Too often the response to someone telling us we “can’t” say a certain word or phrase is “it’s just a word, it doesn’t matter.” But is that really the case?
If you were asked to make a list of words that you “shouldn’t” say, it wouldn’t be difficult. Go ahead, think of some right now.
As these words pop into your head, some may be thinking they are “just words.” If you are, congratulations, you are probably privileged enough to ignore the violent, oppressive and damaging history of many of these words.
Let’s start with an obvious example, like the “n-word.” You shouldn’t say any form of this word if you are not black. Full stop. Before someone cries that making this statement is somehow “unfair,” let’s think about it for a moment. This word was created by white people (white slave owners, to be specific) in the 1800s as a way to demean and separate themselves from the black slaves, who were, as we all know, barely accepted as human beings. Today, some, though not all, black people choose to reclaim or reappropriate the term as a way of empowering themselves or injecting their own power into it. Others who are black choose not to say it because of the history of pain and violence behind it, and that’s fine, too.
What’s not fine is when a white person decides to say it. What happens then is that the white supremacist foundation behind the word is reinforced and replicated, regardless of the intent. If you choose to ignore years of violence and hatred by writing it off as “just a word,” well, that’s on you. Enjoy the privilege you have to be able to choose to ignore these things. But also know that you don’t get to create or determine the meaning of a word just because you don’t like its history or because it makes you feel cool.
That goes for any slur, be it racial or gendered or anything else. Another commonly used one is the “r-word,” which is used to demean people with disabilities.
“Well, I don’t mean it that way. It just means ‘stupid’ or something.”
Explain that to the developmentally disabled person who was bullied in high school who just heard you say it.
Replacing “stupid” or a similar word with the “r-word” insinuates that you would just as soon call someone who, back in the day, would have been medically considered “retarded” the same thing. Your intent is practically invalid. It’s the impact that matters.
Even with all that being said, people will continue to fight for their right to say whatever they want. Freedom of speech and all that, sure. And while freedom of speech may grant you the right to say anything, it does not mean that you should say everything. It also doesn’t mean that you are exempt from any consequence or criticism in response to what you say.
More than that, though, just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should want to.
You can spew all the slurs you want and likely get away with it. But why would you want to? Why would you want any part in perpetuating harm, discrimination and belittlement towards any kind of person? Some will roll their eyes at the suggestion of “political correctness,” but there’s less harm in being “politically correct” than in being deliberately racist, sexist, ableist, and the like. We can and should be better.
Students of Franklin College, we have the power to make a difference. Think about the impact of your words. Don’t be afraid to speak out when someone says something you think is offensive or harmful, and be honest in how you do so. And if someone comments on your use of one of these words, take a second to stop and reflect before getting defensive. We all slip up, and no one is impervious to being wrong.
Additionally, please don’t ask, “what about ‘cracker’?” Calling a white person “cracker” will never be oppressive. Is it nice? No. But there’s a big difference between being systematically oppressed and having your feelings hurt.