You may have intended it to be a joke, but the way you talk about people who are different from yourself is powerful and has larger impacts than you may realize in the moment. This type of outdated rhetoric is rewriting our implicit biases over and over again while perpetuating stereotypes that become embedded in the back of our brains. Joking about women in the kitchen, making absurd and inauthentic claims about your gender identity as a jab at non-conforming nonbinary people, or automatically assuming a feminine man is homosexual just reinforces these stereotypes. The typecasts that people have tried to bury and overthrow for years in order to develop a more equal society can never die unless we stop referencing them in our daily rhetoric.
Implicit or unconscious bias is an attitude or preference towards or against a certain thing or person that the active mind is often unaware of. Implicit bias can be dangerous because it allows the brain to make decisions or judgments about someone before actually knowing them, and oftentimes projects common stereotypes onto a person based on physical appearance or first impressions. Implicit bias can be built upon by past experiences, media, inherited beliefs, and social conventions. Not only can implicit bias cause harm in social interactions, but it can also prevent people who hold certain identities from succeeding — whether it be professionally, as a consumer, or otherwise.
When people make generalized jokes about an identity, it only perpetuates the implicit bias that may hold a discriminatory belief about this identity. Even if the person making the joke doesn’t believe the stereotype, it can still be harmful to the person holding that identity. And ultimately, it causes even more harm as it reminds our brains of the structural and social discrimination society holds against this identity. The glass ceiling will never be broken if we continue to underestimate women and joke about gendered stereotypes, because eventually it will reach a point where a person in power’s unconscious, or even conscious, bias will stop them from hiring a qualified woman because they are uncomfortable with a woman in power. And even if a woman does get hired, she is often disrespected or sexualized. Similarly, until we stop perpetuating this stereotype, white people will never stop putting down or being afraid of black men because their unconscious biases tell them that they’re dangerous or inferior, which is unfounded and discriminatory. Or someone’s sexual orientation won’t be taken seriously because people keep making jokes about sitting “six feet apart because we aren’t gay.” These examples are far from encompassing the adverse impacts discriminatory jokes can have, but if we can start recognizing the harm of the words we say and the jokes we make, we can begin to alter our implicit biases and take small but necessary steps toward creating a more equitable society.
Rhetoric is powerful. The same reason why we need to stop with the discriminatory jokes is why we need to start degendering and desexualizing our words, particularly in correlation with professions. A “weather girl” is a meteorologist. A “stewardess” is a flight attendant. Other professions that are inherently male from their determinations — mailman, salesman, policeman, fireman, businessman, to name a few — deserve to be re-evaluated to gender-inclusive terms. The idea that employment and professions are solely male is outdated and inequitable. While the term “mailman” may appear innocent or unaffecting of a woman’s ability to work at a post office, it continues to portray the idea that the professional world belongs to men and structurally prevents women from succeeding or being respected professionally. The term “freshman” implies that only men should go to college, and while it no longer holds that meaning, it is an unnecessary reminder of the unequal, damaging history and structural sexism that plagues this country.
Start finding jokes that don’t target other people’s identities. Start neutralizing your rhetoric. And together, we can begin to fix the structural inequity that harms so many people in this country based solely on who they are.