“R-words”, “F-words”, and “N-words”, oh my!

August 24, 2008
What do you know about the “R-word”? Doesn’t it sound weird even saying it? It’s like if someone said the “z-word” or the “y-word” (don’t know if those exist but I’m sure after writing this, I’ll find out.) It just doesn’t have the same feel as the “n-word” does it? Well, given that I hate the entire concept of any hyphenated word, I’ll just put it out there—the “r” stands for “retarded” and a scene in the new movie “Tropic Thunder” where the word is used repeatedly has brought the problem with this word to the light for many people—but not enough people.
I used to use the word “retard” when I was younger. At the least I’m pretty sure I did because my friends around me did. As a child, even as a teenager, it never carried the same weight in my family as terms like “nigga” (though I did not us it) so it was nothing to me. I vividly remember lyrics by rappers like Redman (verse in EPMD’s “The Headbanger”) and Canibus (“Get Retarded”) referring to intellectually challenged people and listening to them repeatedly. Those who remember probably thought Redman’s line was the best of everyone’s verses when he said:
“Yes the Redman is what they call me
Wicked wit’ da style you think I had cerebral palsy
Like ‘AAIEEAHAAA’, ‘cause I freak the style crazy
Lullaby your stupid ass, rockabye baby”
Yes. I was ignorant of the word “retarded” until probably my high school years when I actually started to know kids who were intellectually challenged and it altered my reality. Since I’m being honest here, the term “faggot” was also part of my vocabulary until I learned its history as well. Since those years, I have not used either term and still try to work harder to understand language that is offensive to others. I wish the rest of society was as open-minded.

The saddest part of this entire “Tropic Thunder” controversy is seeing commentary by others that people who are complaining about use of the word “retarded” are just overreacting citizens of an overly politically correct society. Many comments end with something similar to: “It’s comedy so just get over it.” This type of nonsense has to stop. We must realize that just because a word means nothing to us, it could have great power towards someone else. Just because I do not believe the word “retarded” has the same power or history as the term “nigga”, does that mean I should keep using it willy-nilly? Who the hell am I to make that decision? As one of my White colleagues put it to me the other day: “the r-word may not be as powerful as the n-word in its history, but when I hear people say that word, they’re talking about my son and that’s not right!” Who am I and who are you to tell her that her she is over reacting?

The English language is vast enough that, if we chose to, we could find words that do not offend others, if we just stopped for a second to think. An extra second of thought could save someone a world of hurt but rather than do that, we become proud in the professing of our ignorance, at least until someone uses a word that we don’t like and then it’s time to call the NAACP, ADL, etc. I’m referring to the Black person who uses the term “faggot” but gets in an uproar when someone (non-Black) uses the term “nigga”. I’m talking about the Jewish person who has no problem calling a Mexican a “wetback” but wants to pull Michael Jackson’s records off the shelves when she hears the word “kike.” The list goes on and on.

We must eliminate all double standards and realize that our words have power. As we try to become more culturally conscious, we should be proud in learning to use language that does not disparage one group or another. We must learn to appreciate the realities and experiences of others that we will never experience and respect their stories. If you don’t know, learn and once you’ve learned, teach. This is a daily exercise that will reduce the obesity of our insensitivity. There is a great deal of healing that needs to take place in this world and those who refuse to acknowledge the deep suffering of others are truly the ones who are intellectually challenged.

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