With Gwyneth Paltrow’s unfortunate little “slip” of the n-word that came out recently, we’ve all been talking again about the power and meaning of words in different hands, and the conversation has become very serious. Yes, I know, you’re tired of hearing this already, blah blah language police, but give me a chance.
Everyone knows what a slur is. It’s a word specifically used to insult, demonize and cause harm to an oppressed group of people, often reclaimed by those same people. Note that I said oppressed group of people. That’s code for “not everyone.” I know, I know, it’s a double standard, freedom of speech, words are just words, sticks and stones, all that stuff our moms told us as kids to keep us from whining during their important dinner parties that we already know is a load of bunk anyway. I’m sure I’m not going to be the first to tell you: That makes no sense.
We’re all big people now and we’re capable of understanding that not all people are equal, not all situations are equal, and because of that, the same action could have a different effect depending on who it comes from and who it hits. The US law system has provisos for this. A crime committed against a child is punished more harshly than one against an adult. Why? Because a child is more vulnerable, less capable of self-defense. Similarly, a child committing certain crimes, depending on their age, will receive a lesser sentence, considered a “special circumstance.”
Ever hugged and kissed your family members? I’m sure you have. Ever hugged and kissed your least favorite teacher? Doubt you have, because he probably smells like old cheese, aside from the fact that you absolutely hate him. It’s called a standard. Not a double standard, just a plain old standard. Based on a person’s circumstances, some things should be okay and some shouldn’t.
I’m not allowed to be an astronaut. Why? Because I don’t know anything about being an astronaut and I’d probably crash and blow up the planet or something. In the same way, some people, when they use certain words, are going to get different reactions when than others, and the effects will be different, too. Using the Gwyneth example, pretty much everyone understands that if you’re not Black, you don’t use the n-word or racial slurs, but not everyone understands why.
It’s simple: Because people who aren’t Black still use that word right before they kill or attack Black people, or even to disrespect those who were killed — the word, and all it implies, becomes the justification, the impetus, the reasoning. Like in the situation of a veteran, 68 years old, who accidentally hit his life alert and was shot dead after being called that word. Or when George Zimmerman called Trayvon Martin another common slur for Black people shortly before he murdered him.
That’s just this year — and just the ones we know of. That’s just the last five months. My newborn baby cousin is older than that. Those words are associated with death and violence when they come from outside of the group. Slurs against oppressed people are more than just words. They are words paired with the very real loss of lives, with the very real “other” status society imposes upon them.
I’m not going to play language police on everyone, because no one likes being told what to do. But just because you can’t see the line from A to B clearly doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. Just think about what you make jokes about, think about what you’re saying and the effect it could have on the specific people referenced for just a few seconds more, even if you don’t mean it to be offensive, and even if you really, really think it’s funny.
Cause I gotta say… I don’t really think the idea of my death is funny. And maybe this is just me being out there, but I’m pretty sure that’s a common thing most people share. Just think. Because words DO kill. How else did bigotry become so commonplace — so ingrained in our society? It was taught, of course, using what?