A few days ago, a coworker told me the word “gay” was just part of the culture, a word that means stupid.
In my opinion, this isn’t how we, as adults and educators, should model attitudes and behaviors when we tell our students to practice acceptance. I knew I needed to speak up.
Context is important when considering how to speak up, and I had gotten this wrong in the past, causing the conversation to be unproductive. Because this coworker was a peer and because we were in an informal setting where we could talk it through, I decided to take the “educate” approach.
“We’re working with kids who might already identify as not straight,” I responded. “It’s not okay to make them feel like what they are is the cultural equivalent of ‘stupid.’”
My coworker shrugged and said something to the effect of “But culture…”
I went on, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice.
“When I hear students use that word, I try to ask them what they mean when they use the word. Then, I ask them to choose another word. I always ask them to choose another word.”
“How’s that working out?” my coworker asked.
It was a good question. Sometimes it’s a struggle. Saying “Choose another word” is something I learned from a coworker a few years ago, and it’s still hard for me to say it to adults. With students, it’s easier because of the power differential. But, that power differential means that I can train students to not say the word around me while not necessarily helping them understand why they should be more thoughtful in their word choice. When we ask students to choose another word, we need to teach them how and why and what words to choose.
I have a student who—again and again—tells me she can’t do work because she’s too “retarded.” “I can say retarded, because that’s what I am,” she says because of her special ed status.
If she were trying to reclaim the label, that would be one thing. But with this girl—an elementary school student—it seems instead like an agreement to wear the label others put on her to avoid challenging herself. So, after asking this girl several times to choose a different word to describe herself (or others), I began also pointing out things she’s learned to do well: creating tissue paper flowers, crocheting, hula hooping, coming up with games other youth want to play. I also ask her what the word means to her and if she understands why I’d like her to use a different word. I explain my reasons to her if she says no.
In the course of two months she’s stopped using the r-word to describe herself. And the other youth in my group have also stopped using slurs—at least during the hours that they’re in my program. We’ve had community meetings about what it means to build each other up instead of tearing each other down. We’ve talked about what it means to have—and be—friends. We talk almost daily about what my students have done that day to make someone else’s day better.
I didn’t know how to summarize this for my coworker other than to say, “Mostly, it works. It’s an expectation that I have, and my students know that.”
“I talk to my students about it, too,” my coworker said. “It’s just so engrained, you know?”
“For sure,” I replied. “We can still hold students accountable for the things they say. We can still try to combat the bullying inherent in name-calling.”
In the conversation with my coworker, I chose my words very carefully and left the conversation open to continue. There are lots of different ways to speak up. While previously I had made choices to directly call people out—causing them to feel threatened and defensive—framing my stance on these words as a discussion about how we work with students reminded my co-worker that words can hurt. By choosing other words, I was able to share with him ways to help students do the same.
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the Communications Intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.