Update: Two of my friends have written follow-on posts. The Day I was Accidentally Racist by Tina Gower and The Day I was Accidentally Religiously Offensive by Rebecca Birch. Read on for further mortification. May we never be accidental bigots again! I was terribly shy when I was younger. I had a phone phobia, was convinced I was the most awkward person in the history of the world, and blushed when people I didn’t know spoke to me.
I took Spanish in high school. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Pigage. She was tough, outspoken, and fun. I liked her, and earned good grades. On the rare occasion, I dared to raise my hand to answer questions.
For those who are not familiar, Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine. In my textbook, the words that could be either were denoted with parentheses. For teacher: maestro(a). “Maestro” would be a male teacher, “maestra” a female teacher.
We had a list of vocabulary words, and were going up and down the rows, saying what each was, or what we thought each was, in English. This time I had no choice as to whether I was going to participate. I prepared by counting down the list, seeing how many people were ahead of me, and focused on the vocabulary word that would be mine.
This one was to be my undoing: “ama de casa.” That was it, quite simply. No parentheses.
When it came to my turn, I said, “Housewife?” My teacher stopped going down the list. My cheeks, already flushed from having to speak aloud, began to burn as attention focused on both me and her.
With a fair bit of gravitas, she explained that men could also stay at home and watch over the house. And then she pointed out that I was a woman, and that it was sad that I would think this was an occupation limited strictly to women.
I felt like my chest was on fire and about to cave in. There were no parentheses! I thought there was another, different word for house husband, I truly did. I knew that men could stay at home as well as women. My parents would have been ashamed if I actually thought that staying at home was solely the domain of women. Oh no, I’d just shamed my parents, casting aspersion not only on my own beliefs, but on theirs as well. I wanted to sink into the speckled linoleum floor.
I didn’t say anything, partially because I was so shy, and partially because denying it, after my teacher’s speech, would only make me look worse.
Here I was, with multiple pairs of eyes on me, and me imagining what they were thinking. “She’s prejudiced against her own sex!” “What a backwards young lady!” “Freak!”
Did no one else notice that there were no parentheses?? No one said anything.
I wish my teacher had asked if this was truly what I meant—that only women could stay at home—instead of assuming this was my intention. It would have saved me a lot of embarrassment. Thinking about it still makes me feel a little mortified.
I probably shouldn’t care what you think, and you likely don’t remember this day at all, but if you’re out there, Mrs. Pigage…I promise you I’m not sexist.