Sport Manitoba recently announced that they would support banning the term “midget” as a way to categorize age-group (15-17) competition. I posted the Global News article on my Twitter feed, Greg Wyshynski gave it a re-tweet and the following replies ensued:
Are there “bigger” problems in the world today? Sure. Not that I support the idea of ranking trauma but I understand how homelessness, disease, and persecution should be at the top of our to-do lists. Still, we aren’t anywhere close to solving those other issues and this one seems like a relatively easy fix, so why shouldn’t we do it?
It’s honestly a hockey term that I had never thought twice about before this news item was published. It is a term that I have used numerous times and never once thought about the people associated with it but that’s probably because dwarfism isn’t part of my lived experience. I have no idea why anyone ever decided to label 15-17 year olds the “midget” category but as Janet McMahon, Director of Sport for Sport Manitoba, points out, “Language dictates culture, and we want to create a culture for diversity and inclusion.” So how exactly is the term harmful and derogatory?
We need to rewind to the creation of Barnum and Bailey’s circus of the late 1800s. The circus is where “freak shows” were born; the circus put anyone deemed “abnormal” on display for public ridicule. This included black women and little people. Thus, little people were marked as objects to be consumed rather than subjects with a voice. Beyond the circus, Australia also helped popularize this bar activity called “midget tossing.” Literally throwing a little person as far as you can against a mattress soon travelled to Great Britain and the U.S. And guess what – it’s still a thing!!!! This isn’t some medieval activity that only exists in the history books. It happened at a Windsor strip club in 2016 (after a 4 year hiatus), it happened at a strip club in Ottawa earlier this year, and only a couple of U.S. states have banned the activity.
The Little People of America organization states:
dwarf tossing is a disgusting spectacle that subjects people with dwarfism to ridicule and physical harm…it treats people of short stature as a piece of equipment and encourages the general attitude that people with dwarfism are objects.
However, the little people who participate in these competitions do consent to being thrown. This raises the question of agency and one’s free will to make money as they choose (within the confines of the law). You’re never going to find an entire group of people who agree on any issue but the broader concern that arises is that making money from participating in dwarf tossing events is indicative of the lack of employment prospects for little people. Many resort to “make a living by being tossed in the air” (McGee, 1993, p.338) because it may be the most viable employment opportunity.
The intention was likely never to offend anyone when they created the “midget” and “minor-midget” hockey categories; yet, the effects of these decisions matter. We often deflect discussions of marginalization and oppression with the “lack of intention” argument but that’s not actually how life works. If I am driving to the grocery store and I hit someone with my car the intention of why I was driving is irrelevant and neither the law nor the person I hit would care about my good intentions. The consequences of my actions matter and there would be consequences for both me and the person I hit.
There is a noticeable pattern in the comments made above by what appear to be white men (and admittedly a small sample of them). But it’s consistent with a larger pattern whereby white male privilege includes a belief of entitlement to all language. The ability to dismiss someone else’s lived experience is itself a privilege. Ta-Nahesi Coates explains very eloquently that words, like any resource or currency, do not belong to everyone equally. In the video below, he is referring to how white people tend to react when they are told they cannot use the N-word, but I think the same entitlement applies to the situation at hand:
When you’re white in this country [America], you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have the right to everything. You’re conditioned this way…it’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have the right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do and people just gotta accommodate themselves to you. So here comes this word…why can’t I use it?
Given that the term “midget” has a discriminatory and oppressive history, little people continue to be thrown for drunken bar entertainment, and there has been an organized effort to strike the word from our vocabulary, this seems like a reasonable way forward. And, if what we label age categories for sports competition is really meaningless and irrelevant then changing the name shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Little people may not have had a voice during the days of Barnum and Bailey but they do now, and it’s time we listen.
McGee, R.W. (1993). If dwarf tossing is outlawed, only outlaws with toss dwarfs: Is dwarf tossing a victimless crime? American Journal of Jurisprudence, 38, 335-358.