Some of you may know that this year March 5th is the awareness day for the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. I have written about my feelings about the “R-word” in previous posts–specifically in regard to Ann Coulter’s continued use of the word.

I didn’t get to write about the R-word on March 5th as we were in the throws of a (mild) pneumonia and a big trip out to Boston Children’s Hospital…and I suppose that it feels as though so many of the people I am in contact with are already very sensitized to this word for a number of reasons. I generally choose to surround myself with people who are sensitive to others and those of my friends and acquaintances who didn’t already know not to use the R-word now know–either through my pro-active gentle reminders or through my not-so-gentle responses to the use of the R-word.

The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign has been really effective…and I do think that we might be hard-pressed to find many people who don’t “know” that the use of this word isn’t widely acceptable. Perhaps some do genuinely forget or slip up as habits can be hard to break. And of course there are folks like Ann Coulter who aggressively defend their right to use the word no matter who is hurt by it.

So it was fairly shocking to me when I walked into a small store last week and heard someone loudly declaring: “What do they think were are? A bunch of [R-words]?”

And laughing.

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. The word came out of the mouth of a man who was working on the lighting displays in the store (not a store employee). He stood right in line with the path I was walking on my way to the back corner of the store. I could feel my face flush as I sort of veered to the left, my body automatically reflecting my desire to just turn and walk back out of the store…my brain running through a sort of systems check:

  1. Esmé isn’t with me. Thank god Esmé isn’t with me.
  2. Should I just leave? Maybe I should just leave.
  3. Wait a minute, why would I leave the store? It’s not my fault! 
  4. Someone should say something.
  5. Hmm…I guess that is me…
  6. I need to say something quickly before too much time passes.
  7. What should I say? Something smart, that will make him think, not the list of curse words running through my head.
  8. Oh look my mouth opened and I am saying something…dear lord let me be coherent…
Through that systems check I had made my way passed the man to the back of the store and I turned around and told him that I have a developmentally delayed daughter (not that it should matter, the word is bad whether or not the person who hears it is affected directly) and that it is horrifying to hear someone use that word–especially in a professional context from a grown man who should know better.
He said he was sorry and that he didn’t “mean” to use the word. And, ever needing to have the last word, I said, “well, you should watch your mouth.” A few minutes later an employee came over to ask me if I needed any help. He was a very soft-spoken and nice man…and I am pretty certain we shared a little moment and I detected a knowing smile as he helped me with what I came in for. 
It was only after I felt I had a friend next to me that I realized I was shaking.
So, that really stunk. It was pretty unfortunate…but I am also glad I had the opportunity to stand up for what I think is right, even if it wasn’t easy. And I truly hope that I handled it in a way that will change the way that man (and anyone else who heard) thinks about his language in general–and the R-word specifically. I hope that I didn’t further alienate him if he happens to fall into that category of person who thinks it should be an acceptable word to use.
But what keeps sticking with me is that he said he didn’t “mean” to use that word. What troubles me about that it suggests that it just slipped out…but a word needs to be accessible in order to “just slip out.” By which I mean, there are all kinds of words that I just don’t use because they are hurtful or offensive or make me uncomfortable. These words never “just slip out.” They are in a no-go part of my brain. I know them; I know what they mean. I may have said them in discussions about them…but they would never come out without me “meaning” them, the way you might say left instead of right.
I think what not “meaning” to say the word meant, was that he didn’t “mean” to say it to someone who might be offended. 
It makes me think of something my father told me he says whenever someone says something that he feels is racially inappropriate. He says, “I bet you said that because you think I am white.”And while he is, strictly speaking, pretty darn caucasian, he says this as a way of blurring racial identity and making issues of race everyone’s issue.
It shouldn’t matter whether the R-word is used around me or another mother of a child with a disability or only quietly in one’s home. Using it at all suggests that it is “ok” in certain circumstances, i.e. when no one is there to be offended. But it is fundamentally offensive no matter what the circumstances as it degrades and dehumanizes a group of people who are more likely than most to be mistreated, who are vulnerable, who have a history of being degraded and dehumanized.
And what that means is that we all have to stand up against words like the R-word when we hear them–perhaps especially much if it doesn’t affect us directly because instead of the lesson being: “Don’t use this word, you never know who you might offend,” the lesson becomes, “You degrade and insult us all when you use words that degrade and insult others, period.”

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