“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a phrase frequently heard when we’re kids, something that sounds really catchy and helps us shrug off mean words that may be carelessly hurled at us.
In a perfect world, this saying would ring true, and words would not, in fact, have the power to hurt us. But if you’ve ever been called a “bitch” or a “slut” or something much more vicious, then you know it’s just not true. Words do hurt. Sometimes more than sticks and stones.
As a writer, I think language is among one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. When used correctly, words strung seamlessly together can transport you away into a far off land where you find yourself in that house on mango street or using a spell to battle dementors at Hogwarts.
When used incorrectly, words sting. They slice like a knife — only the wounds are inside and there isn’t any bandage or ointment you can apply to it to make it feel better. Sometimes the words are carried with us, an internal scar that can’t just be wished away. Sometimes the words are so bad they’re able to chip away at who you are — at your self esteem, at your beliefs, at the things or people you once loved.
The thing about words is that you can’t take them back. Once you’ve said something, especially when someone else is around, those words and thoughts have left your mouth forever and it’s no longer private, no longer yours. Sometimes that’s good (it’s wonderful to share with someone that you care about them!), but other times, not so much.
Below, you’ll find a few commonly-used phrases that we should try to say away from. It’s not an exhaustive list, not by any means, but it’s meant as a starting point. And if it seems overwhelming, just remind yourself that as long as you’re trying to be a good person who is mindful and respectful to others, then you’ll be golden.
Casual use of the word “rape”
Examples: “That science test raped me earlier today!” or “I totally just raped that speech at work.”
Why it hurts: It’s never okay to belittle rape or sexual assault, and that’s exactly what this phrase does. Rape is a horrific event that happens far more frequently than you may think. Every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. One in four women will be raped before she graduates college. 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. So equating the word “rape” with something as insignificant as how poorly you did on a test or how well you did on a speech is not only offensive, it’s downright cruel. Let’s not try to belittle the very real experience of sexual assault survivors.
Alternatives: There are so many other, more eloquent ways to express frustration and/or pride.
- I totally stunk at that test.
- I rocked that speech.
- Literally anything else.
Examples: It pains me to write these out, so I’m going to censor the words slightly. Please, please, please don’t ever use hateful slurs, including (but not limited) to: f-ggot, sp-c, n-gger (unless you’re black, and this applies to the word with the “a” or without and ALL variations, including sand n-gger), ch-nk. I could go on, but please don’t make me.
Why it hurts: Considering racism and homophobia are still rampant in the U.S. (and elsewhere), there is no excuse to ever resort to using a slur. It attacks the core of someone’s being, something that defines who they are, something that is inherently intertwined with their identity. “It’s just a word!” some say, “What about my right to free speech?!” We all have a right to free speech, but freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism. I wish I could shout that from the rooftops. As much as someone may have a “right” to say those words, others have a “right” to criticize as well.
Alternatives: The English language is vast. If you need an insult, do some searching! Get creative with it. Below are some funny/quirky insults, all of which are actual words.
“Soft” hate speech or “microaggressions”
Example: To put it simply, a microaggression is an offensive thing either said or done that may seem innocent, but actually reinforces negative ideology and contributes to systematic oppression. It sounds like a lot to process, but this is really important. These are all things that are seemingly harmless statements that actually amount to something larger: racism, sexism, homophobia, and other crippling societal issues.
One major example is saying “All [insert marginalized group] are [adjective].” All Asians are smart. All black people are great at basketball. All gay men are great with fashion. All Latinas are hot. These are not compliments, they are stereotypes, and stereotypes are harmful. It doesn’t matter if you have a friend/boss/cousin who is [insert the group you’re talking about] and they say it’s okay. It may be okay to them, but no one person can speak for an entire group.
- Calling something “ghetto”
- Coded language like “thug”
- Saying something is “gay” to mean “bad” or “stupid”
- Saying you got “gypped” or “jewed”
- Telling a person of color that they’re “not like” other people of color, or that they’re “one of the good ones”
- Referring to something as “retarded”
- “[such and such] is my spirit animal” (See comments for further explanation)
- Asking “what are you?” or “where are you from?” (See comments for further explanation)
- Asking to touch a POC’s hair
- Telling a black person they are “well-spoken”
- Calling someone “exotic” (thereby assuming that white = not exotic and therefore “normal”)
- Impersonating another race
Why it hurts: These statements, however well-intended or “harmless” they may seem, are built off of ideas that stem from overtly racist/sexist beliefs. In turn, they also help to reinforce these beliefs, which is not okay.
Also: it hurts because the people within those groups said so. Like, do you really need a concrete reason why it’s not okay to touch someone’s hair? Or can you just take it in good faith that it bothers the person who said it, and then not do it?
Alternatives: Don’t make blanket statements, period. Stay away from any racially-tinged sayings, too, and be mindful of how you are treating other people. The golden rule (treat others how you want to be treated) works well. Just treat people like people and you should be okay.
“Outdated” racial terms
Examples: Language evolves. Because of that, sometimes things that were once acceptable to say are no longer okay. “Colored” is a great example, as it was once a word used even by black individuals — see the NAACP standing for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — but the term has since fallen out of use. (More examples below, with the preferred vernacular.)
Why it’s offensive: I understand these words are typically not intended to be malicious, and sometimes we genuinely had no idea a word has fallen out of use. That’s fine — no one expects us to know everything, all the time! However, if someone says, “Maybe you shouldn’t say that word,” rather than get defensive and angry, just nod and apologize. Usually the other person will move on. Also, a quick Google search will usually point you in the right direction, but if your gut is making you feel it might be offensive, then just don’t say it.
Alternatives: The following list is set up with words that have fallen out of practice (for whatever reason), followed by the preferred vernacular. This should serve as only a general, BRIEF list, as I am not the authority on all of these things.
- Orientals: Asian, Asian American, or a more specific term, such as Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino.
- Colored/Negro: While you likely won’t get much side-eye for saying “African American,” that term is starting to fall out of favor. Use “black” when you can.
- Midget: Little Person.
- Spanish: If a person is from Spain, this is okay. Otherwise: Hispanic or Latino/a, or their ethnicity (Puerto Rican, Mexican).
- Indian: Unless in reference to someone who is literally from India, go with American Indian or Native American.
- Handicapped/physically challenged/wheelchair-bound: “So-and-so has a physical disability/cannot walk/is visually impaired/uses a wheelchair.”
- Tranny: Depending on the situation and/or what the person identifies as, transgender may work. Trans may also work. More info here.
What to do if you accidentally say something hurtful
In list form like this, it can feel overwhelming and seem like everything we do and say is offensive. True that we cannot make everyone happy, but we should at least be trying not to be a jerk. If you say something accidentally offensive, there are two things to do:
- Apologize (“sorry, I didn’t know!” works well).
- Try not to say it again.
That’s it! It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, you don’t have to harp on it and make yourself feel bad for days. All you have to do is say you’re sorry and then learn from it.
I think, really, trying to be a good person is all we can ask. We are only human and we all make mistakes.
Photo credit BJN.