Watch your words

Updated: Feb 2

Art by Lily Hoagland

Trigger/Content Warning: use of uncensored slurs

A couple months ago, I was in the car listening to the radio, and they were talking about how President Trump wanted the Census Bureau not to count people living in the US illegally — which would be something the census has never done before, but that’s another matter. What really made me uncomfortable was that they used the words “illegal alien” to refer to undocumented immigrants. Now, I know that “illegal alien” is the “correct” term — it’s even in the dictionary: a foreign national who is living without official authorization in a country of which they are not a citizen. But those two words just strike a wrong chord in me, and I'm pretty sure I’m not alone in that belief.

Let’s talk about the use of the word “illegal” first. Yes, someone can come into the country illegally. But does that make them, a person, illegal? I don’t think you can label a person as illegal. Ever. Illegal to what? Exist?

Then there’s the word “alien”. Yes, alien does mean someone from a foreign country. But that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. A little green Martian or monster of some sort is probably the first image that pops up. Something from a space flick. So to label someone an “alien” makes them seem inhuman. Would you like to be called an alien? Of course not.

Altogether, it’s a completely dehumanizing phrase used to describe a person. Therefore, it’s a phrase that we should stop using.

Of course, there are many more words or phrases that could also be considered inappropriate. Some may not be used by the general public. Others are words that are being “reclaimed”. Some are debatable. But here are some words that should be treated with caution:

First off, “retard” or “retarded”, which always bothered me as a kid. This word originally was used to refer to those with an intellectual disability. Using it as an insult, to call someone stupid, is derogatory towards people with actual disabilities, no matter the intention. It also reinforces stereotypes that people with mental disabilities are stupid. If it’s really necessary to insult someone in the first place, there are plenty of more appropriate substitutes. In fact, you can take it as an opportunity to show off your creative side. Likewise, there are words that are similarly derogatory that should be watched out for, two such being “midget” and “spaz”.

Of course, there are the unavoidable race/ethnicity related words. There are so many slurs out there — way too many to list, from the obvious n-word to the less obvious “Gypsy” or “Eskimo”. People already get so much flack for their race or ethnicity (or both). Using slurs is not only extremely hurtful because of that history, but also reinforces that toxic culture. Ever heard of this thing called empathy? Put yourself in someone else’s shoes — because how someone looks or where they come from doesn’t change the fact that we’re all human. How would you feel if someone insulted you and your background?

Then we have the homophobic slurs, such as “dyke”, “fag”, and “tranny”. There’s so much homophobia in the world already; there’s no need to add to it, even if it’s a “joke”. And refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns or name can be just as damaging. Even if there’s a conflict because of your personal beliefs (which leads to a whole other discussion), you can choose to respect the person.

Maybe you don’t use these words. Maybe there are other words that you think I should have mentioned. Maybe you think much of this is obvious (it is; the fact that some people still need reminders is the problem). But the point is not for you to look out for all of these specific words (although please do). The point is for you to think about the words that come out of your and others’ mouths. The point is to be aware of the power that words hold and make sure you use them responsibly. If a word might be offensive to someone, don’t say it. It’s really not that hard.

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