For several years now I have been hearing this phrase in conversations: "It’s a ________ (fill in the blank) thing." An ambiguous discomfort fills me when I hear someone use this kind of language. For years I have tried to ignore this uneasy feeling, but it hums in the background of my psyche with the annoying persistence of a mosquito I just can’t swat. I’ve had all I can stands and I can’t stands no more (Popeye voice). So, rather than continue to be dogged by this menacing language, I am taking it head on right here and now.
The first thing we need to do in unlocking the mystery of this "thing" language is to figure out what this phrase means. There is a clue to the meaning packaged in how people fill in the blank. I have heard the following words used to fill in this blank: girl, guy, black, white, gay, straight, Baptist, Pentecostal. Surely there are others, but these are the inserts I have heard.
It appears that there is a little linguistic posturing going on here. For example, when I hear a female, among a group of mostly females, say to a male, "It’s a girl thing," in response to a question or perplexed facial expression he has, I generally translate it like this: "Of course you don’t understand, (you poor thing), you’re not capable of knowing what we know. I don’t hold your incompetence and stupidity against you. Right now, your best move is nod and smile and not say a word, OK shmoopy-boy?"
Now, when we get beyond the faux-compassion expressed for the apparent plight of the guy on the receiving end of this comment, we realize that although he is not directly insulted or formally shunned, he has no meaningful retort at this juncture. His presence in the conversation has become superfluous. Nothing he contributes to the conversation at this point, whether there is logic, sense, or meaning to it can possibly be received with any credence. Any attempt to speak now would only serve to prove that he is indeed stupid and deserves an even stronger chastisement than he has just received.
Ah, but this phrase can be turned the other way as well. Supposed that a guy, among a group of mostly guys, says to a female, "Yeah, that’s a girl thing." She, then, is the one who is suddenly out-grouped. The phrase this time is a masked insult to the female and not a statement made to her social advantage. The translation this time would be something like this: "We all know that’s the way women are – uh-hem - irrational, petty, weak-minded. But hey, they can’t help it– they’re women. Hey toots, just sit there and be pretty – that’s what you’re here for anyway." What is she going to say after that? Any attempt by her to speak at this point will only invite ridicule.
Again, any sense of compassion within this statement is merely a mask for the true intent, which is not at all charitable. The female just got ex-communicated from being a true equal in the conversation. She was demoted from full member to object.
Regardless of which of the above ways this phrase is used, it serves the very same purpose. It clearly marks social distinctions and in-groups some while out-grouping others. It also serves as an effective silencer of the out-group. It is a clear and undeniable assertion of social power meant to make the more powerful group comfortable at the expense of the less powerful group.
In short, this phrase is used to mask religious bigotry, homophobia, heterophobia, sexism, racism, and lots of other kinds of –isms by bundling it into a socially acceptable linguistic package. Once again, prejudice has found a way to reincarnate itself within the common vernacular.