The “for a” Stereotype

While thinking about dangerous pronouns, I was alerted to an article in The New York Times about microaggressions.  “Microaggressions,” I learned, are “common verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups.”  One example in The Times article, however, “You’re really pretty … for a dark-skin girl,” seemed to me not “micro” but outright racist – because of the words “for a.”

We hear and use “for a” even as children on the playground. “Your hair is awfully long for a boy” or “You’re pretty strong for a girl.” Do we even notice the stereotypes about boys and girls in these comparisons? No, probably we accept them. Instead, we focus on the criticism or compliment directed to the individuals in these sentences. Perhaps we should also think about what the “for a” says about our expectations for boys and girls – the box “for a” puts them in.

A feminist talking with a male acquaintance who expresses sympathy for her cause says, “You’re pretty smart for a man.” Does this remark raise eyebrows? I doubt it. She’s putting men down but also satirizing the stereotype of men as insensitive, macho types. Besides, men are so powerful already that no one needs to stick up for them. But again, what does the “for a” reveal about her expectations for men?

Conversely, if a white person says to a black woman “You’re really pretty,” is the “for a” implied? I was told it was politically incorrect to say “Obama is so articulate” because it implied “for a black man.” I was perplexed. In my mind I was comparing Obama to George W. Bush. No race imagined or implied.  I guess I could get in trouble if I said “You said that so well” to an Asian or Latino person, even if I meant the clarity of his or her reasoning, not the ability to speak English.

It’s hard to think of a compliment that isn’t really a judgment, a comparison to a group or norm. “You sing beautifully” implies better than others.  It’s unfortunate if someone hears an unintended and limiting “for a” in that compliment, but such is the burden of our history of discrimination.   Certainly we can and should stop using “for a” aloud. The goal, if we are ever to achieve a post-racial society, is for all of us to stop thinking it.

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