What’s In A Name?

Recently I spoke with one of the gutsy professional cheerleaders who has registered a formal complaint with the EEOC regarding NFL sex discrimination. You probably have read about the horrendous treatment meted out to cheerleaders, by management and team owners, as well as by boozed-up, testosterone-poisoned fans at games.

She said something that particularly struck me as familiar. In dismissing the notion that perhaps sexism was inherent in cheerleading itself, she repositioned it as “dancing.” It actually is, of course, requiring dance training plus sometimes onerous gymnastics—but without the respect paid to the Rockettes as artists or to gymnasts as sportswomen.

Yet cheerleading isn’t simply dancing, and isn’t gymnastics. Cheerleading has been created, formalized, commercialized, and positioned by team owners and fans as sexist entertainment, and they treat it as such, despite the expertise of those performing the cheerleading. Strippers also call themselves dancers. But you don’t hear professional dancers calling themselves cheerleaders—or strippers.

What was familiar, however, was the “classing up” of a disadvantaged situation, by the disadvantaged themselves.

One sure way you can detect classing up is that it’s used by those who are still in a disadvantaged position—very rarely by those who have managed to escape that position. For example, women still working as cheerleaders are (at least publicly) opposed to any protest against their being treated atrociously, but women who are former cheerleaders and no longer vulnerable to losing their jobs are supportive of the formal EEOC complaint and often even eager to become involved.

It brought to mind the currently prostituted women who call themselves “sex workers,” while those who have managed to escape the sexual exploitation industry call themselves “survivors.”

It’s not only the fear of retribution—loss of employment or other kinds—at work here. Neither is it merely denial of what’s sometimes too painful to admit. It’s partly a gesture, however awkward, at gaining or retaining a sense of human dignity. And it’s partly aspirational—that is, identifying with the powerful instead of with one’s less powerful self, which requires acknowledging one’s own deliberately buried experience, authentic but likely bruising. It’s something that goes beyond blaming the victim, into self-blaming the victim.

It’s shaming the victim. The shame at being so victimized is a shame created, instilled, and encouraged by the victimizers to keep the victims silent. As if it’s her fault, as if her humiliation is deserved. This may be the most pernicious aspect of sexual crimes against women: the stealthily enforced enlistment of the victim into believing and even further propagating the so-called innocence of the perpetrator.

The rape victim who “asked for it”: I shouldn’t have invited him to my apartment. The sexual-harassment target who “wanted it”: Maybe I was wearing the wrong clothes. The domestic-violence survivor who stayed with him: I got this black eye or broken arm or concussion from walking into a door. Try imagining a white, straight man whose watch was stolen in a mugging, blaming himself, and you see the pernicious absurdity of this internalized shame.

It happens over racism: that’s what having “good hair” and what “passing” was about: classing up. It happens over the perception and self-perception of many biracial people who choose to class themselves as “white.” For godsake, it’s just easier.

It happens over homophobia: that’s what a different kind of “passing,” still ongoing in parts of this country, is about. Whole families, entire communities, collaborate in it, sometimes insist upon it, while everybody knows and nobody says—for shame.

Internalizing blame for one’s own oppression is something that happens in ageism as well, for instance when women especially are taught to lie about our age. It happens in terms of disability, depending on how much the disability or its effects are visible. Immigrants who Anglicize their names are classing up. The use of ethnic or racial slurs within specific oppressed groups may be claimed as a way of joking or a way to invoke solidarity, but it reinforces the terminology of those in power as well as the helplessness of the powerless. Children “class up” when they play grownup, because they see quite clearly that grownups have power over them.

And it happens over class itself. Lots.

The terms “Lower middle class” and “upper middle class” were coined precisely to aid and abet such distinctions. I can remember my mother saying she was a lingerie designer when actually she was a shopgirl who sold corsets in a chain store. Small details and large ones. I can remember her persisting in her claim that a necklace she gave me with orange plastic beads shaped like coral was the real thing from the Great Barrier Reef, and insisting that her grandparents had been nobles at the court of the Czar in Russia—when actually they were gutsy peasant “Shtetl” Jews scrabbling to stay alive at the border of Poland and Russia, despite periodic Cossack raids and the terror of pogroms. Classing up ensures that you admire the wrong people and adopt the wrong values.

I can remember myself as a teenager when, having discovered that in Europe there was a class called “the intelligentsia,” I instantly identified myself as part of that. It must be admitted that this was not only because I desperately wanted to become a writer, but also because it saved me from the uncomfortable decision to collaborate in my mother’s false origin story and her lies, or deny her, thus reject her, in stating the truth—which would also have included the truth that we were decidedly “lower middle-class.”

When the first fissure in that internalization cracks, it’s a moment of blessed, terrifying, liberating rage. The danger in that period is that the affirmation and rage can distort, turning solely outward, blaming others—any others—and blinding oneself to one’s own collaboration, even glamorizing one’s own oppression (e.g., many Trump supporters). Because only then does the real process begin: the daily application of burgeoning consciousness.

Then, accumulated acts of “noticing” require re-naming a lot of what had passed for your reality, and it takes quite a while until you can shift the responsibility onto where it’s deserved—onto the person, people, and institutionalized system that have their feet planted firmly on your neck.

What’s in a name?

The philosopher Susanne K. Langer wrote, “The notion of giving something a name is the vastest generative idea that ever was conceived.”

I would add that giving something the precise, accurate name—even if that necessitates re-naming—is an act of courage.