In the service learning course this term, one of the first moments of direct contact at our work site consisted of the following comment: "Where did all the white girls come from?"
The students and I had car-pooled to the site for a tour and an orientation session. Naturally, the comment became part of our discussion during the subsequent class. The students and I observed that the comment struck a dischord for multiple reasons. The blunt articulation of identity markers just isn't part of "university talk." The marker "girls" potentially condescends and offends and has certain kinds of historical weight (male bosses calling adult women "girls").
How to approach such a comment? First, with an open discussion where we (not just, or even primarily, me) talk about the rhetorics (the multiple dimensions, the multiple contexts, the multiple uses--all of which are competing, contested, overlapping, and contradictory) of the comment. One of those rhetorics: our identities as outsiders who don't have the right to impose a certain kind of talk. Another: our human right to dignity. Another: the ways gender informs the comments' meaning. Another: the ways race informs the comments' meaning.
Were the young women in the class offended by the statement? If so, as women? As members of various racial and ethnic identities? Turns out, not at all. One Arab-American, muslim woman made the comment "Nobody's ever called me a white girl before," which brought levity to the discussion. The consensus was that these were adolescent guys responding to college women. The consensus was also that to pay too much attention to the comment would serve to reinforce racial stereotypes (young African-American males as threats) and a troubling hierarchy (outsiders/college-types coming into a setting and dictating the "rules" of how to talk).
Fair enough. As a learning moment, the discussion nicely highlighted the importance of contextualizing language and analyzing multi-valent meanings/contexts of discourse. And yet, I hope that we didn't gloss over the gender implications with a "boys will be boys"-esque trope.
(x-listed in the rhetoric of civic engagement)