Thursday, July 16, 2009

What's in a Name?

A Story of Discrimination
The Senate hearings for Associate Justice-designate Sonia Sotomayor have been full of talk about discrimination -- her "wise Latina" comment and the case involving white New Haven firefighters, for example. It reminded me about a piece I wrote on gender discrimination several years back but never published. I'm sharing it with you now:

I can remember when, a few years ago, an acquaintance heard that my wife and I were expecting a baby girl. It was information I was delighted to have circulated but I learned quickly that he didn’t see the news in the same light. “You must be disappointed,” he said. I felt a viceral jolt with those four words. I couldn’t believe what just came out of his mouth and into my ears. So, I asked him to repeat it. He attempted to clarify by saying, “You know, with this one you’ll have four daughters. Are you OK with it?”

Yes, my wife and I have four kids -- one shy of an all female basketball team. (No, we don't plan to fill the Center position.) Each of my children have their own unique gifts but share savvy, humor and compassion. I get comments all the time about their beauty and good manners. Unfortunately, people also feel quite uninhibited in sharing and spreading their prejudice.

Whether on a city street or a suburban sidewalk, in an airplane, at a mall, in a museum or while eating at a restaurant, people have felt free to approach me and my children (yes, with the kids surrounding me) and ask, “Are you still trying for the boy?” or “Did you get someone upstairs angry at you? Ha, ha!” Someone at an elementary school event asked, “Do you feel less of a man, not having a son to pass things down to?” Even some not-to-be-named relatives wondered out loud "How can you handle all of those girls?”

Years ago, as a younger father not wanting to offend anyone, I laughed off the insults by chuckling an inoffensive reply about how lucky I was to have such a wonderful family. Over the years, though, my standard retort got less tolerant and more admonishing. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” “What century are you living in?" "We’ve taught our daughters that they can learn, do and accomplish anything.” “I can tell you honestly that I never hoped for a boy… just a healthy human!”

I can't answer why strangers feel compelled to offer up their misguided attempts at conversation and social commentary, but there’s a larger issue here. People don’t think about how their words can hurt children – and not just the girls. There’s a clear message being sent to the boys, too. These are exactly the kind of ignorant, damaging messages that support an environment of ongoing discrimination and bias. On a different scale, societal or religious indifference to – or acceptance of – unequal gender valuation has translated into female infanticide and genital mutilation.

When I read that an Egyptian father stabbed his seven children, murdering four, because he had no sons, my heart sank and my blood boiled. Where do we start? How do we get people to gain some insight and change behavior? In the schools? When one of my daughters was asked to draw a scientist, she was the only one in the class who thought to draw a female. In the entertainment media? Not with reality shows and shock jocks objectifying women. At the doctor’s office? When another daughter -- about eight years old at the time -- was being examined by a pediatrician, he said to her that “your daddy told me he wanted four boys instead.” She responded confidently, "No he didn't." We never went back.

For any chance at breaking the cycle, the best first course, I believe, is to start at home. Home needs to be a safe harbor. It must be a place where our children can expect best behaviors from us. We need to be more active commentators about discrimination, and strategize with our kids on how to advocate for themselves and others.

Home for one person, though, was where he received a badge of discrimination to wear for the rest of his life. I met a man while on a business trip who would most certainly have another name if prevailing attitudes were different. He introduced himself as Bingo. I thought he was making a joke until he said it was truly his legal name. He told me that his father desperately wanted a son and after five daughters… Bingo! His wish had come true.

Perhaps one day I’ll meet a woman named Bingo.
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1 comment:

Elegant Myra said...

My daughter is pregnant with my first grandchild, a girl. I am so looking forward to see the wonderful person she will surely become.