signposts

Who is Pete Buttigieg? He is the Secretary of Transportation. He is a gay man. His is married to Chasten Glezman. He is the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He is the only child of Jennifer Anne Montgomery and Joseph A. Buttigieg. He is a Christian. He is a Rhodes Scholar. He worked as a consultant at McKinsey. He drives some sort of automobile. He lives in a house with so many rooms. All this and more is in the Wikipedia article about him.

So why whenever he is being covered in the news does the commentator begin with something like, “Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Department Secretary of Transportation . . .” Why not, “Pete Buttigieg, former Rhodes Scholar or Pete Buttigieg, who has Maltese roots . . .” The story being told has nothing to do with his gender, ethnicity, or anything other than his present position as Secretary of Transportation.

So why do reporters commentators of all kinds add a gender, racial, ethnic or some other adjective when someone other than a white, non-ethnically obvious, usually male, is being discussed? It would be perfectly appropriate to add all the adjectives in an article when they are part of the story being told, as in the announcement of Pete Buttigieg to the position he now holds. But, with respect to the nightly news, he is merely the Secretary of Transportation.

Adding the gendered adjective does nothing for those people for whom gender is not an issue, when it is not relevant to the specific circumstances. But it reinforces any already present bias in those for whom it is of particular concern, both in a positive and negative sense. Those who have an active agenda to promote the normalcy of gender identification may feel a measure of pride and otherwise reinforce the beliefs already stored in the brain.

But, for those who have a negative bias due to the beliefs held in their brains, the mention of his being gay will likely be the only or primary message they receive. We are all equipped to pick up linguistic cues that shape our responses to what is going on. Any ideology or “ism” is such a bias or presupposition that tends to convert the immediate situation and its contextual richness to conform with the beliefs and norms inherent to the ideology or “ism.” For those whom gender identification, other than binary, is a negative issue, the extraneous adjective becomes the message and serves to reinforce the contents of the brain.

Always qualifying someone as Asian- or African-American or anything in general, regardless of the relevance to the story at hand, exacerbates strongly held biases, that is, some stereotypical or categorical set of beliefs. In a society that is struggling to rid itself of all the “isms” that have become structurally embedded, this practice is counterproductive.

Language is largely processed in the brain’s left hemisphere which just happens to be the side where generalized knowledge, including stereotypes and categories, is stored. Adding irrelevant adjectives to a conversation tends to keep the response centered in the left-brain and to reinforce what already has been stored there. Just the opposite of what “news” is supposed to be. The word “news,” itself, tells the story. News is largely about new subjects and happenings that we have not already processed and stored in our left brain.

To fully apprehend “new” information, the right brain must be engaged. It serves as the source of changes to the stored-up knowledge in the left brain. If we are to rid ourselves of the racist and other prejudicial structures that keep America from realizing its potential, we must energize the right side of the brain, not strengthen the left by adding irrelevant adjectives every time we talk about someone.

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