the power of words

I taught high school for a few years.  And i heard this word repeatedly.  If a shoe looked unfashionable, if a homework assignment wasn’t done correctly, if someone asked a girl out who was CLEARLY out of his league–they all carried the same epithet:  RETARDED.

I have friends who use it.  Aquaintences.  I hear strangers use it. You hear it in the movies.  ALL THE TIME.  Everywhere. It is SUCH a part of our social vocabulary that we prolly don’t even know we are using it.  Never even notice.

And there was a time I didn’t give a shit, it’s true.  Prolly even used it myself–although I don’t remember it being a pervasive part of my vocabulary (preferring, instead a number of 4 letter words and shakespearean insults–You Fucking Piece of Warty Offal!) Even though I have an Aunt who was hurt as a child resulting in Cerebral Palsy and a mental delay that gave her this label–because at the time, that’s what they called it–RETARDED.  I remember my mother never really using the word–usually picking a synonymous term because even though it was official, it still left a bad taste in her mouth.

But my Aunt wasn’t around during my childhood, so I wasn’t forced to deal with the language of my peers using that word.  All i really knew was that I shouldn’t use it around adults, especially my family.  So I’m sure it peppered my speech among my peers, but honestly I never really thought about it.

Until its consequences smacked me square in the face.

When Ben was diagnosed, and I was in the deepest of my depression, there was a thought that surfaced every hour or so that would have me in tears–hell, I’m tearing up right now thinking about it–and it was the idea that my son would be mocked and teased and *shudder* bullied because of his delay. I remembered the derision my high school peers held for the “special ed” class on campus, who were the butt of jokes more often than naught.  I remembered the comics of the 80’s openly mocking those who were differently-abled, and everyone thinking it was ok to imitate them.

But the first time I heard the word uttered after his diagnosis, I wanted to smack that person–who was prolly referring to the traffic, or a missed sports shot, or the state of her perm–with a chair.  A heavy, metal one.  With spikes. A few times.

And from that moment on, every time I hear or read that word, it is like a spotlight on a stage, and I cannot think of anything else, but wanting to shake that person by the testicles and saying–DO YOU NOT SEE WHAT YOU ARE DOING?  IDIOT?

When you use that word you are demeaning an entire group of people who are not DEFINED by that word—but whom you continue to define through your nonchalant usage.

Everytime you imply stupidity by using that word, you are claiming that ENTIRE GROUP OF PEOPLE who have been diagnosed with any sort of mental or developmental delay, has no intelligence or value.

Everytime you use that word in reference to an OBJECT that has no life, you are saying the same of an ENTIRE GROUP OF PEOPLE

Everytime you use that word to imply that something is annoying and you’d rather do without it, you are saying the same about an ENTIRE GROUP OF PEOPLE.

Everytime you laugh at a comedian, like Carlos Mencia who is a loser in his own right and who is getting paid to make fun of an ENTIRE GROUP OF PEOPLE, you insult them (and the comedians he stole his other jokes from).  If you imitate that comedian, you are doing it again.

I suppose this means alot to me, not only because my son has a delay and could be called this by someone who has a death wish, but also because of my history.  Lemme splain.

I taught Middle and High schoolfor 7 years in South Los Angeles.  A white girl in the middle of a not-so-white area.  And there was a particular word I would never be allowed to say.  EVER.  And I knew it.  Because of the power it held–HOLDS, when uttered by someone white.  I am not making an argument here–I am stating fact.  I am aware of how that word was used in history–and today–as a weapon, as an epithet, as a means of oppression.  I also grew up in an extremely racist part of Southern Indiana, with a few of my Junior High teachers being KNOWN members of a certain sheet-wearing organization.  And my best friend in childhood was black.  It was a word I heard A LOT, and it will NEVER be a word I am EVER comfortable saying.

In fact, I did an experiment one day in class.  My students were forever trying to tell me the word had no meaning, no power, and that  I was cool and practically one of them and if said it, it wouldn’t matter.

So I said it.  In context, mind–something like “so if I said the word______________, you would be ok with that”

SILENCE. (and yes, at that moment, I thought my teaching job had just come to an end.  I won’t lie)

And one girl looked at me and said, “no.  I’m sorry Ms, but I’m not.  And I’ve got no reason–except that it changes everything to hear you say it”  And they all realized that it DID have power, and that as cool as they may have thought i was, it would NEVER be ok for me to say it.  And I will say I rarely heard it within the confines of my classroom again. ( I was also never called to the principal’s office, so they must have kept that lesson under their hats, so to speak)

WORDS HAVE POWER, even if we claim they don’t.

You cannot say that just because the word RETARDED is no longer used as an official diagnosis in most states, that it no longer has power.  You cannot say that if you use the word in a slang fashion that you don’t mean it.  You cannot say that it’s ok to use the word because you have a sister/brother/cousin/neighbor who has a delay, and that they aren’t bothered by it–BECAUSE WE KNOW YOU’RE LYING.

This word needs to leave our social vocabulary.  People need to be as uncomfortable saying it as they would a racial slur (and if they’re not uncomfortable saying either, well, then at least you know who to avoid). It needs to become such a social no-no that if anyone says it, it will mark them as undesireable.  It needs to STOP.

If i hear you say it–I WILL call you out.  If I read it on Facebook, I will defriend you.  You can think me over sensitive or uptight–but if it is more important to you to mock and entire group of people so that you can sound “cool”, then you are an idiot with whom I do not need to associate.

Categories: Uncategorized | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “the power of words

  1. There is more power in your words than the others – at least to me. Amen sister!

  2. Excellent post! I’m so glad you didn’t lose your job from your “experiment” because I think it taught your students a valuable lesson.

  3. Mom


  4. My god, woman!! You are my hero.

  5. Amanda

    VERY GOOD POST. I’m a teacher (grade 2) and my students this year are positively horrid to each other. Then they tattle that their classmates are horrid to them. WORDS HAVE POWER, and the sooner we as a society stop using the hurtful words, the better.

    I have no personal relation to the word “retarded” but it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I hear a colleague casually toss it out. And yes, I call them on it, and I deal with the eye rolling, and I pray they aren’t using language so carelessly in front of their students.

    In my grade, “shut up” is offensive language. Every now and then, I’ll come across it when I’m reading aloud to my class, and I read it as written. Then I watch the little facial expressions change, ever so slightly. (“My teacher just said a bad word!”) I can see their little world shifting, much as you did with your experiment.

    Words have power. Too bad so many people don’t understand that.

  6. Laura

    I agree with you 100% about the word retarded. When I taught, I used to be very clear with my students that it was unacceptable to me. It really drove home the point when one student used the word (in a random context) and another student said, “well, my sister is retarded.” That was a very teachable moment, where we were able to discuss how it made her feel to hear that word (this was not in front of a class). However, I would just like to point out that the term “idiot” also has its origins as a description of people with cognitive delays. As does “moron.” I know these two terms are less inflammatory (maybe that’s the wrong word), but the original meaning is similar.

    • I am well aware of the origins of idiot, moron, and other terms in reference to one with a cognitive delay, as well as dumb in reference to someone who cannot speak. But i think we are well enough removed from them as medical terms that i feel comfortable using them since most people are not aware of their origin. Perhaps, in 100 years or so, when we are far enough removed from retarded, it won’t be an issue anymore. But there are still some states still using it as a medical term, and as such, i feel using it in the common vernacular is offensive.

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