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More Complicated Than That.

posted Sunday January 20th, 2013

The other night at a gallery opening, a beautiful woman I don’t know very well approached me in tears.

“I need to tell you I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you know why?”

I did.

Back up 20 minutes. I was having a pleasant conversation with this woman and her date, a writer in from LA to do a travel story, and we were chatting about — oh god, I can’t remember what. It’s been two days, my memory doesn’t last that long anymore. Anyhow, something struck all of us as dumb and to tell you the truth, these days I’ll see it coming before it’s out of your mouth. It’s as though the sound (and there was considerable background noise that night — lots of people, kids screaming, a fire roaring, DJ blasting, traffic) fades away and the person’s mouth gets super big and the words come out really slowly.

“That’s so retarded.”

She said it. I didn’t flinch, and neither did she, but for less than a split second, I saw it — the “OH FUCK, I JUST SAID THAT’S SO RETARDED TO THE MOTHER OF A KID WITH DOWN SYNDROME AND NOT JUST ANY MOTHER OF A KID WITH DOWN SYNDROME, THIS ONE BITCHES ABOUT EXACTLY THIS ALL THE TIME. OH FUCK” look on her face.

And then the conversation continued — seamlessly, as though nothing had happened, I think the date said something like, “Yeah, that’s so stupid” and after a few minutes we all drifted into conversations with other people the way you do at gallery openings.

For me, the worst part these days isn’t when someone says it. It’s when they realize they just said it. And so that half a split second after she said it was what bugged me. But like I said, it was kind of a crazy night, and I moved past it because really, what are you going to do? It’s true that often I call people out, point out what they just said. But sometimes you don’t need to say a word.

This was one of those times.

Twenty minutes later I turned around and there she was.

“You don’t have to say anything,” I said. “Really, I mean it. It’s okay.”

“No, I do. It was a horrible thing to say,” she continued, the tears welling up. “I can’t believe I said it, I’m so upset that I said it.”

The date walked up and confirmed this, said she was so embarrassed he’d told her that if she didn’t apologize, he was going to do it for her. I winced.

“I hate being that person who makes anyone feel uncomfortable about saying anything,” I told them, even though all three of us knew that it’s more complicated than that. She’ll probably never use the word again, at least not without thinking about that night at the gallery. And that’s exactly what I want, right? For people to be aware of how wrong it is to use the word retarded?

Yeah, it is. But it’s not a sweet victory, or even bittersweet. Instead, the whole thing left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. Of course there’s no turning back now — I’m not about to embrace the word retard, to “take it back.” (I hate that shit — I mean, really, who ever wanted the word cunt in the first place?!)

I’ve set the wheels in motion and now my mere presence during cocktail party chatter is enough to bring a grown woman to tears and now I’m not really sure what to say about it. I hope I didn’t ruin the rest of her night, because truly, she didn’t ruin mine. I just hope she knows that.

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Tags: Filed under: culture, Down syndrome by Amysilverman

8 Responses to “More Complicated Than That.”

  1. Thankfully this word has long been scrubbed from my palette, but it does bring up a very interesting issue I face regularly. Last spring I held an extremely fascinating conference on mental illness stigma and the subject of “words” came up. Things like nuts, crazy, and others. I have always trimmed to mindful of the words I use and their impact, and this conference left me (and I know from discussions with others) a bit overwhelmed with “words.”

    I would never, as pointed out at the conference, reference a horrible fire at a mental health facility as “roasted nuts” such as a newspaper headline did in such poor taste, but, I routinely refer to my childrens’ choices as “crazy” or nuts. I often find my self dismissing someone’s poor behavior as “nuts.”

    I have been diligently working since last spring to be even more mindful of worlds and their history and meaning. It can be tough to change something that was once routine. I am sure that woman will never use that work again, but, we have all had those awful teaching moments when you learn the harsh impact of words and flippant thoughts.

    I guess what I am saying is I know it from both sides and such is life.

  2. Jennifer — So well put, thank you. I totally agree — I struggle with words like idiot, stupid, nuts, crazy, lame…. Not sure what the answer is but I do know that while I haven’t scrubbed my vocabulary completely I am more aware of what I say and I guess that’s the point, right? Such is life is right….

  3. Your last two sentences: perfect. If she gets to read this blog post, she’ll experience full Grace.

    I’ve yet to apologize to a casual friend for saying “That’s so gay!”, but it was the last time I ever said it. I still struggle with purging thoughtless words from my vocabulary, in the hopes that thoughtless thoughts will follow. (It’s working, BTW!)

    Isn’t the beholding of personal awareness and positive change a great satisfaction? Bless you all.

  4. What is there to say but ditto. I work with folks with what is now called” severe and persistent mental illness” and what is important to me to distinguish is people first. Nuts etc are terms full of lots of history and character and some individuals prefer it to SPMI! my R word interventions are more like Ed and not like R word police. Words are so interesting and rich -. Eliminating ” bad” ones is a little like banning books with certain content- like saying we are going to be human and then eliminating poop:) but there are skills and mores attached to all things that involve sharing the universe in a respectful and aware way. And then there is the fact that it is progress not perfection that makes the world go round!

  5. Yep, have had this exact thing happen. Just recently, I had breakfast with a friend and during the conversation, we were laughing about the crazy things we each did during adolescence, and she said laughingly, “I’m lucky it didn’t leave me retarded or something!” And just like you said, there was that split second where, of course I heard her, and she knew I did, and for that split second, it was like the room emptied of air, and then we both just went back to the conversation without missing much of a beat. Later, she texted me and said, “I know I said it, I can’t believe I said that, I’m such an asshole, I’m so sorry,” and on and on. I was grateful that she acknowledged it, but, yeah, uncomfortable. I want to change people’s attitudes and the words they use, but these situations never feel good.

  6. I’m a teacher, so I often get the opportunity to examine words in a more professional context. Most of the time it’s really fun, and I’m able to frame the conversations as an analysis of our culture, not at analysis of one individual’s word choices. Students insult things by saying they’re “gay” or “retarded” not because the students are assholes, but because they live in a homophobic, ableist culture.

    I do think the moment of discomfort is incredibly functional. It doesn’t mean that someone is a terrible person, just that they’re having to navigate their way through a culture that rewards inequity.

  7. thank you, alison. so well put.

  8. And enough moments of discomfort will bring us to a culture-changing tipping point. Like they do.

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