I’m a fan of the reclamation of slurs by the minority groups they target. But I’m not so ignorant as to assume that it renders a slur impotent. The problem with reclamation is that some people think it’s a solution to “allowing” slurs to hurt you. I recently heard a minority arguing in favor of reclamation against another member of their minority group who opposed it: “That word only hurts you if you let it hurt you. It only hurts you if you’re weak.”
This argument is not only insulting, but blatantly faulty. Yes, to some degree we do have control over what causes us pain. But the “sticks and stones” approach is ignorant, and purposefully erases the reality of how and why slurs are used against minorities in the first place. Reclamation is not a magic spell, and it cannot erase the effects of slurs being used by privileged people.
It’s not the words themselves that hurt, it is the power behind them. Slurs hurt because they are loaded with privilege and othering.
When someone calls me a “cripple,” I’m not offended because they’re pointing out that I’m disabled. Believe it or not, I already know that. The memo came stuck to the footrest of my wheelchair. Being disabled itself is not insulting, but the privilege it takes to call me a cripple is. An able-bodied person using that word is, purposefully or not, silently expounding, “You’re a cripple, and I’m not, and that’s why I’m better than you are.” That is the root of every single slur: the privileged demonstration of cultural superiority.
I already know the world is not built for the disabled. My workplace sometimes turns off the elevators, heedless of the fact that I can’t get around without them. Many businesses have entry doors so heavy that, were I self-propelled and without aid while in my wheelchair, I’d never be able to open them and pass through. The electric scooters provided at retailers like Target and Walmart so wheelchair users can also have access to a cart are so cumbersome that I can’t navigate at least half of the store. Many thresholds are built with such a bump that it’s difficult (and sometimes impossible without aid) to cross them. Finding a reasonably-priced apartment with handicapped access (particularly if you are too young for retirement communities) is a nightmare. Many shopping centers have parking lots and sidewalks that are graded so steeply no one in a manual wheelchair would be able to travel them without aid. This is a tiny handful of difficulties, only a drop in the bucket of bullshit I deal with every damn day. So yeah, I know I’m handicapped. No breaking bulletin needed.
The insistence upon reminding me of my disability is one of the problems with slurs. It’s tasteless, a demonstration of how I’m not just a person to you, but rather a person distinctly lacking your privilege, and therefore lesser. The other problem is that it gives a voice to all the silent hatred I encounter every single day. You flippantly calling me a cripple gives vitriolic life to every ableist shitstain I run into over the course of my week. That young man who slammed into my wheelchair because he couldn’t be bothered to look down while scanning a crowd of people? He didn’t see a person, he saw a cripple. That woman who stared at my wheelchair in disgust as she had to wait for me to exit a room before entering it herself? She saw a cripple. That guy who couldn’t be bothered to hold a door, and rather let it slam right into my footrests? He saw a cripple. That man eyerolling and sighing because he had to hold the elevator door a moment so my wheelchair could maneuver on? Yeah, he saw a cripple. None of them see me. None of them see the person I am beyond the devices I use. They just see a fucking cripple, getting in their way, slowing them down, inconveniencing them somehow. They are telling me that they are more important than I am, that their able-bodied needs should be put first because me and my cripply ways just slow everything down. And you’re helping by using that word against me.
I am just so sorry to inconvenience you, able-bodied people of the world. I can’t think of a single thing worse than delaying your plans for ten seconds in order to extend some basic human courtesy to a fucking cripple. Except maybe having to be a disabled person struggling in a world not built for you, and dealing with entitled, able-bodied assholes every single day.
And no, this isn’t a matter of being humorless. I value humor, and sometimes it really can help make disability easier to deal with. I shared a story of my recent job interview with my able-bodied partner, and recounted how I’d been asked what I thought would be the most challenging aspect of the job. My partner quipped, “Stairs?” and we shared a good laugh. It was a joke about my disability, a joke about the difficulties I face because of it–and it didn’t make me burst into tears and demand an apology, because it wasn’t hateful and ignorant. It was acknowledging my disability, not labeling me because of it.
I’m a disabled person. And I may call myself a cripple; able-bodied people may not. When you call me a cripple, you’re erasing my personhood, and limiting my identity to my disability.
So the next time you think it’s so important that you be allowed the ~free speech~ to use slurs against a minority, pause for a moment to think of how many times in their day they encounter people who are using those slurs against them subconsciously (or sometimes very vocally), in inhumane and selfish ways. No, they don’t have to care that you’re “just joking,” because plenty of people they’ve already dealt with in that day, week, month, lifetime weren’t joking, and they don’t deserve to be reminded of that prejudice. Stop pretending that your jocular use of slurs exists in a vacuum where minorities haven’t already been maliciously attacked by prejudice constantly, relentlessly. Stop thinking you’re the most specialist snowflake in Christmastown, deserving of all sorts of understanding and excuses when you act like a privileged asshole.
Instead, start showing a little respect.