Language is an extremely finicky thing.
Much like a snowball, a language picks up habits and normalcies from the culture that uses it as time goes on, especially our really bad habits like racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The word “retarded” is probably the most widely understood example of this. Because the R-word has been used to demean and delegitimize disabled people (even beyond those who live with Down’s Syndrome), it has gained an extremely unsavory reputation amongst disabled people and allies alike with a strong desire to squander the word from existence.
And rightfully so.
If a single word is enough to completely dismiss and disregard an entire population’s feelings, ideas, and humanity, you can imagine why those people would want it erased from society’s vocabulary.
What Is Problematic Language?
Problematic language is the use of any words or phrases that have specific, derogative meaning toward a specific marginalized group of people.
This includes women, people of Color, trans* and LGBQIA+ people, various immigrant groups, and a multitude of others – any group that doesn’t have legitimate power and authority within our society.
It’s likely that at one point or another while engaging in discussions on race, feminism, queerness, disability, or gender, you’ve seen someone who was called out by someone else for saying a word or phrase that didn’t agree with them for one reason or another.
It’s also likely that the response to this was one of frustration or defensiveness, or maybe even just pure outrage against “do-nothing slacktivism” or comments about how language policing is an infringement on their freedom of speech and First Amendment rights (neither of which arguments I can morally justify supporting).
The question I would like to pose to people who react this way is this:
Why are you so attached to these words?
Dropping a word or two from your vocabulary takes maybe a few days of intermittent thought to figure out an alternative word to replace it, and then you can move on with your life.
By not adjusting your language, however, you are instead being complacent in making members of marginalized groups uncomfortable and risk being triggering for the rest of your life.
The psychological and emotional trade-off cost clearly favors the person using the word to change their behaviors, yet this suggestion is frequently met with backlash and outrage.
This issue comes up like clockwork anytime someone mentions cultural appropriation or problematic language, and it renders the attempt at education completely null in the discussion.
There is an appropriate way to handle these conversations that maintains your rights as a human and respects the person who has called you out, and I think presenting a standard formality might be useful.
But first, an explanation of why problematic language is so terrible.
Problematic Language Is Violence
Like I mentioned above, language carries all of the burdens of our culture with it.
The word “tranny,” for instance, has been, and continues to be, used consistently by cisgender people who wish to hurt trans* women with physical or verbal abuse.
And since the word has always been used congruently with hate and violence, it has absorbed a socially-crafted connotation of hate and violence. Therefore, you cannot say the word without tapping into the hate and violence of previous generations.
This is the reason why people not in the affected minority group can say, “It’s just a word! It only has power over you if you let it!” They haven’t experienced the abuse caused by people who have used that word viciously, and so to them it is “just another word.”
But because of the word’s history, it has roots in psychological abuse, and psychological abuse doesn’t just end when the victim wants it to.
No matter how funny you’re trying to be, no matter how edgy you want to sound, problematic words are systematically violent, and if you give half a damn about the success and well-being of an oppressed group of people, you will also be sure to avoid the words and phrases that have haunted them through the decades.
How Do I Call Someone Out When They Use Problematic Language?
Here’s where the “standard formality” comes into play.
Several months ago, a friend of mine taught me a method of addressing derogatory terms that was learned in Safe Space training at University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. It goes as follows:
“You just used the word _____. Are you aware of what that word means?”
If they say no: “This word means _____ and is used as a slur against _____ people, making them feel hurt/delegitimized/scared/etc. Please don’t use this word around me anymore. I’ve found that replacing it with _____ works well. Thank you.”
If they say yes: “Then I’m sure you understand the harm it brings _____ people, and I would prefer if you didn’t use the word around me anymore. Thank you.”
This calm and un-inflammatory way of addressing harmful language turns what could have been a back-and-forth battery of accusations into a simple request with a handy alternative option.
This effectively dismantles any us-versus-them feelings that could automatically put someone on the defense and allows them to skip the confusion stage where they might think, “Well, what word am I supposed to use, then?!”
It also gives the person practice in thinking about their vocabulary and how they use it, which will likely stick with them even if you’re not around.
Once they get themselves out of the practice of using that derogatory term around you, it will begin to work itself out of their at-hand dictionary altogether.
Like any time you would call someone out, though, remember to choose your battles.
Calling someone out every time they use a problematic term will not only start to wear away at your own mental health, but it may also make you seem less credible and possibly condescending, which will drive them away instead of bringing them in.
How Do I Respond When Someone Calls Me Out on my Word Choice?
The number one way that being called out should be handled (in almost any situation) is to respond the same way you would respond if you put your foot down and heard a crunch.
Is it broken glass? a stick? a small animal? I’m not sure, but you’d better lift your foot and back up ‘cause whatever it was wasn’t supposed to be stepped on.
In that same regard, you should always assume that the person calling you out has legitimate reason to do so and treat them with respect.
It takes nerves and emotional energy to risk putting oneself out there to call someone out, and the act shouldn’t be taken for granted or easily dismissed.
It also takes some pretty thick skin to be able to know that you can withstand what might possibly turn into an all-out trolling attack against you, and you can bet your top dollar that that thick skin came from a lifetime of systematic abuse and disrespect when the person deigned to raise their voice on an issue.
Don’t continue that trend.
Simply respond with “I’m sorry I said something damaging – I’ll refrain from using it,” and then don’t use it again unless someone from within that group specifically asks you to use it to refer to their identity.
It would also be in good form to Google the term so you can learn for yourself and better explain to others why it’s harmful.
There is a pretty significant clause that needs to be addressed about the reclamation of words.
Reclaimed words should be used only by people within the marginalized group that the term is specific to, and by no one else.
Reclamation is an act of regaining power over the abusive word, and because of that, only people abused by the term can reclaim it.
Overall, I want this piece to act as a call for everyone, especially those who have had the good fortune of never having to feel the slice of an oppressive slur, to better understand the damage and impact that language can have on a populous and why it holds that power.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and trans*phobia are bullshit, and the most common way that they are communicated is not through overt violence, but by subtle hints in the language and culture surrounding us that serve exclusively to tell us that we are lesser – that we are second class citizens, and that our voices don’t matter.
The more we recognize how what we say determines who finishes on top, the better off we will be as a society.
Kaylee Jakubowski is a Contributing Writer and Online Community Manager for Everyday Feminism. She is a trans*, queer feminist who prides herself on being an educator on issues of queerness and gender. She is in her last semester at Winona State University in Minnesota pursuing a B.S. in Statistics with a minor in Women’s & Gender Studies. She is also in the process of writing a book that will formally organize and explain gender philosophies within the trans* community. Feel free to add her on Facebook, follow her on Tumblr and her personal blog, or see what she’s up to musically. Read her other articles here.