Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spread the Word to End the Word


Our language frames how we think about others.
Help eliminate the use of the R-word in everyday speech.

I've written a little about "The R Word" before, here, here, and here. But this is the first time I'm participating in the awareness day (March 31st).

Last Sunday evening, on our way back from visiting my younger sister, we paused at a rest stop in rural southern Illinois.

Ellie and I went into the large accessible stall at the back of the women's restroom and spent quite a while there. I'm acutely uncomfortable in public bathrooms (or, really, any bathrooms) so I sang, danced, talked, did whatever I could to avoid freaking out about how long Ellie was taking and the fact that she kept grabbing onto that disgusting lip at the front of the toilet between the two sides of the seat. I knew full well that when I stepped over to help with wiping and pulling up pants, she was going to grab at me with those nasty, nasty hands. Oh, the trials of parenthood.

Eventually, two people came into the bathroom and went into stalls of their own. They turned out to be a mother and daughter, probably in their late 40's and early teens, respectively.

The mother's phone rang. And she answered it. In the public bathroom stall. (I hate that.)

"God, your sister's retarded," she said to her daughter after ending the call.

"What'd she say?"

"She asked me if I was in a town somewhere. I was like, yeah, where else would I be? I'd be in pretty big trouble if I wasn't!"

The two shared a laugh at the absent daughter's expense, but I was on her side. I mean, we actually weren't "in a town somewhere." As far as I could tell, we were miles from anywhere. And what's wrong with a daughter wanting to know where her mother is, anyway?

But there were so many things about this exchange that bothered me. Like the fact that the mother was so rude to her daughter on the phone. And then she insulted one of her children to another of her children. And, of course, that she used "The R Word" as an insult.

I thought about how to handle the situation. From the relative anonymity of my stall, I could call out, "I'm in here with my young daughter, who has Down syndrome, and that's language I prefer for her not to hear."

The mother finished up and left, but the daughter stayed. I could meet up with her at the sinks and tell her why what her mother said bothered me. But that would put the daughter in an awkward position.

I could try to find the mother outside after we were all done and have a private conversation about how I found her language offensive. I didn't seriously consider lecturing her about her parenting style.

In the end, I did nothing at all.

I hated it, and I hated Ellie hearing that exchange, though it didn't seem to register with her. Fortunately, I don't think Ellie's ever heard that word applied to her before, so even if she was listening the the stall-next-door conversation - which I do not believe she was hearing - the insult probably didn't seem personal to her. I could be wrong about that; Ellie always surprises me by "getting" far more than I think she's heard, let alone processed.

But in the end, we were at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, at night. The woman seemed . . . volatile. I had no idea how she'd react to a public correction from a stranger, but I couldn't realistically imagine a positive outcome.

So I let it go.

But I really didn't. Because I'm still angry about it.


Topher said...

Yeah, that's ignorant. There are similar issues with the "g-word," but it usually involves teenagers using it by referring to something as "so gay." Adults rarely are as bad at that, so it's easy to shame a teenager (especially if it's in front of his/her classmates). I would imagine the woman would have reacted extremely negatively, but perhaps afterwards would think about it. Long after complaining to her favorite daughter about it...

RobMonroe said...

I'm so sorry you had to have that exchange. I lecture the youth at our church on occasion about choosing their language - both in reference to the R word and using "gay" to describe something that they dislike. I think they are starting to get it, and I'm hoping it's not just around me.

I really like this PSA about R -

And I like this PSA about using "gay" -

Sarahlynn said...

Topher, you are exactly right about the "g-word." And it's so annoying, because when you correct people about this sort of language, IME they usually say something like, "Oh, I didn't mean YOU," or, "Oh, I didn't mean it like that!" and I get the feeling that they just think I'm being a spoilsport.

So many people honestly don't see how their intent doesn't completely absolve them in situations like this; that using terms like "gay" and "retarded" as pejoratives are just plain harmful and hurtful.

Rob, thank you for doing that, and for the links!

Psycho Kitty said...

I think that one has to be a pass. See "middle of night," "middle of nowhere," and "ignorant people." But, gaaaaah.

Sarahlynn said...

Hello! Hello!! I've been thinking about you. :)

Megan said...

Okay, so I actually loled at the idea of saying something from in the stall....like the voice of God or something. Not that I am laughing at you...just the absurdity of the situation and how there's no really great way to handle it.

Barrie said...

I'm glad you shared this. It is obviously still bothering you. And with good reason.

Sarahlynn said...

Mega, my dad has a great Voice of God. Me . . . not so much! ;-)

Barrie, The R Word thing does bother me, in some situations more than others. In this case, I am even more saddened by the thought of these two girls growing up with that mother. What casual cruelty! What harmful parenting!

Shawna said...

I wouldn't have known what to say either. I have finally got through to my little brother who is 18 to stop using the R word, and now I have to work on his use of the G word. If you come up with something to use during a situation like this, please post it. I can work on relatives, but not strangers. But it has to be done! After those two words, I'm going to work on "lame." I don't like that one either.

Sarahlynn said...

Shawna, good point about "lame."