Sunday, February 26, 2006

Becoming the default

Last night I went to a student dance concert - modern dance, which I've never been much good at deciphering. In trying to figure out what the dancers were supposed to symbolize I was looking at the colors of their costumes, the way they were grouped on the floor, etc. I didn't even consider their gender until I started wondering what non-Bryn Mawr students were making of it and realized that to them the dancers represented four women, and at most other schools they would have represented four women. To me they represented four people.

In a community where a given variable - in this case gender - doesn't vary, you start to ignore it in a way you never could otherwise. You speak in class without feeling that you're representing your group to outsiders, because everyone around you is part of the group. You never walk into a room or sit down at a lunch table where you're the only one of your kind. (Granted, I'm speaking purely for gender, and if I were of a different race or varied from society's defaults in some other way none of this would be true at Bryn Mawr.) We can pretend to be blind to gender or race or any other variable, but that's masking that on some level inequalities and problems exist. Nobody tells jokes about a woman who walks into a bar unless the joke hinges on the fact that she's a woman. It's always a guy walking into a bar. Men are the default, and anyone else is an exception. I don't know if four years of thinking of yourself as a human instead of a woman (or a black at an HBCU, or any other parallel) can give you a lasting power to think that way, but it sure feels good while it lasts.

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