As ideas were suggested, somebody remarked, “That’s retarded,” and another student objected to the phrase. Why say that? What are you really trying to say? The project, My Words Matter, was born.
Years ago, while at a café, I complained about buying a jacket at full price, only to find it elsewhere at 75 percent off. “I got gypped on that deal,” I told my friend.
Nearby, a stranger cut in on us, “You shouldn’t use ‘gypped,’ because it’s a racial slur. It suggests that all Gypsies cheat and steal. The term is offensive.”
I retorted, “You know what’s offensive? Eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.”
I left, annoyed at political correctness run amok. Yet, once I realized the word had a racial element, I never used it again.
Many common sayings are based on negative stereotypes: “to Welsh” on a deal, or “to get your Irish up,” or to “Jew him down.” How carelessly people say, “You retard,” or “That’s so gay.” Rarely does anyone object.
But students at Western Illinois University are holding each other accountable through My Words Matter, a grass roots movement co-founded by students Jeffry Cape, Bob Just, Cedricka Carver, Shiori Silver, Kristen Wyse, Katie Schoonover, Kristi Manwell and Jaime Vilsack.
“A group of eight graduate students from different disciplines had to come up with a project ‘to make the world a better place.’ The real goal was to see how a group moves forward with a very ambiguous goal,” said A.J. Lutz, communications director at Western Illinois.
In a group dynamics class, the students first brainstormed how to tackle the assignment. As ideas were suggested, somebody remarked, “That’s retarded,” and another student objected to the phrase. Why say that? What are you really trying to say?
The project, My Words Matter, was born.
Words can hurt others even if it was never one’s intention to do harm. Take responsibility for self-expression, and help others to realize how thoughtless remarks can create divides.
To raise awareness on campus, black foam boards measuring 8 feet by 3 feet were set up, and students wrote in silver markers words that had hurt them, such as “fag,” “towel-head” or “retard.”
Some added stories of how such cruelty affects them to this day. Others wrote apologies, pledging never to use thoughtless labels again. Participants were given My Words Matter wristbands to wear in a show of support.
The project created a buzz. Unknowingly, eight classmates created a campus-wide movement among 12,000 students who now promote taking responsibility for one’s words. Lutz, a communications director, suggested ways to speak up in a respectful way that don’t create shame or anger in others.
Use reflective questions. For example, ask, “Do you know what you’re saying when you say ‘that’s so gay?’”
Often, people will admit it’s something they’ve heard, or common slang, but it gets them thinking. Use a kind tone, and a meaningful conversation may emerge.
Use “I feel” statements, as in, “I feel that’s disrespectful,” or “I feel hurt by that saying.” Put a face to the pain. “I have a sister with Down syndrome, and whenever I hear the word ‘retard,’ it really hurts.”
Humor is only effective if two people already share a deep friendship. Otherwise, it could be perceived as ridicule.
“It really is an authentic, grassroots campaign that caught the administration’s attention. It is, quite simply, a way to make the world a better place,” said Lutz.
For more information, visit wiu.edu/mywordsmatter.
Email the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suzette Martinez Standring is at email@example.com. Visit www.readsuzette.com to watch episodes of her writing show, “It’s All Write With Suzette.”