My daughter is *so* retarded

Photo by Amy at amykimballphotography.com

Actually, my daughter *is* retarded, in the actual sense of the word. But that’s not what it sounds like I said, is it? Be honest. Culturally, we hear the above sentence as a degradation, as if I were saying something negative about my daughter.

Let’s face it: retarded no longer means developmentally delayed. Its meaning has been leached out by decades of schoolkid use as a playground put-down. And now the schoolkids have all grown up into hip 30-somethings, and ‘retarded’ is an arch stab at anyone we feel is beneath us — socially, culturally, mentally. You actually gain a certain nonchalant hipness with each use.

So then, think about what you’re actually saying when you use the word ‘retarded’ in this new context. That to be less intelligent is to be of less worth. Or more specifically, to be like the developmentally delayed is to be inherently degraded.

Which, if you know my daughter, should give you pause.

If ‘retarded’ just ‘slips out’ in your conversation, it’s because you haven’t done the work to excise it from your vocabulary. You *do* have control over what you say. If you mindlessly refer to people and things as retarded when they’re not, it’s because you’ve got a lazy mind.

Stop being lazy. Start being intellectually honest. If you want to degrade someone or something, use more exacting language. Stop referring to other people as if you thought my daughter was worthless.

Unless you *do* think that my daughter is worthless because she’s retarded. Do you?

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Update: I want to respond publicly to some of the comments to this post.

1. it’s tough and embarrassing to get called out on this, because it usually slips out on automatic. but don’t avoid ‘retarded’ because you think z or i might hear you. avoid it because it’s wrong to degrade anyone by comparing them to the congenital qualities of another people group.

2. i’m *not* railing against the fluidity of language, which i totally understand. i’m not talking about preserving the meaning of the word ‘retarded.’ i’m talking, at the base level, about a kind of racism.

we aren’t using some sort of entirely new construct when we use this new meaning of ‘retarded.’ we’re explicitly referring to a negative stereotype of the mentally retarded and applying it to the object of our derision as a means of devaluing him or her (the object). and the mentally retarded aren’t deserving of stereotypical derision, in the same way that you aren’t deserving of derision because of the shade of your skin, the severity of your disease, the sound of your voice or the size of your head.

i wouldn’t call that ‘fluidity of language,’ i’d call it being mean. and being mean because you didn’t think about it is in some ways worse than being mean on purpose.

having said that, i agree that this kind of pervasive problem needs grace, the kind of grace that’s held in tension with truth. truth starts with a hard look at what’s really going on, which is kind of what i’m forcing here. but grace covers all. i don’t condemn anyone– no, sometimes i *do* condemn people for this, and get really angry, but then in truth i condemn myself too. and so really, we all need grace to get out of this kind of ingrained habitual bigotry. you. me. let’s get started.

19 thoughts on “My daughter is *so* retarded”

  1. one time while visiting with zena at karen’s, i said something was retarded without thinking – at the time it *was* a pretty regular part of my vocabulary. and zena, in her infinite awesomeness, called me out on it. at first, i felt a bit defensive (also, embarrassed!), because i didn’t totally understand how using the word in regard to a thing or situation could be considered offensive. eventually, though, i got over myself and began to understand. and i don’t think i’ve uttered the word since then. in fact, i think i was traumatized enough by what happened that i don’t think i’d ever use it in *any* context anymore, just in case. you never know when zena might be hiding around the corner. 😉

  2. I’m a friend of Karens. When I first met her, I called everything retarded. She told me why she didn’t think that was cool at all (she’s a really great friend), and at first, I thought – hey, I don’t mean it like that. It’s just a word. Etc. But you know, I balk at it when someone calls something that is lame – gay. What’s the difference? Sometimes, I will totally slip up and say something is retarded (always around Karen – d’oh!), but it’s few and far between and before the word has left my mouth – I feel ashamed about it. Maybe I’m finally growing up. But – that may be stretching it. Jeney

  3. Plus the only way I like the word retarded used is by folks with Boston accents cuz it sounds funny. But anytime there’s words with R’s they sound funny. “I gotta pahk (park) the cah (car).” It’s totally in my vocabulary as a kid and it’s definitely in there. I slip too often usually when I’m tired and forget something and say, I’m retarded and I guess I could justify it by trying to say being sleep deprived there is some memory retardation, but c’mon. I try to get it out of my brain.

  4. everyone: it’s tough and embarrassing to get called out on this because it *is* on automatic. but don’t avoid ‘retarded’ because you think z or i might hear you. avoid it because it’s wrong to degrade anyone by comparing them to the congenital qualities of another people group. chris: i’m not railing against the fluidity of language, which i totally understand. i’m talking, at the base level, about a kind of racism. we aren’t using some sort of entirely new construct with this new meaning of ‘retarded.’ we’re explicitly referring to a negative stereotype of the mentally retarded and applying it to the object of our derision as a means of devaluing him or her (the object). and the mentally retarded aren’t deserving of stereotypical derision. i wouldn’t call that ‘fluidity of language,’ i’d call it being mean. and being mean because you didn’t think about it is in some ways worse than being mean on purpose.

  5. I get it–my thinking though, is that we don’t want to walk around life looking for something to get offended at. It’s not as if people mean to degrade a specifics person. It does coarsen us and desensitize us, but we don’t want to become pious or self righteous. We all have big damn errors in thought and judgment, and we should all strive…but…

  6. “it does coursen us and desensitize us, but we don’t want to become pious or self righteous. we all have big damn errors in thought and judgment, and we should all strive…but…” what occurs to me is that you don’t believe that using a term, or regarding a people in a way that demeans them is damaging or dangerous. do you know the abortion stats for prenatal diagnosis of people with down syndrome? it’s like 8 out of 10. have you ever read a history of the treatment of people with mental disabilities? real life prejudice that exists without anyone talking about it is the kind that literally gets people killed. i don’t think it’s just a pie in the sky i should try to be a nicer person issue. i think that’s why people defend it instead of consider that they might be part of the problem. ~zena

  7. Good thoughts, jnf. Our words, and the way we use them, really do carry great weight. It’s good to be reminded of that, and to be challenged not to use them carelesssly and thoughtlessly. I need that reminder pretty much on a daily basis.

  8. JNF You are one of the best communicators I’ve ever seen. Succinct, compassionate, yet unflinchingly honest. Write a book. Please.

  9. This line of thinking is *so* gay. I don’t know if I agree with you, or not, I think language is probably pretty fluid, and we can’t stop the appropriation of words into different categories. I hope that you can give people like me grace and kindness when they are insensitive.

  10. I like the way that Italy defines those who are of a “lowered mental capacity”–they call it special rights. Now isn’t it nice to think of someone as having a special right to better treatment, considering, it’s true, the kind most handicapped (I’m talking overall handicapped–not just mental) people have gotten in history?

  11. we should be able to deride folks with huge noggins, though. I have a monster melon and it is a source of comedy. i’m like Easter Island. you guys wouldn’t understand though because you aren’t apart of the bighead community, like the bald community (NSFW).

  12. First of all, great post. I was with you until you compared it to racism. That’s just wrong.

    Race is a social construct that has no genetic/biological basis. Racism is institutionalized prejudice, discrimination, and oppression based on non-existent “differences.”

    Serious intellectual and developmental disabilities such as Down Syndrome are substantive genetic/biological abnormalities.

    Your daughter IS genetically/biologically different in a way that is not true of black people or any other so-called race. Comparing the two obscures why racism exists and confuses what the solutions may be.

    There is real prejudice and discrimination against people with serious intellectual and developmental disabilities. However, unlike racism, these disabilities are substantively real and not simply a social construct used to oppress that group.

    I maybe overreacting to one word but it struck me as a deeply problematic comparison. I would be satisfied it if you changed it to ‘prejudice.’

  13. Brian, you’re right that race is socially constructed, and I apologize if I intimated otherwise.

    Disability is also socially constructed.

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