Not only does using words in a negative context degrade those who may identify with them, they perpetuate the notion that it's okay to say them.
Through A City Education, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.
Words are powerful. When first spoken, they signify a major developmental milestone. When first read, they can float off the pages in a story and connect the very first concepts learned in school. They're the building blocks for every relationship and interaction in life. But, at some point words can be misunderstood—losing their true meanings or being used to tear other people down.
The words "retarded" and "gay" have snuck their way into our everyday language and have adapted a negative connotation. I've heard everyone from educated and wealthy businessmen to my well-traveled peers use them. I realized that these were just blanket terms for people, masking their intended message. To much of society, they may not seem like a big deal because they're not words that are originally rooted in hate. They may not seem like a big deal because you're not often reprimanded when you use them. But, addressing the use of these words is especially important in schools, where language is developed.
During my first service year with City Year San Antonio, I served as a mentor and tutor to high schoolers in one of the most vibrant and welcoming communities I've ever been a part of. I didn't notice many similarities to my own high school experience but some things sounded familiar. "We have to write two pages? That's so retarded!" or, "Man, I can't pull my pants up that high. I look gay."
One time I was standing just outside the cafeteria when I saw a student with severe developmental disabilities accidentally bump into one of the seniors. The senior shouted the R-word at him, laughed, and ran up the stairs. He didn’t think twice about what he'd said.
In the midst of trying to get my students to show up to school regularly, stop them from getting into fights, improve their grades, prompt them to think about their future, how could I also going to change the way they think about language and get them to develop empathy? Students say these two words so often that people don't think twice about it. But, it's not just the kids who say those words, and it's important to realize that they don't just learn them on their own.
Unlike so many other things, words don't discriminate against age, class, or education. Hurtful words can flow just as easily out of the mouth of the middle-aged businessman as they can out of the mouth of a ninth grader in an inner-city school.
And, while people don't always use these words maliciously, we can't allow it to be acceptable in one context and inappropriate in the other. We need students to understand that using hurtful, hateful words, even if they are not directed to anyone in particular, is still wrong. It's even more important that we're consistent because the normalization of these words and the inconsistent way we reprimand them can result in a generation numb to the consequences of what they say.
Before you think about using them, are the color of those pants really "gay?" Is it really "retarded" that your favorite sports team lost? No. Not only does using these words in a negative context degrade those who may identify with them, but they perpetuate the notion that it's okay to say whatever you want because it's not what you really mean.
When my students used these words, I'd continually explain to them that if it's not what they really mean, then why say it at all? Although I'd initially get some eye rolls from them, eventually some of them stopped using derogatory words altogether.
If we're going to teach youth that what they have to say is important, and the way they treat others is important, then we have to make a point to help them understand why their language matters. We need to put as much importance on children becoming socially conscious, compassionate people as we do on grades and state standards. Ultimately, this requires us to lead by example and be conscious of our own word choices and actions. Change may be hard, but as educators, parents and community members, it starts with us.
Click here to say you'll take the pledge to end the use of the "r-word."
Unhappy teenage girl image via Shutterstock