’s more the fact that men are considered the main Actors in this world, it doesnt have much to do with good or evil.” You’ve just denied that good/evil has much to do with the issue. Since the discussion IS about good/evil in gender-associative words, it is a more controversial hypothesis to say that good/evil has little to do with it. So there you go.

      • Peter Houlihan says:

        @Bla: This is true, but her point was that negative male anthropomorphasisms and stereotypes aren’t challenged, whereas positive and neutral ones are.

  18. To Maria:
    All of your examples only depict gender not race, so your premise of stating “white male” as the norm does not hold up.
    It seems to me that with authors and doctors, designating female doctors (or authors) serves an important function:
    It allows those SEEKING female _______ to find them quickly.

    I disagree with about 95% of the items I see on spearhead, but they do have some tidbits once in a while.

    A real gem of a quote was this:
    “women complaining = women’s issues. Men’s issues = men complaining”
    In the example laid out is how many MANY mainstream feminist organizations turn a deaf ear to men’s issues like lack of mental health (men are 80% of all suicides) or lack of parental rights (mothers win sole physical custody 13 times as often as fathers, and often move them to another state or interfere w/visitation). Often these feminists will insult men who try to raise points that men have issues to and accuse them of complaining. But, on these same sights what is held up as VERY CRITICAL women’s issues? The spearhead author linked to a feminist site that was complaining because the “great female scientists” rulers (YES I SAID RULERS) were separated from “great scientist” rulers.

    Men are:
    95% of on-the-job deaths (wage gap explained?)
    90% of all homeless
    80% of all suicides
    80% of all murder victims
    achieve sole physical custody 6% to mothers 80%
    38% of college graduates
    live 7 years less
    Yet, any man trying to say that men have specific issues is accused of complaining. But, women talking about online designations to doctors and female scientist rulers are “fighting the good fight!”

    It reminds me of the movie defending your life. Albert Brooks plays a man who has died and “moved on”. What he finds is a bureaucracy that puts people through trials to determine if their sole is ready to move on to the next world.

    In the movie Rip Torn plays Albert Brooks attorney. The attorney tells his client that on earth most people only use 3% of their brain capacity, but he (the attorney) uses 46%. He then tells his client that if you use much more than 5% of your brain capacity you don’t want to be on earth (with the insinuation that a person with much more would not be able to tolerate the stupidity and injustice prevalent on earth).

    That’s what this article makes me think: “you don’t want to use more than 5% of your brain capacity and be on earth”.

  19. White males are the default because they hold the most social power. The end.

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