Words, politics, relationships, people – why I dislike the word “retarded”

Sweet Machine over at Shapely Prose just posted a really great essay^ on the recent news story about Rahm Emanuel’s unfortunate usage of “f*ing retards” and the response of Sarah Palin (and Rush Limbaugh). I urge you to read that, and to read the full text of the TigerBeatdown^ post by Sady that she quoted.

I know I have a comment in my “On disability” page about the word “retarded.” But…I’m going to take a minute to revisit the issue here.

A lot of people I know use the word, and use it as a slur, rather than as a medical descriptor (or to explain why it’s a slur, or other such usage in which it’s the object of conversation rather than an adjective). People I otherwise care for very much use it. Now, I dislike certain confrontations, especially when I’m already stressed out, and let’s face it, finishing my doctorate was a stressful time. (Stay tuned for a discussion of that!) I’ve left conversations feeling unsettled and regretful that I didn’t object to the slur. Sometimes I’m afraid to damage relationships. Sometimes I just conceal the hurt at realizing that my friends and acquaintances don’t really associate Lily with the politics of disability, understanding that their language can and does hurt me and would hurt her. Sometimes I give in to my fears of being a social outcast when the usage occurs in groups. Not good reasons, and I’m trying to work on being more open about my feelings on the matter.

Despite all of that, it didn’t really hit home to me just how much it upset me to hear the word until a week or so ago, though. In my new job, I share an office with someone with whom I get along well; we haven’t known each other very long, but I think we’re going to be good friends. As you may have noticed from some of my other entries here, I’m often hesitant to tell new people in my life about Lily. That conversation is often a risky one for me, because I can tell a lot about how a person will relate to me based on their reactions to information about her. Not to mention the fact that the story is complicated and distracting and just not my favorite thing. I mean, it’s who she is, but Lily is so much more than her physical self, you know? It may be necessary to explain that she’s blind to make someone understand how funny it was to have her throw a beanbag directly to my dad, say, only she caught him off guard and hit him right in the head. Or something like that. (Beanbag battles are definitely a serious event in our family!)

But I digress. I had actually gathered up the nerve to talk about Lily with my new coworker, and he had dealt with it well. (In other words, he didn’t press the issue, and asked reasonable questions.) And then…then came the conversation, a couple of weeks later, in which he was trying to voice displeasure with something that bureaucrats had done that irritated him. He actually tried to come up with another word, but finally landed on retarded. I sighed, and thanked him for at least trying to avoid it. Which of course triggered the look on his face that I could only interpret as “Wait, you’re not one of those people, are you?,” accompanied by a less painful fumbling of words. I should say that I was trying to give him some credit here, as English is not his first language, and his slang usage reflects that, and I am willing to grant that he probably didn’t really understand how strongly negative it is. Even so, I surprised myself with the amount of harshness in my voice when I explained to him that I know the meaning of the word, and that most people in this country use it solely in a derogatory manner. I also noted that it wasn’t particularly enjoyable to me as an older sister, and that I have indeed heard jokes or attempts to cover fear with humor in which Lily was referred to as a retard, or as retarded. I think he really listened to me, but I don’t know how much of an impact it had on him. Time will tell, I suppose.

I guess what it comes down to, for me, is what one of my friends says: words mean things. It’s good to remember that, and to use the words you want, especially since it lets you use words that don’t do harm. It’s hard sometimes, but I have to believe that it’s worth it.


One Comment on “Words, politics, relationships, people – why I dislike the word “retarded””

  1. Carolyn says:

    I never, EVER, let anyone get by with using “retarded” around me–it makes me SO angry, it’s such a bully word. One of THOSE people, indeed. 🙂 I’m glad you stood up to speak, it’s sometimes terrifying and usually Important to do that. You’re pretty awesome. *hug*

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