We hear derogatory terms thrown around everyday — in the hallways at school, online, and in the media. While these terms may have originally been intended as disparagements or slurs, their role in our culture has completely transformed, and not for the better. It’s true; the casual usage of phrases like “that’s so gay” and “man up” no longer connotes discrimination or hate against a specific group of people. The words have slowly lost the malice behind them. They pervade friendly and lighthearted banter, often serving to lighten the atmosphere or to demonstrate comfort and closeness between people.
However, the underlying messages of these pejoratives still exist, even if they are less apparent. They encourage prejudice and intolerance, and plant the seeds of these biases is our minds without our even realizing. Everyday I walk around at my school and hear the word “retarded” being used to describe something or someone in a way that completely distorts its meaning. It’s used to describe a student who doesn’t understand the material as well as others, an unfair situation, or something that doesn’t make sense. Especially with regard to a person, we are equating the intellectual disability with being dumb or stupid, which is completely wrong. Our constant exposure to this usage of the word “retarded” desensitizes us to the reality and hardships of those who are truly mentally retarded. We begin to treat it like a joke — as an issue deserving less seriousness or respect that it really does. I myself am guilty of perpetuating this inappropriate usage.
However, although the subtle implications of these derogatory phrases are unacceptable, those who use these phrases are not necessarily bad people. In fact, many great and moral people use them. They are simply unaware of the discrimination these phrases engender, and use them unconsciously in every day conversation; it has become instinctive. This lack of awareness was something the “You Don’t Say?” Campaign at Duke University sought to remedy. The campaign’s purpose was to encourage people to consider the potentially negative implications of their words before speaking to avoid hurting those around them.
The campaign consisted of a collection of images, in which students were pictured with derogatory phrases and explanations for why they do not use them. Finishing the sentence beginning with “We Don’t Say,” these were some of the answers:
“Man Up” – Because strength is not defined by sex or gender
“Don’t Be A Pussy” – Because I don’t believe that any gender is inferior
“B*tch” – Because it insists that femininity is inherently negative
“No Homo” – Because it means that showing any affection towards someone of the same sex is inherently bad
“That’s So Gay” – Because the words gay & stupid are not interchangeable
“Tranny” – Because it’s insulting to transgender and genderqueer communities & people who don’t fit traditional labels
As these students from Duke have done, we collectively need to increase our awareness of what we are saying and how our words may affect others. What may not be offensive to you could be to someone else who has a different perspective and has had different experiences than you. While the eventual goal is to remove these derogatory phrases from all everyday conversation, adjusting our own mindset and consciousness of the issue is the first step.