CN: In-depth discussion of the usage and purpose of slurs and the common defenses for using slurs; discussion of racism, sexism, anti-gay bias, and classism.
Warning: There will be a couple of slurs written out in full in this article. They are written this way to maintain clarity in a purely educational piece. I made a point to limit how many slurs I used and to avoid using any slurs that would be particularly egregious for a person with my set of privileges to use.
“You shouldn’t say that word.”
At some point in our lives, we have all had the experience of someone telling us that a word or a phrase that we used is not okay. And if we’re being honest, a lot of the time, our reaction to this push back is, “Huh? What do you mean I can’t say that word?”
Within the world of social justice, there is a wide range of forms of critique of how to talk about, well, everything! Sometimes these critiques are actually about the content as opposed to the words used to describe it, other times the word themselves aren’t necessarily harmful but used in certain contexts, they uphold societal patterns that we’d rather do without.
In this article, I want to focus on a specific form of problematic language called slurs.
What Is a Slur?
A slur is a derogatory term used to describe people from marginalized groups.
A word is a powerful thing. What we call people can represent where we see ourselves in the power dynamic: Are you in charge, or are they? Are you a friend or a stranger? Are you warmly accepting of them or do you reject them? The language we use communicates what type of interaction we want to have and how we believe it is reasonable to behave. This social power exists in many words, but slurs have a power that’s much more damaging than typical insults or other hurtful language.
The purpose of a slur is to dehumanize, to other, and to enforce oppression against marginalized people. It’s a reminder that you, as a person, are defined only by the marginalized group that you’re part of, and that being part of that group makes you less important, less valuable. Receiving a slur communicates that because you are a member of this group, you are inherently dirty, bad and worthless.
Slurs are meant to encompass everything society says is wrong with people like you and those same slurs will be used to put the blame on you for the horrible treatment you receive because you are a [slur] and society says that [slurs] deserve to be treated that way.
What Are Examples of Slurs?
There are many slurs of varying levels of notoriety for every marginalized group and subgroup. If you’re interested in re-examining your language and in learning about more words you may want to choose to avoid, I’ve compiled links to lists of slurs and related offensive language specific to each of the following groups. Please click with caution if you find slurs about your own group upsetting.
Types of slurs
A Slur is Not Just an Insult
It’s extremely important to distinguish a slur, a tool for oppression, from even a particularly nasty insult.
In Power Dynamics Part 2, we learned about how different levels of power in an interaction completely changes the nature of the action committed.
“...When a person of color says that black people can’t be racist to white people, what they mean is that a white person discriminating against a black person is supported by an entire societal structure of social, financial, and institutional power that is designed to make things easier for white people and actively difficult for black people... A black person discriminating against a white person is only supported by individual opinions, not entire systems. The potential impact of the same act on the two groups can be as different as having your life put in danger vs. feeling hurt and rejected.”
This principle is very relevant to the main differences between slurs and insults:
An insult represents the personal opinion of the person delivering it, whereas a slur represents the opinion of the parts of society that have the most power.
When you insult someone, your behavior is only supported by whatever immediate social support you have. A slur is supported by entire societal systems that are designed to punish the group the slur represents.
An insult is directed at aspects of a specific person whereas a slur uses someone’s association with a group of people to insult them.
Typically, the purpose of an insult is to hurt another person to some degree. The purpose of a slur is to undermine their humanity and reinforce their oppression.
Slurs Are Only Used to Describe Marginalized Groups
It’s important to note that because of these four qualifications, words that are meant to describe and insult privileged groups cannot be slurs. While it might sting more to be insulted based on a group you did not choose to be part of than to be insulted based on your behavior or something random, the insult won’t follow you into your ability to find work, your ability to get medical care, or just your ability to go through life without constant danger. A slur will. When you walk away from that one person insulting your group, you can return to the majority of people who don’t share that opinion. A recipient of the slur can never fully escape the social patterns the slur enforces.
For example, words used to insult white people like “white trash” or “cracker” are actually directed at poor white people. The dehumanization of low-income people makes it a slur, even though white people are the alleged target. These slurs also rely on racism to intensity their sting because they are meant to describe a white person who has failed at being a white person by being as poor as a black person.
Why Shouldn’t You Use Slurs?
In my transition from teenage-hood to adulthood, I knew the word “Bitch” was a swear in most communities but didn’t really understand the fuss about it from feminist circles. I didn’t particularly like the word, but I did use it on occasion, almost always to describe specific very unlikeable women.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I asked myself one day, what does “bitch” mean to me? What do I mean when I say it?
I considered my own definition carefully. I thought “bitch” described a woman who was loud, overbearing, temperamental, abrasive, and aggressive. I realized that I had just given myself a list of all the things women are taught they should never be and that most of the time when women are described using those same words, it is to undermine the legitimacy of their emotions or experience and blame them for their own suffering. I realized a “bitch” was everything a woman wasn’t supposed to be: outspoken, powerful, uncompromising, persistent, angry, and unwilling to cater her behavior to your feelings.
When someone calls me a bitch, they are telling me I’m failing at performing womanhood to society’s standard, and that my failure made me all the more deserving of cruelty.
That was the day that I stopped using the word “bitch” as an insult.
Your Privilege Keeps You in the Dark
As I discuss in Explaining Privilege Part 2, if you are a member of a more privileged group, the societal forces at play will make you less aware of the severity of the problems of corresponding marginalized groups, if you know about them at all. As a result, it’s common to be unaware of many of the words that are used as slurs against any given group. It’s even more common to know about the word, know about its problematic origins, and believe that the word has evolved into a version that is harmless.
Unfortunately, as long as that group’s identity is still used to oppress them in serious ways, using a word that insults their identity is still a problem.
If you read through the lists of slurs linked above, there’s a very good chance that you will read some and your reaction will be, “That’s a slur? No. There’s nothing wrong with that word. They’re just being oversensitive.”
If this happens to you, remember that these are words that will never be used to harm you. In fact, society has been designed to protect you from the harm the words do cause. It’s normal for you to not be aware that the word causes harm. But because the impact of the word lands on the marginalized group and never on you, the only way you have of knowing whether or not the word is a problem is based on what the marginalized group tells you. You have no other way of knowing except for listening to their experience of the word.
Oppressive language can go through a process of being reclaimed by the group it describes, which I’ll discuss more later, but that process is lead and determined by the marginalized group itself, which means if you’re unaware of the group’s general feelings about a word, you aren’t in a good position to evaluate whether or not it is still harmful to use it. You are in fact the least qualified to make that judgment call.
If the marginalized group tells you, “This word hurts me,” you lose very little by respecting their request to stop using it. Given such a low maintenance choice between hurting someone and not, why would you intentionally choose the first option?
Common Arguments to Defend the Use of Slurs
Despite it being a seemingly simple choice to listen when someone says you’re hurting them and to make a minor change to your behavior to accommodate that, there are a lot of arguments that pop up in defense of people using their favorite slurs.
But I don’t mean it like that.
One of the first lessons you learn as an ally for any cause is that intent is not magic. The fact that you did not intend to harm someone does not fix the fact that you did. Certainly, hurting someone on accident is less toxic than doing so intentionally, but the fact that it’s an accident doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of apologizing and tending to the hurt of the harmed person and of prioritizing that care over tending to your own feelings of guilt.
You can’t control how your words impact a specific person, which means that even if you use a slur but “not like that,” you have no way of ensuring that the marginalized person hearing you use it knows that you don’t mean it “like that.” And if you’ve been explicitly told that the word is harmful but you use it anyways, any flexibility you’ve received for your good intentions will be quickly erased. When someone tells you something hurts them, it is not kind to continue to do that thing, no matter your intention behind it.
But the marginalized group gets to say [slur]. Why don’t I?
There is a long history of marginalized groups taking symbols of their oppression, reclaiming them, and using them to further their empowerment. Words like “bitch” and “queer” have been reclaimed by the groups they were used to punish, giving them a new range of connotations and increasing their usage. In the majority of cases, reclaimed language changes the meaning behind the slur from one of dehumanization to one of power and resilience. Where “bitch” used to represent the worst things a woman could be, for many it now represents something awesome and pride-worthy.
This kind of shift means that if there’s any lack of clarity in the context of its usage that the word is meant to mean something positive, it can easily slip back into the damage of a slur, and if it’s used intentionally as an insult, the process of reclamation is irrelevant because the purpose of its use was to harm.
But going back to the idea of what you mean when you say a slur, if a marginalized group is in the process of reclaiming a word used to harm them, and you, a person from the corresponding privileged group, try to use it with the new connotations, a marginalized person has no way of knowing which connotation you intend, whether you know there are contexts where it’s not okay to say that word, and whether you are safe to correct if your usage makes them uncomfortable. In their experience, they’ve encountered far more privileged people who haven’t considered anyone else’s feelings before they choose their words than privileged people who have educated themselves about why the word is harmful, who it hurts, and what contexts are appropriate to us it.
It’s also important to note that reclamation or not, there are slurs that you, the privileged person, should never use regardless of the context. And if you are unsure about which slurs those are, I would err on the side of whatever action that allows you to avoid using slurs.
But other words don’t have the same sting!
It’s true that a lot of the words offered to replace mainstream slurs don’t have the same feeling of satisfaction when you use them and they can sound weak or boring in comparison. The reason that slurs feel more powerful and more damaging is because they are. Using decades of oppression and the culture-wide support of that oppression as a weapon to insult an individual (and insult the entire group they are part of by association) is more powerful and it’s also way more unethical than a simple insult. Would you rather have that extra feeling of satisfaction in the moment but harm a group of people that aren’t the target of your anger, or spend the time to find a replacement word that requires a little extra emotional management on your part but doesn’t harm an already vulnerable group?
But what if they are a [slur]?
While you might feel like these powerful words perfectly capture the essence of a specific person you dislike, it’s important to remember that dehumanization is an integral part of the meaning of slurs. When you say, “They are a [slur]” you’re actually saying “They are not human and they don’t deserve to be treated as one.” And if you find yourself wanting to assert that a person is not human, no matter how poor their behavior, it’s time to take a step back and reflect on why you feel the need to dehumanize someone in order to validate your anger if you’re wanting to be a good ally on this front.
But I’m using it against someone who isn’t part of that group
Even when you use a slur against a person who is not part of the group the slur originally was meant to describe, it still carries the harm of a slur because you are insulting this person for having traits that somehow associate them with a marginalized group. A common example of this problem is that men with stereotypically feminine traits will get called slurs that are meant to describe women or gay men. Effeminate men are not women and they aren’t necessarily gay but using those slurs against them means that just that the association with women and gay men is enough of a reason to dehumanize them according to society.
But you don’t have a problem with curse-words. Why are slurs any different?
Profanity is typically defined as words that segments of society have decided are offensive or inappropriate. They are usually used to express anger or add emphasis. Because swear words are typically defined by how much society objects to them, what words are considered swears often change from country to country or even between different communities. Well-known slurs are often handled in a similar way to swears in terms of censorship or social rules around when it’s “acceptable” to say them. But many slurs are not considered swears because the group in power that has more influence over whether a word is considered socially acceptable or not, typically argues for a slurs’ normalization and social acceptance.
But shouldn’t we just stop insulting each other altogether?
The argument here isn’t that you should never result to name-calling in an argument or that you should never express anger through the use of insults. In fact, allowing marginalized groups to openly express their anger without having to frame it in a productive way that benefits corresponding privileged groups is a right we’re often denied, which makes the occasional insulting rant a radical thing to do.
But the real takeaway in learning about slurs is that insults are not all created equal, nor do they all do the same amount of damage. Slurs hurt more than just the person you use it against, which causes damage of a kind that you don’t want to be part of if you support the empowerment of marginalized groups. Whether or not you should use name-calling ever is an entirely different question from whether you should use slurs, because the intention, the purpose, and the consequences are not the same for both categories.
But shouldn’t we be focusing on more important problems?
It’s easy to feel like putting so much focus on the words we use is a trivial use of our time and that it takes our focus away from the bigger “more important” issues. But our language is a reflection of our cultural attitudes and our history.
Oppression survives as long as there are institutions and people to uphold it. When a word comes from an oppressive history, by using it today, we’re carrying forward old toxic social patterns used to enforce widespread suffering, into the present and interacting with them as a normal part of life, instead of rejecting and replacing them with something that doesn’t hurt people for arbitrary reasons.
Language is just one piece of these much larger societal problems, but it is also one that is in our direct control. Eradicating racism is a massive endeavor, and one that no one person will ever be able to accomplish on their own but you do have the power to change the way you speak. Not only does this make a positive difference in demonstrating good behavior for others and avoiding harming marginalized people you interact with, but it also encourages you to think critically about your own beliefs about the oppressed group you’re trying to help.
Slurs might be a symptom, not the cause of oppression, but they are a symptom that will lead you to the source of the dysfunction.
The Privilege of Saying What You Want
One of the things that makes it so uncomfortable to be told that you shouldn’t say certain words is that our culture highly promotes the idea that you should be able to say whatever you want whenever you want. Or at least, our culture promotes that to you proportionally to the amount of privilege you have, with white cis men typically holding that belief with the most strength.
If you believe speaking your mind in real-time without fear is a virtue, being asked to avoid saying something to cater to someone else’s request can sound like disrespect, and ignoring their request can seem like you’re standing up for yourself and what you believe in.
This mental pattern is also really common among folks that are oppressed in one way but not in other ways. If you have put in work to undo the conditioning your oppression forced on you, and one of those traits you were forced into was to walk on eggshells around others, it sounds like the same force at work when you’re asked to do the same thing for a different marginalized group.
The important difference here is the relative levels of power. If a person with less power than you is asking you to change your language, they are not censoring or silencing you because they don’t have the power to do that. They have very little ability to impact your behavior at all. You still have full control over what words you choose to use. You’ve just received social resistance to a behavior that negatively impacts other people.
The truth is, even the most outspoken among us will be perfectly willing to change how we speak when we’re interacting with someone with substantially more power than we have. If you met a celebrity, or a famous politician, or a member of royalty, would you lean on your habit of brutal honesty or would you reign yourself in out of respect? Do you say whatever you want to your boss? To your grandmother? To your teachers?
People in positions of power actually have the ability to potentially censor or silence us but we don’t tend to think of our minor adaptations of language and tone for them as censorship because we’ve been taught that it’s important to graciously offer consideration to powerful people. We’ve been taught that their needs truly matter. We only feel like it’s censorship when it’s for the needs of people we’ve deemed “not important.”
To replace that pattern, I’m offering the idea that it is not actually ethical or righteous to say exactly what you want to say whenever you want to say it. It is kind and respectful to consider the needs of other people when you talk. And it is especially important to consider the needs of people who have less power than you do.
To be clear, the ability to stand up for yourself is an important skill and it will always be important to ensure your own well being and to assert your own boundaries. But never have I run into an instance where the best possible thing someone could do to care for themselves was to use a slur against someone more vulnerable than them.
The Process of Replacing Your Language
Re-training yourself to use new language takes time and practice and some slurs are easier to weed out of your vocabulary than others. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind that should help along this process.
Focus on Accuracy
In addition to disability activism not yet reaching the awareness of mainstream activism circles, many of the ableist and sanist words that disabled communities have flagged as still causing them harm are so ingrained in our daily usage and so common that even if you’re fully on board with reducing your usage, it can be really hard to stop.
I have one main strategy in combatting frustration around removing slurs or other problematic language from your vocabulary: Focus on accuracy.
“Stupid” is on the list of words that much of the disabled community has asked everyone not to use. Its origins lie in descriptions of people with cognitive disabilities, which means that calling someone “stupid” includes the connotation that they cannot control their behavior but you’re punishing them for it anyways.
One of the things that makes it so freaking hard to stop saying “stupid” is that there is no single go-to replacement word because we use it to mean so many things.
When you call someone “stupid” you could be saying...
This person is incompetent
This person is acting illogically
This person is behaving in a way that I don’t understand
This person is uneducated
This person is not worthwhile
This person is frustrating me
This person is willfully ignorant
This person is unlikeable
As a writer, I want to ensure I’m picking the best possible words to convey my meaning as accurately as possible. I find it much easier to let go of common words like “stupid” when I focus on the fact that it’s an unspecific and inaccurate word anyways. I can find a word that’s better by saying what I actually mean instead.
“Why do I have to fill out this paperwork again, this is so… pointless!”
“The return policies at this store make no sense!”
“My coworker is so incredibly bad at her job. I can’t trust her to do anything right.”
This strategy comes with the added benefit of noticing and reflecting on what your real beliefs are about a given subject or why something upsets you, rather than just flying past these details in your general frustration.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Changing your language also means replacing an old habit with a new one, which typically involves plenty of mistakes before it’s solid. If you mess up in front of someone who would be harmed from your mistake, apologize in a quick straight forward way and correct yourself. You want to avoid making a big show of how sorry you are or how hard you are trying. Acknowledge that you’ve messed up and move on. This strategy prevents you from centering yourself in a conversation where you are not in any way the victim.
If you mess up in front of someone the mistake doesn’t harm, you should still correct yourself. If you want to include them in the process for accountability, you could try to say, “I’m trying to teach myself to stop saying x and say y instead,” and invite them to start the practice as well.
Reinforce Your Neural Pathways
Every habit you have is physically carved out in a neural pathway in your brain. Your brain finds it easier to send signals along the largest, strongest pathways, which are the ones you’ve used the most. This means that if you have a new habit with a tiny little neural pathway, your brain is going to have to work harder to use it, and it’ll want to default to the old stronger one.
If you’re feeling frustrated or awkward with the new language, remember that you already have a very strong neural pathway devoted to using the old word, which means that it is physically easier for your brain to cue you to say the old word. It will take time to develop a new neural pathway that is strong enough to overpower the old pathway every time. The only way to make a neural pathway stronger is by using it as much as possible. Eventually, you won’t need to exert so much conscious effort to make sure you say the right thing, it’ll just happen automatically. But that will only happen if you put in the work now.
The Kinder Thing to Do
If you’ve ever had resistance to being told that a word you use is a slur or that you shouldn’t use certain language, chances are I’ve addressed the reason above.
But regardless of where that resistance is coming from, this issue boils down to the idea that when someone says, “This action hurts me,” it is kind and considerate to listen to them and to adjust your behavior if it is in your power to do so.
There are absolutely going to be times when someone says “this action hurts me,” and you’re going to have to decide not to give them what they need, either because it’s not something you control, it’s fundamentally in conflict with your system of ethics, or because the action harms you in a significant way.
But when the request is, “Please avoid using this word,” the adjustment needed on your end is so small, and the harm that you’ll be preventing is significant enough that it just makes sense to respect requests for language changes, especially for people who have less power than you do and who have to struggle a lot harder than you do through no fault of their own.