I recently attended a birthday party for a friend. There were sixteen people at the party — I knew four of them — one’s a very close friend of mine. We were all sitting down to eat when somebody used the word retard.
Of course, I’d heard it, but seeing as the guests were mostly strangers to me, I decided to just move on, and let it go. I convinced myself that this person — this girl-who-used-the-word — didn’t know that she was misusing "that word," that is, using it in a negative way. My close friend, knowing how I feel about people using “that word” (and I truly believe my friend didn’t mean any harm by it, and did not expect the girl-who-used-the-word to react as she did), jokingly said,
“Yoni, did you hear that?”
I tried to laugh it off instead of starting a debate on why we should or shouldn’t say “that word.”
Which did not happen.
Instead, the girl-who-used-the-word, turned around and asked me why “that word” bothered me?
In an attempt to avoid a major disagreement, I kindly explained that the word "retard" bothers me, and would she use another word. Like many people my age, (I’m 23), she thought that it would be amusing to keep using “that word” to get a rise out of me. I continued to explain that I personally don’t like getting into this kind of conversation with random people that I don’t know, let alone at a friend’s birthday party. Just as in previous situations I have been in, where I’ve heard people justifying the use of the word "retard,” the girl-who-used-the-word began sharing her thoughts;
“But I don’t mean anything bad by it,”
“It’s just a word,”
“It bothers you because you work in that field,"
The last one is what really hit home for me, and I was ready to burst but kept my cool. I wanted to say, “No, it bothers me because I have a sister who’s retarded,” just to see what her reaction would be, and what would be the next excuse she would have for using “that word.” Instead, I resisted, and (slightly more aggressively than before) explained that I have my own personal reasons for my reaction when people use “that word,” and could she please respect my decisions.
At this point, I realized I wasn’t going to change this girl-who-used-the-word’s mind, and that in the process had put myself into an agitated mood.
When I find myself in a situation like this, I like to use a technique that I practice when working with kids. The main point of the technique is to bring the conversation back to something to which both parties can relate — individually and together. I asked the girl-who-used-the-word to respect me as a person, and just use a different word. Just like when you ask someone on the bus not to put their feet on the seat. They might not think it’s a big deal, or see why it would bother someone, but usually out of respect for the other person they’ll take their feet down. People in any setting should be able to have safe conversations with each other — to learn and discuss topics that spur different opinions, and in this case, not put the other party guests in an uncomfortable situation.
I ended up leaving that party feeling very irritated. It wasn’t just because “that word” was used, but that I was put into a compromising position — either abandon my principles or come off as an opinionated person who went off on a rant, lecturing someone at a birthday party.
When I mention “that word,” I am not just talking about the word "retard,” or “retarded." It’s about so much more than that.
Many of us, myself included (my mother can attest to that), take very little time to consider how our words can hurt someone — with or without our knowledge. Whether it be racially, anti-Semitic, sexist or just a mean word, we should all just take a second, and before we open our mouths, try to respect the people around us. Like my mother always says, “think before you speak!"
Yoni is the Teen Leadership Coordinator for Shutaf.