Sticks And Stones May Break Our Bones, But Words Get People Killed

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?

Three guesses. TC mark


image – Torrie

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  • E.S.G.

    You should never get offended or hurt over any word or phrase, because that is just surrendering yourself over to some evil person and giving them complete control over yourself, your attitude, your person. Why would you want to do that?

    • KelseySaysHi

      I disagree. I think words have history, meaning and context, and it would lazy and inconsiderate to disregard them. People have a right to feel a certain way about word, doesn’t mean the person who says it has control over them. I think it would be equally wise to use your feelings and intuition to discourage people from using the word(s) again. Ignoring -isms actually encourages people to continue using them.

  • perpetualflaneur

    Well said and great analysis. This is by far one of the best posts about social issues and language on this website. Concise and thought-provoking social commentary. I hope people will realize this, and to do that, it should start with having a civil dialogue. This post together with many others from various websites should be great starters.

  • Only L<3Ve @

    […] Thought Catalog » Life Add a comment […]

  • No one of consequence

    While there may be convincing arguments to support why some categories of people may use a word when other categories of people may not, I don’t believe this essay is one of them.

    Beginning with the concept of a slur, if it is defined as “a word specifically used to insult, demonize and cause harm to an oppressed group of people” then it should remain thus and be abhorred by all except those who intend it as a slur. For me, anyway, this ambiguity is where the first problem arises.

    I realize that what I’m about to write is extremely controversial and the temptation might exist to dismiss it outright based on the happenstance of my race (white), but I remain unconvinced as to the appropriateness of using the term “oppressed.” Before your blood boils with rage and you proceed to lecture/educate me, know that regardless of what you write—no matter how informative and persuasive—I will never truly “get it.” I can’t, because I don’t experience it. So how, then, can I possibly be qualified to claim that you aren’t oppressed? That isn’t what I’m trying to say. What I’m trying to say, is that along the spectrum of “were you ever owned as chattel property and whipped for not picking enough cotton” (as an example of an extremely narrow application) and “someone asked me if I saw the BET awards last night, when if fact I only listen to early 90’s Britpop” (as an example of a liberal application), there exists a gradient of everything in between. I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this—convincing me that any and all experiences along that gradient have equal magnitude as a qualifier allowing you to use a word that is prohibited to me is unlikely to succeed. Also, what of black people that have never experienced the oppression? If they exist, do they too get unrestricted usage of the slur (which somehow isn’t a slur when they use it)?

    I think much of this boils down to meaning. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something (or a great many things), but it appears as if you are trying to persuade me to assign the meaning of the slur based entirely on the skin color of who said it. I thought that as a society we were trying to move away from irrational mental shortcuts precisely because of their poor track-record with regards to accurate predictions (i.e. stereotyping or profiling just isn’t accurate enough to be valid). As a rational person (or someone who tries to be rational) I can’t afford to let something like skin color do my “evaluation” for me, because that is almost the same as no evaluation at all.

    I don’t know what was going on in GOOP’s head when she used the n-word, but does anyone truly believe that she meant it as a slur? The conflict arises because we want to use the mental shortcut of evaluating her intent based on her skin color. Again, I am not willing to allow skin color to assign intent—it’s lazy and inaccurate.

    I’d also like to address the holes I see in the Zimmerman example and the Astronaut analogy. With Zimmerman it is just another example of the fallacy of assigning the intent of a whole race based on the action of one (or a few) of it’s members. Have there never been any black-on-black crimes where the n-word was used? As far as the Astronaut goes, I would have to say that for me it was the most disappointing part of the whole essay. Can we really not see the difference on the one had of a merit-based profession requiring highly specialized skills and many thousands of hours training, and on the other hand a happenstance of birth?

    The n-word remains a problem. In my opinion, the easiest way to rid ourselves of this issue is to retire the word completely so as to remove any ambiguity regarding its usage. Take the word “Negro,” for instance. The meaning is far less ambiguous. You are either a fossil from another era who somehow managed to not watch television or interact with anyone for a few decades, or you are a bigot who is intentionally using the word as a slur (and should be dealt with appropriately). If we insist on keeping the n-word in active usage, but maintain that its meaning be derived from an irrational context (the color of the skin of the person who said it) then there will continue to be incidents like recently with GOOP, or awkward moments between friends, or whatever other damage we can imagine it causing.

    I will grant that ignorance is invisible, so there may well be good arguments for why the n-word should remain in usage and its meaning should depend on the color of the skin rather than the intent of the person who said it. Right now, I am unaware of those arguments.

  • chamblee54
  • Lady

    I have mixed feelings about the n-word’s usage. However…looking at the news coverage and then looking at this article, and then looking at the tweet…well, first of all: She didn’t spell it out. She didn’t really write the word. She wrote Ni**as (which, of course, is an acknowledgement that the word is offensive). Second of all: It’s the title of the motherfucking song. The song isn’t called N-Words in Paris (and if she wrote that, is it less offensive than what she wrote?). It’s not called African American’s in Paris. So white people should…what? Be willfully ignorant of what’s going on in in hip hop culture? Or, if they aren’t ignorant of it, pretend that they are so they may never have to reference work that uses the n-word? It’s freaking art we’re talking about here. Art is meant to be discussed. And discussion is a little hard if you can’t even reference the title of a work. And I just reject all together a notion that the art isn’t for the ears of certain racial groups. That’s not just counterproductive to promoting unity and understanding between the races–it’s simply unrealistic. You put something out there, people will consume it and talk about it. And if we’re arguing that referencing a work of art causes people to kill other people? Well, that’s how books get banned and art gets censored and how we keep ourselves ignorant, stupid and fearful of what we don’t understand. Being ignorant, stupid and fearful? Yeah, see THAT causes a lot of deaths.

    • Oliver Miller


  • Hry

    Language is thought and identity expressed. The word nigga retains usage because a section of society, implicitly, mostly unconsciously, wishes to represent itself as apart from the mainstream, reacting to their position as an underclass in said society – and they do so with good reason, when you consider the greater likelihood of black Americans to be born in poverty and deprivation, to be imprisoned etc. The word nigger, by contrast, cannot really be used by anyone other than a white person, as to use it is to (implicitly, again) claim ideological affinity with those who believed that black people were subhuman and deserve to be treated as such.

    Gwyneth Paltrow using the word ‘nigga’ is, to my mind, not racist, but rather laughable and awkward. By using it, she is laying claim to an identity that she is not, and cannot be, a part of – by using their language, she’s effectively saying “I’m one of them,” which is ridiculous. One could make an argument that it’s also ridiculous that Jay Z and Kanye would use the word, seeing as it connotes low socioeconomic status, but that’s another can of worms.

  • Quiet Observer

    I’ve been reading articles on this site for a while now but this one forced me to comment for the first time.
    First of all, you made up your own definition of the word slur and then applied it to fit your scenario. Next time you try to make a convincing argument, try not to oh I don’t know, make things up maybe!
    Secondly, it is pretty widely understood that whatever George Zimmerman did, he did not call Trayvon Martin a coon. He called him a punk and if you listen to the article you can hear the (puh) sound quite clearly but you may only be able to hear the word coon because it is what you want to hear. Again, don’t make things up to serve your argument.
    Again, it’s funny you even admit to having a double standard which in turn takes away from the strength of your argument.
    I happen to think that you don’t quite understand what the word nigger means. You have most certainly heard it and probably heard it uttered against you. However, you have never had it uttered at you while being whipped/beaten in a system of oppression. To those black slaves, it most certainly had a different meaning than what you ascribe to the word.
    These words while they are most certainly pejorative don’t kill. Words don’t cause physical trauma and bleed someone out. To say that someone cannot use a word places a special ability on the group that can. It is called reverse racism. Reverse racism, instead of denigrating one group; it places one group in deference to all of the others. This is why standards must be universal and not situational. The funny thing aout that is in your attempts to stomp out racism and the “n” word, you actually add to it. Think about it. Mull it over. It is all truth and logically follows unlike your original argument.
    The end of this is even though my argument may hurt your feelings and make it seem like the world is a crappy place does not take away from the legitimacy of it.

  • Rachel

    I thought this was phenomenal. I’m really thrilled to finally see some political/racial/socioeconomic consciousness on TC. To the previous comment, I think maybe your argument wasn’t perfect –I don’t know the details of the two examples you used– but the bottom line is this: “The word, and all it implies, becomes the justification, the impetus, the reasoning.” This has been and is the truth. The same truth applies to slurs used against any other group–when you call someone a cunt or a fag for example, the weight of the word is so much greater than, for example, calling someone a dick, because the former words, in the society that we live in, still justify violence against those oppressed groups on a daily basis.

    Thank you for writing and posting.

  • Anonymous

    You know, I think you’re responding to sentiment that doesn’t exist, and it’s causing you to be condescending. There’s nobody claiming that Gwyneth Paltrow has the right to use the n-word (title of the song aside), yet for some reason you’re acting as though you’re speaking uncomfortable yet blazing truths to a shocked audience. I hate to break it to you, but this is Thought Catalog. Maybe if this was an op-ed on Fox News you might raise some eyebrows, but everyone here agrees with you, either mostly or entirely.

  • Alexandra

    Thank you.

  • Roy

    A word, like any bully, has as much power as you give it. Seems like the n-word is behaving like a bully in the etymological ball-park and someone needs to remind it that it comes from “negroid” – just like caucasian, mongoloid, etc – an anthropological categorization based on skeletal structure, blah di blah.. As for being called the n-word before someone gets killed, history is littered with multiple such words – jews, fucker, injun, cocksucker.. etc. The fact is – if we want to, there’s enough and more to be offended by out there in the media and the world, human trafficking, animal cruelty, diminishing ocean life, people who consume their own waste because they’re starving… Being offended about one word is just lame.

    • Domino

      fantastic point. i think we often give the wrong things too much focus..

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