It only takes a few minutes of searching on Twitter (or using the r-word counter) to see how pervasive the use of the r-word is in our society. And I’m sure that, to some people, the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign may seem like just one more in a long line of assaults of political-correctness-run-amok. I hope you’ll stick with me for a few minutes, though, while I explain to you why I believe eliminating “ret-rd(ed)” from the common vernacular isn’t about political correctness at all, but about respect.
Rarely do I hear the word “n-gger” in everyday conversation anymore. The n-word is derived from the word negro, which was itself derived from the Latin adjective niger, which means black. In the beginning, it was a neutral word, not a pejorative, but over time it came to be used in a derogatory manner. Today, decent people recognize that the n-word’s time has passed and elect not to use it. Today, decent people grasp the concept that use of the n-word calls to mind a time when a group of people faced discrimination and abuse. Today, decent people understand it’s wrong to use the n-word.
Mental retardation is a neutral (though now outdated) term used to describe individuals with impaired cognitive functioning (intellectual disability is the preferred term today). The word retard (emphasis on -tard, not re-) also has an innocuous meaning, unrelated to intellectual disabilities (like fire-retardant clothing). However, over time, the words ret-rd (emphasis on the re-) and ret-rded, much like the n-word, have developed as derogatory slang for, in the best case, things that people deem to be silly, awkward, or ridiculous, or in the worst case, intentional slurs against people with intellectual disabilities. Unlike the n-word, however, the r-word is still frequently used. It’s more common among young people, but I’ve heard it from people my age, as well – including people that I would call friends.
Last night, Sarah Kate’s school held a silent auction. We did not attend (for reasons I won’t detail here because they aren’t relevant to this post), but a friend called me today to let me know that she heard two different adults using the r-word at the auction; one of the individuals was a teacher at the school, and the other was a parent who is a loved and respected member of our community. It was heartbreaking to know that these two individuals – both of whom are personally known to our family – would not know that to use the r-word is hurtful.
I’m sure that many (most?) people who use the r-word probably don’t ever consider how what they are saying affects people with intellectual disabilities, their families, and friends – I get that. They say it because they’ve heard it said, because people have laughed when they said it, or because they just aren’t creative enough to come up with a better word. All of those are reasons – but reasons aren’t excuses. When confronted, people will often say “…but I didn’t mean…” and while that may be true, the bottom line is that the r-word is never used to describe something or someone in a positive way. Ret-rd(ed) is never a compliment.
I don’t use the n-word, and I never have. My parents instilled in me a respect for all people, and would never have tolerated either my sister or me making fun of any group or degrading any individual. I am grateful to them for giving me that gift of respecting others. I am appreciative of the fact that not only do I not use the n-word (or other derogatory terms for specific groups of people that I won’t repeat here), but that I also feel extremely uncomfortable when others do so. I’m not perfect, and I don’t always say the right things, but this is one area where I’m strong.
I have always hated to hear the r-word spoken by others, but until my son Nathan was born, I always just lumped it in with those other derogatory terms that people said – something I didn’t like and wouldn’t say, but just one of many in the category of Things Not to Say. Now that I have a son with Down syndrome, I can see that the r-word isn’t just one of many Things Not to Say – it is the KING of Things Not to Say. What makes the r-word worse? Because people with intellectual disabilities are less able to defend themselves. Because the people that I have known in my life with intellectual disabilities have had a more pure heart and a more loving spirit than anyone else I have known. Because a person who loves purely and deeply and accepts others unconditionally doesn’t go on the offensive when attacked. There is no excuse for using hurtful and derogatory language that hurts anyone – but using hurtful and derogatory language against the most innocent in our society is completely unacceptable.
If you use the r-word, please stop. If a friend or family member uses the r-word, help them to understand why it’s hurtful. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about respect.
Visit http://r-word.org/ for information on the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.