My favorite color is indigo, and I use they/them pronouns: Why icebreakers should include pronouns

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Philly Nevada
Digital Imagery Specialist

Graphic by Philly Nevada/the Gateway

What’s your favorite color? What year are you? What’s your major? Icebreakers … they’re a favorite ritual of teachers, a gesture at building connections in the classroom. Yet, I’d say that UNO teachers and professors can do much better by adding one simple bit to their icebreaker routines: ask your students to share their pronouns, if they’re comfortable.

For some, this may seem like just the latest in frivolous trends to hop on the politically correct bandwagon. For others, like me, it’s a goodwill gesture toward creating a welcoming space and a sign of open-mindedness. I use “they, them, their” pronouns and identify as gender-nonconforming or nonbinary. It’s not a fact I bring up in casual conversation, but when I’m in a group setting in which most of us will at some point or another be referring to each other in the third person, I like to let people know. It’s not that I’ll get offended if someone says, “Philly had a great idea the other day. She wants to set the office coffee pot on fire.” I do want to set the office coffee pot on fire, but that’s beside the point. Most people apologize profusely when they realize they’ve misgendered me, but that’s not what I want. I just want them to know the tiny sting you feel when someone, without malice but also without conscientiousness, negates an essential part of you. A lot of tiny stings can build up in a semester’s worth of classes.

The benefits of making space for people to share their pronouns doesn’t just benefit nonbinary people. It also benefits transgender people and people who don’t have what is considered to be “normal” gender expression. It allows space for people to affirm their identities and ask for respect. It’s also an opportunity for learning. It breaks down the implicit assumption of the presence of the gender binary. It presents itself as a teachable moment for those who have not had the fortune to expand their horizons. And what are we in college for, if not to expand those horizons?

So, if you feel so moved as to include pronouns in the list of mundane details in the icebreaker, here are a few tips for how to be normal around those with pronouns you aren’t used to using.

-Don’t freak out over misgendering someone. We get it. You’re so sorry. But making a fuss that we’ll feel obligated to calm by assuring you that it isn’t your fault is a way of putting additional burden on someone you’re already apologetic towards. Go, oops, insert the correct pronoun and move on quickly. If you deliberately misgender someone, obviously you should apologize profusely.

-Don’t complain about how hard it is. You should try constantly being denied your rights, being subjected to constant scrutiny and not afforded basic human dignity. That’s hard.

-Don’t out people outside the classroom. For the longest time, I’d use they/them in classes and she/her outside of classes, especially at my church. It was, and still is in certain situations, a safety issue. If you’re unsure, just ask.

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