I grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, in the early- to mid-1980s, at a time when my neighbourhood felt like it was about 98% white. Just the other day, I took Marshall for a drive in the old neighbourhood of Kingston and McCowan, and while it’s a little more multicultural today than it was thirty-five years ago, it still has the feel of a homogenous suburb. I remember a family trip to Salt Lake City to visit what must have been the one Chinese family in the state of Utah, where the Chinese teenager of that family mentioned how hard it was to be in a city that was so racially undiverse. At the time, I thought, “Hell, doesn’t look that different than home.”
We used to throw bad language around like it was an old baseball and we were major leaguers. I don’t know when kids start swearing today, but when I was a kid, we said anything and everything. There’s that delicious feeling of rebellion when you do or say something you know you’re not supposed to, and frankly, no one really taught me not to. I’m not talking about your usual cursing; we would use horrible racial epithets that, for us, were just another word. It’s hard to understand the power of certain words when everyone around you is white. Everyone. I understand that there are distinctions between “white” and “white”, but as far as I’m concerned, with a few exceptions, if you’re white, you’ve started with at least +1 to your life stats.
So, some of the white kids around me would casually throw words like chink and n—– around. I never even thought of the meaning of n—– while I lived in Scarborough, not when I was about as different as it got at good ol’ St. Agatha. I clearly remember an exchange student joining out school for a half a year when I was in grade four or five. He was from Botswana, and probably had the darkest skin most of the people at the school had ever seen. I recall thinking, “Thank god he’s here, because he’ll probably take some of the bullying heat off me.” (It didn’t happen.)
Anyway, once I switched schools and saw more of the city, I quickly learned that my use of the English language needed some altering. Running around somewhere at my new school in grade seven, I let rip the n-word. An older student pulled me aside and told me, “We don’t use that word around here,” before explaining to me why. I was stunned. It wasn’t just another word like “asshole” or “stupid sack of shit.” Why hadn’t anyone explained this to me until I was twelve?!?
Of course, I can honestly say that since that day, I have not used that word, except perhaps in academic discussions with black friends about the use of the word. Using it when I was ignorant of its meaning and origins was one thing, but I couldn’t say it now.
“Retarded” is another one of those words. Yes, yes, I know that it has a proper dictionary definition, and at one time, it was widely used in formal language. I still hear it being used to describe children who are cognitively delayed in some circles, including many American publications, but on the whole, it’s now most often used as a pejorative term: “You’re being retarded” when someone is doing something you disagree with, and “That’s retarded!” as an exclamation of surprise at someone’s or something’s stupidity.
I stopped using it this way around age twelve as well, as have many of the people I know, but it is still very commonly heard, especially on the internet. I also hear kids say it at school, which is when they get the polite lecture/discussion with me. Unfortunately, I know of teachers who have used it in class as well, which is disheartening but, sadly, not all that shocking.
My greatest fear about Marshall is the unknown surrounding his cognitive abilities. So much is still yet to be revealed as he grows, and hopefully all is okay, but there is a chance…I’m loathe to even think it because it’s too hard still. Knowing this makes the use of “retarded” by people around me sting that much more. Will they refer to Marshall as a “retard” when he’s not in the room? Maybe I’m being too sensitive about it, but when it comes to this, I feel like overly sensitive is the right thing to be.Besides, if you know there are a large number of people who feel strongly about it, do you have to use it when there is a plethora of other choices?
We’ve worked so hard in recent years to curb the use of “That’s so gay”, yet on the internet, we still see it all the time (on that note, is there a lamer, more juvenile insult than “butthurt”?). I have some, but little, hope that “retarded” goes the way of the dinosaurs, but given the amount of support the Confederate flag still garners, I’m not holding my breath that North American society is progressive enough yet to stop using such disparaging language. A crack-addled racist homophobic sexist mayor (no longer, thankfully!) in the largest city in Canada, sports team owners insisting that nicknames like the Redskins and Blackhawks are acceptable, and an American presidential candidate who thinks Mexican immigrants are rapists – I weep for our future.