Beyond Words

Unlike swear words, slurs commonly slip notice but are far more hurtful.


photo by Julia Poppa

When we are conscious of what we say, it makes all the difference in the world.

My step sister was born with West syndrome, which is a condition causing epilepsy and infantile spasms, as well as disrupted brain wave patterns that lead to mental handicaps. For her, brain development came essentially to a halt when she was two months old and has made extremely little progress since. She is 12 years old now, and while she may not directly respond to things the way that other 12 year olds do, she still seems to smile a little more when she sees the color yellow, or tastes ice cream, or gets taken on walks in her wheelchair.

She is still a human being, and like any other person, has done nothing to warrant the life she has.

About three years ago, my step mom and I decided to take her out for ice cream after a walk. While we were there, we heard a group of kids say, “Why is that retard here if they can’t eat ice cream?” I saw the shock on my step mom’s face, and the hurt that she felt for her daughter who had struggled with this condition for years. 

Every day, many of us utter hurtful words. As kids, we were all generally cautious around these so-called “bad” words. We knew what kinds of reactions our word choices would elicit, whether that be soap in our mouths, a smack on the wrist, or sharp glances from the adults around us. But we grew up, and now those bad words are in our favorite songs, TV shows and movies. We say them all the time — so do our parents, our teachers, and our friends. We seem to be accustomed to tuning them out, turning a blind eye to all of the bad things that people are saying, including slurs.

I used to wonder why swear words were treated with such severity, while slurs and other derogatory terms were passed over.

One easy stroll through the halls will prove that our sensitivity to foul language has decreased quite drastically since our younger years. Some of the adults who are privy to casual conversation between students find such language offensive regardless of the context, but in general, unless the words are said with malice, people usually don’t really care.

But I’ve begun to see a disturbing pattern.  I used to wonder why swear words were treated with such severity, while slurs and other derogatory terms were passed over. But I’ve come to understand that it’s because we’ve always been told to ignore slurs. 

Swear words don’t target specific groups of people — to most of us, they sound like generalized insults. They’re essentially non-denominational in our current climate, regardless of their root meaning.

Slurs, on the other hand, get carried along down two distinctly different paths, with two very different meanings. There is the meaning assigned to the slur by the oppressor, the image that it conjures, and the disgust it carries, and there is the meaning interpreted by the oppressed, who must now wear that slur like a dunce cap, a definition of themselves, a target on their backs. 

Slurs aren’t just words that we use in the hallways to talk about tests and homework and the inevitable difficulties of growing up and wanting to fit in. They frequent the mouths of our politicians, our parents, and the people we pass by on the streets. Even just to hear our President casually use slurs like “retarded” normalizes the passiveness we succumb to when it comes to helping lift the voices of the hurting. 

In truth, all slurs are labels that have been carried around for generations as the mark of ‘otherness.’

My peers use the term “retarded” to call things — or other people — stupid or useless. What is confounding is that everyone knows that the term refers to mentally handicapped people. But the mindset of those who carelessly utter the word is usually something like this: “No disabled person is around, so does it really matter?”

The answer is that it does. Whether the language denotes mental ability, ethnicity, or sexuality, the distaste and hatred that these slurs carry behind them imply that these groups are therefore worthy of the same distaste and hatred.  In truth, all slurs are labels that have been carried around for generations as the mark of “otherness.”

The reason our teachers and parents know to snap at us or correct us when we swear is because the list of “bad” words is so much shorter and so much more definitive if we limit it to swear words alone. That list doesn’t expose the prejudices people might carry — it just exposes our laziness when it comes to challenging the status quo. 

Complacency in the face of the continued suffering of the hurting, the overlooked, and the marginalized must never be tolerated. And while changing the way we speak might not bring forth justice for all, at least it’s a start. 

My stepsister is not “retarded,” nor is she unworthy of love and compassion. She is not the slurs assigned to her, and neither is anyone else.