Friday, September 3, 2010

The “R Word” – A Back To School Guest Post by Karol Ruth Silverstein

“That’s so gay!” What does it feel like when you hear someone say that? Maybe even a friend. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself (and secretly felt weird about it). Everyone says it, right? It’s just something people say when they’re goofing around.

Your friends may insist that the expression isn’t really an insult against gays and lesbians, but they’re kidding themselves. It’s an insult. No one ever says, “that’s so gay” when someone shoots a three-pointer in basketball or aces a test or reaches some other admirable goal. They say it when someone’s acting stupid or uncool, or when a guy does something his friends think is “girly” or feminine.

Here’s another popular expression: “What a retard!” How does that one make you feel? Not as bad? Maybe you’ve used this one yourself – and didn’t feel weird about it at all. Everyone uses the word retard, right? As long as you don’t use it to refer to someone who’s actually mentally challenged, it’s no big deal.

Guess what? The word retard is a derogatory slur – just like all those other racial, ethnic, religious and homophobic slurs you probably wouldn’t dream of using. Just because “everyone says it” doesn’t mean it’s cool. It’s not very kind either.

Just like “that’s so gay,” the message behind calling someone a retard is that the person’s being stupid or uncool. But on a deeper level, what both insults are saying is that being gay or mentally challenged – a fag, a retard – makes someone less of a person, less worthy of taking up space on the planet.

I personally am not lesbian or mentally challenged, so why do I care? First of all, I’m a human being. Secondly, I have a physical disability, so I have some experience with being a derided minority. I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when I was 13. I walked slowly and with a limp, and a lot of kids at my school teased me for being weird and different. When I transferred to a new school for 9th grade, my arthritis was less severe because of the medication I was taking. I could hide it, and I was determined to keep my “terrible secret” from my new classmates. I was so ashamed of being sick, of being different, because the kids at my former school had let me know how completely uncool it was.

Now that I’m older and hopefully a little wiser, I’m at peace with all the different things that make me who I am – including my disability. And when I hear my friends casually using the word retard, not realizing it doesn’t sit well with me, it really bothers me. I’m intelligent and well educated, so I guess they don’t realize I identify with people who have intellectual disabilities – but I do. They’re “my people,” and I look out for them, especially since they may not be able to look out for themselves.

My friends are generally kind, compassionate people. They obviously aren’t prejudiced against people with disabilities (I mean, they’re friends with me after all). I began to wonder if people maybe just don’t realize that the “R word” is, in fact, a slur. So I started the Facebook group – Guess What? “Retard” is a derogatory term, cut it out! – to educate people and spread the message that using the word retard just isn’t cool.

A new school year starts soon for most of you. If you find yourself about to call your buddy a retard, why not make the choice to be bigger than that? Help spread the good word that retard is NOT a good word! Click on this link, join the Facebook group, and invite your friends to join. Standing up for kindness and compassion is one of the coolest things you can do for the world.

-- Karol


Anne M Leone said...

An excellent explanation of how hurtful that word can be! Thank you.

ivanova said...

I am so, so happy to see this post here! I couldn't agree more. The only slurs that it's still "fine" to say in the schoolyard are slurs against LGBT people and developmentally delayed people. And guess what, these are the people who are most often teased, bullied, and assaulted.

I carry around a little card in my wallet that says, "Words Hit Like a Fist" on one side. On the other side it explains that many people with disabilities consider "r#tard" the most offensive word referring to disability, and that it is hate speech. When my friends use the R word, I pull out the card and hand it to them. I do it in a light-hearted way but I notice that they've started to watch their mouth, at least in front of me. There is a website where you can take a pledge to stop saying it.

Thank you so much, Karol, for writing this great post. You are awesome!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

I agree Anne, I was so grateful to Karol for writing this up!

thanks for your kind words as well, and for the link to the r-word site. Good stuff!


Whimsy said...

I rag on people ALL THE TIME for saying that! They understand when I ask them not to say "that's so gay", but they don't seem to grasp why "that's so retarded" is just as hurtful.

Very happy to see this post.


Vegetarian Cannibal said...

My generation (I am 21 years old) has used "retard" and "that's so gay" since elementary school. For us, it wasn't a malicious attack against gays or people with special needs, it was just "the cool thing to say" to the point where it was as natural as saying: "Dude!" or "O-M-G."

Now that I'm an adult, I have realized how wrong it is to say these things, but sometimes I slip up and mutter it every once in a while. It's hard because I have used these phrases since...well...10yrs old? It's a conscious effort on my part, but I correct everyone I hear saying it too. I think it's an education thing. Kids just don't understand what they're saying is a slur! Once they learn that it is wrong to say these things, they usually try to stop.

Joseph Taylor said...

Well said, as always, Karol. Thank you for standing up and saying that these expressions aren't cool and hurt others. More people need to join you. It's okay to have negative feelings and express them. But how they're expressed is also important.

Hayden said...

Love this post. While "that's so gay" wasn't used while I was in high school, "retard/retarded" was. I'm also seriously torn over my usage of "that's so lame" in my current release because, while I know that it's wrong, I also know that a lot of kids use it, whether or not they're aware of its harmful effects.

Rita said...

Thank you, Karol. Extremely well said!! And thank you, Lee, for showcasing this article here!