Words are powerful. Words are important. Words can hurt. Words can save. Words cut, choke, slice, maim, kill, murder. But words can also bring you back to life.
Today in my class, a student used a word that shocked me. I wasn’t prepared to hear it. In fact, I don’t think I did hear it at first. They repeated it multiple times. Then I heard it. So did the rest of the class. The word was offensive and so outdated that I never expected to hear it in a classroom of mine.
It was a word intended to shame and hurt individuals whose bodies might fall outside the traditional gender binary we assume to be foundational, when in fact it is nothing close. This particular student had no malicious intent; they weren’t directing the word at anyone in particular as an insult. However, some people in class might have fit the description of those the word was typically used against and immediately felt its sting. Some people might not have fit the description but felt the sting all the same. Additionally, there were cultural, language, and nationality issues involved in the utterance. I don’t know much about the country the original speaker is from and couldn’t respond to their explanation that the word is, in fact, a term still used there and oftentimes used proudly or reclaimed.
This all happened in a split second. Multiple students took offense and made it known. I can’t fault them. Another student wanted to back up the initial speaker because they felt bad that someone had been singled out, perhaps unfairly. I understood both sides. I didn’t condone the use of the word, but I also didn’t believe it to have come form a hateful place - just a misinformed one. In the 30 seconds that followed, I racked my brain for a way of turning this into a teachable moment and came up empty. I floundered for the next 10 minutes until class was over, spewing out god knows what and attempting to make connections with other issues involving the complexities and failures of language that refrained from coming down too hard on either side of the argument. I kept saying words. None of them were right or useful.
Essentially, in that moment and the following minutes, I failed. I aided in creating an uncomfortable, offensive, and disrespectful environment. I’m not proud of that. I didn’t know what to say.
I agreed with the pained reaction from some students at the mention of the word. Once I understood the word being uttered, it felt like a tiny tear in a full balloon - the air in the room was slowly draining out. I wanted to support my students who had been hurt by the word; but I also didn’t want to inflict any further hurt on the initial speaker. I wanted to teach them why the word was wrong and give them the tools to speak what they wanted to express respectfully - to be able to do better next time. I would have felt differently had the speaker been wielding the word as a weapon intentionally. But does it matter? A gun fired unintentionally can still kill. A word wielded unintentionally can still murder. What is the correct response? Do you shame the unintentional assassin? Do you ask the shotgun victim to consolidate their pain; to hurt less? Neither option seems completely fair.
Worse, the more I thought about this, the more I realized it is an ongoing assault, even in my classroom. Because the overt explicitly offensive words that sometimes get spoken are not the only bullets in the gun. The kill shot sometimes comes from the insidiously subtle ways that stereotypical notions/constructions of gender and sexuality creep into seemingly inoffensive limits of everyday language. But those limits are offensive by design. They are meant to exclude. Pronouns. Conceptions of masculinity and femininity and the certain bodies with which those concepts are “supposed to” align. Every time we defer to male and female as the baseline two choices we recognize - or even when we add a third option or a fourth option, etc. - we are being just as limiting, exclusive and violent to those that don’t fit the new categories.
We never know the experiences, identities, or lives of those around us. We could be hurting people - inflicting intense pain - every time we open our mouths. We are shooting a gun into a crowd. This is not to say we should stay quiet; rather, we should be conscious and vigilant of what we are saying from all perspectives, not just our own. We should ask questions of ourselves. How would it feel if a question, statement, or word was posed to us, was shot in our direction? How would it feel? This question is harder than it seems. It’s really fucking hard. It's a constant battle for all of us - but it's one worth constantly fighting because it means we will be more inclusive rather than exclusive. And can that ever be a bad thing?
Some people are constantly aware of the violence of language. They are also usually too aware of violence in the streets, as the language that excludes them is translated into lived realities and often limited opportunities and possibilities. They are dodging bullets - always on the look out. It’s a privilege to not pay attention to the words you use. It’s a privilege to not feel excluded through the simple language we use. Your privilege is your bullet-proof jacket. Check your privilege; take off the jacket. Take your finger off the trigger. Imagine the care with which you might handle a loaded gun, safety off. Because your mouth is full of bullets. Your mouth is full of words. You can cause pain or you can choose just the right combination of words to construct a lifeline to those listening.