Spread the Word to End the Word

(Trash Boat)– There is something to be said about reclaiming words. I like the idea that minority groups can take terms that are used to hurt them, and transform them into something empowering. Slutwalk may be a good example of this: if a woman embraces her “slut” identity, she takes the control away from those who would call her that. She changes the image of a “slut” to someone who is unafraid. The black community has acted similarly with the word “nigger.” Some black people choose to take that hateful word, and turn into something that white people can’t touch. It’s an exclusive term that can mean almost anything, from fool, to friend, to brother.

Now I’m not entirely sure that I’m comfortable with the reclamation of words. I acknowledge that it’s a matter of seizing control over your own identity. But words like “slut” and “nigger” are so loaded with hate, that think I’d rather just no one use them. Regardless, the mere possibility of reclaiming a word is an empowering notion.

But there is one minority slur that I don’t think can be reclaimed: Retard. Retardation used to refer to a medical condition; it was a scientific term. Now, we use “retard” or “retarded” like any other slang word:


“Program Board couldn’t get a performer for Spring Concert? That’s retarded!”


“You lost your ID Card again? You’re so retarded.”


Now, I don’t find anything extraordinary about the examples above. We hear stuff like this all the time. Since adolescence, I have said “retarded” just like the rest of them. Therefore, I’m not going to say that those who use “retard” as slang are bad or anything, because that would make me a huge hypocrite. In fact, I had never thought anything of saying “retarded” until a close friend of mine stopped me, and told me she considered it hate speech.


Not wanting to be accused as a hater, I immediately resisted. Is calling something retarded really that bad? I mean, everybody does it. But I simply couldn’t come up with an adequate justification. I had to acknowledge that I was mocking a group of people—the medically, mentally, actually retarded—who should not have to, and cannot easily defend themselves. I carelessly equated being retarded with being stupid; they are not the same thing.


Joseph Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics Virginia athlete and Global Messenger, sums up the issue with using the word “retarded” pretty well:


“What’s wrong with “retard”? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it.    It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the “in” group. We are someone that is not your kind. I want you to know that it hurts to be left out here, alone.”




It’s important to remember that words are powerful. Every conversation can have greater social impact because it can perpetuate ideas that carry on into the world. So next time you hear someone say, “That’s so retarded,” I hope you pause and think about what that actually means.


Spread the Word to End the Word!


Thanks for reading!


Doin me since 1991,