Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Language: Today's word is "Retarded"

Yesterday after work, I was doing some shopping (I work retail). One of my co-workers was (supposed to be) working in the mens' department, where I was looking for a birthday present for my stepdad. This co-worker is a couple of years younger than me. He alternates between being my buddy and bossing me around--the latter I found myself ignoring since he has no real authority over me. He's one of those young guys that likes his own self-appointed importance, and I'm one of those young women that resents being told what to do. Anyway, I had punched out. I had my jacket on, my purse on my shoulder, coffee cup in hand--I was ready to get out of there. He stopped his work to ask my advice on some pairs of shorts--which struck me as odd because I'm not particularly friendly to him in a way that would warrant my fashion advice. I told him they both looked stupid (they really did, but what do I know of teenage fashion--I mostly wanted him to let me shop in peace).

Well, then he replied, "I just want to know if they look retarded."

To which, I said, "Excuse me?"

"Do these shorts look retarded?"

I just stared at him. It should be mentioned that I resent my job. While the people are nice, I'm in a great amount of debt since I earned my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Literature, and in this economy the only job I could apparently find is one working in retail (and not even the cool retail at upscale malls--it's minimum wage hell--it's a fucking joke). It's frustrating to me that I am bossed around by "quiet racists," people too ignorant to know what they say is offensive. I've heard the use of the word "ghetto" by my co-workers, as an adjective, one time being the response of someone breaking their shoelaces, and lacing the boot halfway up and taping it down.

So I suppose I wasn't all that surprised when this kid was using "retarded" as an adjective. He probably also says things are "gay," as many teenagers are likely to do, rather than say something is stupid. I called him out on this, asking if he really was using "retarded" to describe the shorts. He asked if "ridiculous" was better, to which I replied, "Well, it's certainly less offensive." But still, ableism seemed to come to him unthinkingly until I corrected it.

I'm sure that when I go to work later today, I'm going to here some nonsense about me being too sensitive and weak, though it would have been weak to ignore the comment. Defensiveness and projecting are the usual responses I get in these situations. Luckily I don't care what those people think of me.


Anonymous said...

good for you. I think the hardest thing to do in those situations is to not speak up for fear of offending the offender. you did it and it's great that you don't care what anyone says.
It's not okay to take away someone's dignity with a casual remark. You did a great thing.
Best wishes.

Renee said...

Great call out. Speaking out about oppression can be tough because we are often constructed as too sensitive as though someones right to be offensive is absolute. It is ridiculous bullshit. Since language is how we frame discourse thinking about what we say is incredibly important.

Pierce said...

I understand completely and enjoyed reading what you have written. Although, as a teenager myself I feel that it can be frustrating to switch between dialects between different age groups. To someone who uses the word 'retarded' as an offensive way to describe the disabled, hearing it in an off hand context would indeed feel offensive. However we must remember that in varying contexts word meaning changes. Within different age groups there are different boundaries and maybe he wasn't aware that you would find this slang offensive. It's not his fault that he's grown up with this word. Among many others.