I thought I was prepared the other night, when I talked to my first-grade daughter about this year’s presidential election.
I was ready for her questions about Donald Trump—“the mean one,” as she describes him. At just six years old, she’s already discerned what has somehow eluded 40-45 percent of the American electorate: Donald Trump is a bully.
I was ready to talk about Hillary Clinton—how, if elected, she will be the first woman to serve as our president. “Yeah, yeah! Go girls!” my daughter shouted at one point in our conversation.
I was prepared to talk about what a big deal this year’s election is. I was prepared to talk about shattering the glass ceiling—because even at six years old, my daughter has already encountered the twisted, perverse notion that there are some things girls cannot do, simply because they are girls.
But I wasn’t prepared for her reaction when she asked me who I was going to vote for. I wasn’t prepared for the apprehension in her voice. I wasn’t prepared for the relief that swept across her face when I told her that, yes, I was going to vote for a woman to be our next president.
It was as if the world had already planted in her heart the idea that boys will only ever vote for boys.
I wonder where on earth she got that idea.
I wasn’t ready for it to come up again later that evening, as we were saying goodnight. Still not fully convinced, she asked me, “Daddy, have you ever voted for a girl before?”
Thanks in part to Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, I at least had a decent answer to my daughter’s question.
But I still wasn’t ready for what she was about to teach me.
Next, my daughter asked what it means to be president or governor—what it means to be “in charge” of an entire country or state. (As far as bedtime stalling questions go, that was a pretty good one.)
So I began to explain, using the best 6-year-old language I could think of. And without even realizing it—without meaning to—I defaulted to masculine language.
He decides what laws will be passed.
He makes sure we have good roads and schools and things like that.
He works with the leaders of other countries, to make sure we get along.
It didn’t go unnoticed. After a few seconds, my daughter corrected me:
“Or SHE, daddy.”
(For those of you who think so-called “generic masculine” language is harmless.)
There it was. My white male privilege, on full display in front of my beloved 6-year-old daughter.
I believe the term is “busted.”
Me, a supposedly enlightened “progressive.”
Me, using language that centered myself and my gender. Language that automatically assumes people in power will look exactly like I do.
My daughter noticed. And it spoke volumes to her.
White male privilege is insidious.
This sort of language—the language I used with my daughter the other night—is an essential part of how we’ve kept marginalized groups—women, blacks, the LGBTQ community—from gaining more than a few token seats at the table, if that.
If I say “he” every time I talk about our elected officials, my daughter will grow up believing leadership is a masculine trait.
If she doesn’t see women leading our churches, running our businesses, serving in the highest offices—in other words, women being “assertive” and “ambitious” and all the other things women are told they aren’t supposed to be—then nothing, NOTHING, will ever change.
To put it another way, one female president isn’t nearly enough. Our job isn’t even close to being done until the day when there is nothing remarkable about women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community serving as commander-in-chief. Or running a business. Or standing in a pulpit.
Why have we made so little progress advancing the cause of women and other marginalized groups? Maybe it’s because people like me are clinging to a narrative that keeps us at the center.
When I cast my ballot tomorrow, I will take one small step toward changing that. But it won’t be the last.