Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
Some time ago (within the last year), when one of my dear friends registered a social media account under a handle that involved an ableist slur ("t*rd" to be more specific), I felt uncomfortable but didn't bring it up. What I didn't realize was that this is a handle she's taking on as she pursues a career in the gaming industry, and since then she's registered a few internet accounts under this name (some promotional social media accounts and a blog, as well as accounts on websites relevant to her industry).
I don't know if she doesn't realize how offensive a term it is, or if she does but doesn't really care (I'm not knocking her--she's a great person and I love her but sometimes that's the way people see things). As far as I can tell, this is a slur that is becoming less acceptable in the mainstream. So besides my personal discomfort with the term, I love her and want her to be happy, and I'm worried that using this handle will have a really negative effect on her career. How can I communicate this to her in a sensitive way?
I am going to admit one thing first: I take all my cues for how to deal with these situations from They Might Be Giants' "Your Racist Friend."
(You can also read the lyrics here, if nineties accordion nerd rock isn't your thing.)
In other words, when people start dropping slurs, it's time for me to go.
Now, I'll grant your friend one thing: If her new handle is a sort of reclamation project as a person with developmental disabilities, then what I say from here on out isn't valid, as I don't feel in a position to tell a person how to reclaim slurs against them.
As a friend, I would suggest that, depending on the industry, making that slur a prominent (or the prominent) part of her public identity could pose problems for her employment prospects, both because employers might find the language offensive and because, although it isn't legal, they might make judgments about her ability to perform in certain positions based on their perception of her disability rather than her application (and that would be quite difficult to prove in court). But, given that you didn't mention that anything about this being a reclamation project, let's just be honest: Your friend is probably just a jerk.
You knew it when you saw the social media handle, but you didn't say anything because you felt it would be more uncomfortable to confront your friend about her ableism (i.e., jerkiness) than to follow or retweet something from a handle that used a clear slur. And while I get that many people aren't really comfortable with confrontation, it's a privilege to hear a slur and be more uncomfortable with confrontation than the slur itself. I mean: It's 2013. It's been more than four years since former Alaska governor Sarah Palin not-so-patiently explained that the r-word is an insult to people with developmental disabilities (which is something many of us have known for a long time, even if some supposed liberals seem to forget it), so even if your friend is a conservative Republican from a backwater town who hadn't yet been exposed to the term "ableism," believe me, she knows it's an offensive term. And while for many people of some sort of privilege there is a learning process for understanding how slurs work, she's not just a little behind the curve on this, she's missed it entirely.
So it's not that she doesn't know it's offensive, it's that she thinks her potential audience won't care and will think it's funny. And, you know, maybe none of her potential audience, fellow commenters, and readers really do care (which I guess is possible, but is unlikely). Maybe some of them care the amount that you care -- but, like you, they're not comfortable with saying something. And maybe the people who really, really care, who are offended, and/or whose lives are proscribed by that insult are too sick or too tired or too busy trying to live their lives to explain to yet another jerk that, yes, that term is offensive. And maybe, though it's a little beside the point of her jerkiness, she's just too busy building her "clever" personal brand-based-on-a-slur to notice just how many people she's totally alienating.
While ableism is a somewhat-less-than-mainstream-ism, the basic point is actually pretty mainstream: people with disabilities are marginalized and discriminated against in our society, and it makes someone a pretty shitty human to use slurs that contribute to that marginalization and discrimination. You don't say what exactly this handle is, but I suspect that if she replaced her ableist slur with a racial slur or a slur used to describe LGBT people, she wouldn't think it cute, funny, or good personal branding. The slur you describe is of similar consequence to people with disabilities. The bottom line is that you have a friend who uses a slur against people with disabilities on a daily basis. And you know it's gross, and you know it's offensive, and you're even made uncomfortable by it—but because you don't want her to be unhappy or uncomfortable, you've kept your lips zipped.
It's time to stop. There is no good way to communicate to someone who is gleefully using offensive language that they are being offensive, mostly because they know they are being offensive and, more to the point, most of them truly believe that everyone else thinks like they do and those who speak our are just being "PC." The only way to address it is to be honest and to brook no arguments—because she's going to try to argue. You have to sit her down, preferably in private, and say, "I know I should have said something long ago, but your use of this slur in your professional efforts is offensive. It was bad enough that you made it your Twitter handle, as that is something easily changed, but now you're attempting to make in a part of your online persona and it's going to cause you nothing but problems. I don't know why you think it is charming or cute or 'good branding' or whatever you think it is, but it's none of those, and you need to stop and find something else to do. I mean, for goodness sake, even Republicans by and large know this is offensive, so just stop." Then when she argues that it's not really offensive, ask her which other slurs she could append that would be equally unoffensive to other marginalized communities. Remind her that she doesn't get to pick what is offensive to a marginalized group of which she isn't a part (or even one she is a part of). And if she pulls some version of, "Well, I can't change course now," remind her that a few weeks of extra social media establishment is better than alienating scores of potential readers and employers and, if you really want, offer to help.
If she changes course, great. If she doesn't, ask yourself if someone who cheerfully not only uses these slurs but defends them is someone who you want to keep in your life—by staying her friend, you're essentially countenancing the behavior. And even if she does change, it wouldn't hurt to reevaluate whether this is someone you really want to be friends with, and why it is that you stayed silent for so long. I mean, would it really have been so difficult to remind your friend that using offensive language is, well, offensive? We're all judged by the company we keep, as the song I mentioned points out, and if you keep company with people who in 2013 find it cute to use ableist slurs on the regular, people are going to think you're okay with that, too.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com