When I was teaching high school, I spent the better part of one of my first classes each year discussing hate language and what constitutes hate language. We discussed using “gay” as an insult, we discussed using “retarded” as an insult, we discussed using “like a girl” as an insult, and so on. It was always a great discussion and when my students tried to defend themselves and their use of this hate language, it led to “aha” moments for all of us. From then on, if one of these words or phrases leaked out of any of my students's mouths, we talked about it. I refused to gloss over it.
For years after I stopped teaching, I had old students coming up to me telling me that I was forever in their heads, making them second guess their language and making them flinch and speak up when friends used hate language near them.
I consider this one of my greatest achievements.
Because here’s the thing: We all say dumb shit. We all use language without thinking about what it means. Most of us are forever slowly working our way out of deeply embedded prejudice that we might not even be aware of.
And sometimes we need someone to point it out.
Does it sting? Sure. Is it embarrassing? Absolutely. Is it necessary? YES.
We can’t just allow folks around us to use hate language because we don’t want to be impolite. And we especially can’t allow folks to use language based in hate and vitriol without thinking about what they're saying. We owe it to each other to say something. To point out, "Hey... that thing you just said? I don't think you're aware of how hurtful it is to a lot of people." We can't just sit by and listen to people using language that hurts and demeans and minimizes an already marginalized group just because we don’t want to speak up and step on each other’s toes.
I know a lot of people are going to roll their eyes at me. They're going to say, "But that's not what I mean. It's just a word. I'm not, like, a bigot. I'm not prejudiced."
But it's not just a word. It's lives. It's groups of people. And when you use a group of people as a way to talk shit... that is prejudice. That is bigotry.
But we don't always pay attention to what we're saying, and that's a problem.
Using ableist or homophobic or racist or misogynist or any other hate language isn’t funny. It’s hurtful. It breaks people. It shows them, without a doubt, that you feel better than.
Our president has made it quite clear that he thinks he's better than those with disabilities. (And women and people of color and anyone from a different country and anyone with a non-Christian religion and anyone who's not straight and anyone who's not rich and and and and.) Let's do better that he's done.
Frankly, it's not hard.
We just have to pay attention to what we say.
Can we promise to stop AND to speak up and ask people around us to stop when they use any kind of hate language? Can we stop with the R-word? Because it’s not funny and it’s innocent and it's not okay. We all make mistakes. We all say things we shouldn't. I know I have, and I'm sure I still do. But if I do, I hope people around me will say something. I hope they'll call me out on it.
Because our kids need to see us using language carefully and standing up for each other.