Ms. Opinionated: My Friend's "Personal Brand" Is An Ableist Slur

image of Megan Carpentier

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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Comments

34 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Disappointing response

"Your friend is probably just a jerk." That sentence wraps up what leaves me very disappointed with this advice, and it reflects a much larger issue in progressive movements. Yes, the friend in question has at least some idea she's being offensive and has used the word anyway. But that's no reason to summarize her with another singular, offensive label and move on. If we continue to simply dismiss those that haven't got the right idea as "just jerks" we will continue "preaching to the converted" and never really gain any ground. Let's recognize that those who do things that offend us are multifaceted in the same ways we are, and are not to be written off.

I had the same feelings. I

I had the same feelings. I have many friends who spew racist or sexist or abelist or even homophobic which, asan out homosexual and female at least 2 of those things are directly offensive to me) but it doesnt mean they are bad people. It doesnt mean that they don't have the same over all values I have, it just means they are uneducated to exactly what kind of effect these terms have on people who are marginalized. And yes there are some I let go for fear of confrontation of someone I care about, but sometimes I do say something, and often times when I read an article aboutthese things ill share them so I feel like I'm doing my part on educating them. Because it wasn't long ago o was one of those people and I don't think i was ever a bad person.

Agreed, if we wrote everyone

Agreed, if we wrote everyone off as jerks who missed the boat on these kinds of things we would alienate a whole lot of people. I get the author's sentiment, but the whole point is that this person doesn't think her friend is s jerk and instead is worthy of education and accountability.

Also, "...because you don't want her to be unhappy or uncomfortable, you've kept your lips zipped."

I feel fairly certain that when she said she wanted her friend to be happy she meant in the sense of having a good career, as in, one not ruined by the flippant use of slurs.

The question-asker here

I'm the person who wrote in with the question, and just... yes. My friend is not a jerk--she's one of the kindest people I know, and I've known her for over half my life--and while I know that a jerk is not the worst thing someone can be called, I feel like the blanket statement made about her (based on little information) was unnecessary. I just wanted to know if there was a sensitive way to educate her without being a jerk myself, because she's my dear friend and I feel she deserves that much. I feel like that point was missed, and while I've been a loyal Bitch fan for a few years, this has put a bad taste in my mouth about it.

I think your problem is that

I think your problem is that you're phrasing it as it being more important to be sensitive to the person who is causing hurt (your friend) than to the victims of her words (mentally disabled people). She's been using a slur and causing harm - if she can't take the fact that she's coming off as a jerk, and she's hurt by that, she's still not as hurt as the people her words have been hurting. I know it hurts when friends act insensitive, but if you're going to stand up to your friend you need to figure out how to do it because you know her a lot better than the advice columnist. In the end, you're trying to get someone else to figure out the uncomfortable stuff for you, and that's not going to happen. Either your friend is worth talking to about the fact that she's acting like a jerk, or she's not. That's your decision.

This column's advice has been mostly about telling you that you need to get over the confrontation fears society instills in you to make you stay quiet about slurs against minorities. If you're unable to get over those fears, you're going to have bigger problems.

That is the point of an advice column, no?

That is the point of an advice column, no? To give advice?

Hey, here is an advice column. Do you need some advice? What's your question or problem? Have some mediocre advice. Oh, that didn't help? What do you expect? I can't fix your life. You are in for bigger problems if you expect ME to FIX your problems!

I think, maybe, you have missed the point of an ADVICE COLUMN. Perhaps, you should look up the definition of "advice."

How about refraining from negating the validity of the points being made about the shit-advice. It has nothing to do with the reader's phrasing. Let's cut the semantics and defenses. Regardless of the columnists intention's, the knee-jerk, one dimensional name calling overshadows suggesting that one deal with confrontation. Simply saying, "hey, your friend is a jerk. and you gotta learn how to confront this person," is incredibly NOT helpful, even hurtful. Part of being good at offering advice is to be empowering. That is not empowering.

It is ill-advice to suggest that she be insensitive to her friend's feelings on this subject. And if you don't understand that then it is you who has bigger problems.

I think a good wa to deal

I think a good wa to deal with a situation like this is to open dialogue about the issue by saying something as simple as "why are you using that word?". Once she answers that then you know how to express your opinions, you're not.making assumptions (as the author of the advice did) about her, but you hear her reasons. If she is as kind as you believe her to be then she will undoubtably want to hear you opinion and then, hopefully, reconsider the name.

Jerk is a totally valid word to use

I disagree with everyone who is getting concerned about the use of the word jerk. I really liked that it was used to underline a tone of advice which doesn't excuse the use of retard in any way. Ms Opinionated has given constructive, positive advice on how to challenge this with a friend and give them a way to come back from this but is also acknowledging that it's just not ok and you should know that.

Sure, we all need an awakening moment as we grow up if we've been socialised into negative language use (I definitely used 'gay' as a teenager to mean bad before I knew what I was doing) but equally it's ok for that awakening moment to make you feel like a jerk. We don't need to make a world of excuses and cotton wool it - the reason you stop is because you realise you've been a jerk.

I agree with all of the pearl clutchers

who are coming to the defense of the friend being called a jerk. The woman is DOING something wrong and labeling her as BEING something is not only unhelpful, but it is also not a good way to help her change. It's better to focus on what she did, than what she is. If you tell someone "you are a racist," that immediately puts them on the defensive and also does not give them the option of changing their behavior. As always, Jay Smooth says it better than I have: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

This may be clichéd, obvious,

This may be clichéd, obvious, and trite, but here is a resource: http://www.r-word.org

I meant clichéd, obvious, and

I meant clichéd, obvious, and trite in the sense that everyone was probably aware of the website, not the website content itself.

R Word

Why don't you feel free to tell her exactly what you think of her handle? Are you friends or not? She hasn't accepted the more subtle cues you and others are giving her. 1. She is offending people who have enough to deal with without her adding to it. 2. By speaking clearly you are helping her to understand what she is doing that offends people. 3. She won't have to wonder why you dumped her if you do. 4. She may dump you before you can dump her which may be the real reason you won't do the right thing. 5. You are being moralistic, politically correct, whatever, but if the behavior bothers you it bothers you. 6. Even if they desperately wish it wasn't true everyone secretly knows they are stupid. Most prefer not to admit it publicly. There is some honesty in her self-condemnation.

And if you don't like

And if you don't like nineties nerd rock, here's the same message in eighties 2-tone ska (my go-to song for these occasions):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqH_0LPVoho

Trying to educate myself here

Disclaimer: I hold a bachelor's degree, purchase/read Bitch Magazine, and have long been a volunteer at places like Planned Parenthood.
I'm posting this anonymously because I'm embarrassed to admit that I have no idea (and thus am curious to learn) how this particular "ableist slur ("t*rd" to be more specific)" is considered offensive. I have only ever heard that word interchangeably with 'piece of shit' which I certainly understand is crude and insulting but I must be missing something here. Someone who isn't afraid to spell it out...could you help?

oops

It's an "a" missing, not a "u."

you're thinking "turd" but

you're thinking "turd" but she's writing about "tard" as in retard

Pretty sure you're reading

Pretty sure you're reading "t*rd" as "turd," which is a still-hilarious word for "piece of shit." Pretty sure the bleeped-out word is "tard" (as in short for "retard"), which is a slur.

You're thinking that the * is

You're thinking that the * is an "e" or "u". It's an "a". Hope that clears it up.

Don't be embarrassed. I'm a

Don't be embarrassed. I'm a disabled Hispanic female and have never heard the word "ableist." And I'm from Seattle! I'm not a "conservative Republican from a backwater town who hadn't yet been exposed to the term" as the author described. Also, how is "jerk" not a slur? Why are we using one slur to combat another?

"Jerk" IS a one-dimensional,

"Jerk" IS a one-dimensional, flippant insult (so, to some extent shares much with slurs), but it's not quite what most I think would call a "slur" because it's not ALSO a derogatory stereotype of a genetic, cultural or personal identity trait (such as gender identity, appearance, ethnicity, etc.).

Basically, every slur is an insult, but not every insult is a "slur"?

That linguistic line could be fluid, but that's always how I've seen the terms used.

I've heard "ableist" before plenty of times, but it's not terribly common outside of liberal circles. And even then, I'm pretty sure I've never heard it spoken aloud - just in text. It may be that it's only recently started gaining ground as a term.

Thanks you all. It makes

Thanks you all. It makes sense now. Appreciate folks answering my dumb question!

Oh, thank goodness. I thought

Oh, thank goodness. I thought the word was 'turd' as well, and was very confused by that particular word being ableist -- I mean, scatological insults are crude, but tend not to be ableist, racist, sexist, to my awareness (all humans sh*t).

T*rd with an 'a' makes much more sense in terms of this article.

I will no longer read Ms. Opinionated because...

I really don’t know where to begin other than I'm deeply disappointed in the response. The questioner was thoughtful in asking how to deal with a good friend who uses an ableist term for her username. So in response you decided not to give her a constructive way of dealing with the issue and deemed her friend a jerk. In doing so you’ve stripped away any positive characteristics her friend has and deemed her worthless. So two wrongs make a right?

She never said that she uses the word frequently, but is using the word in her username for various social media sites. Yes, this could effect her career, but other than that there wasn’t constructive feedback for dealing with a very tough issue that many of us deal with. You’re not worth my time is for people who make things difficult for us. I mean, what do you do when you have a friend who says something offensive?

I think the Ms. Opinionated column was a great idea and could have been a great place for support and growth, but it has turned out to be inaccessible for folks who aren't strict feminists.

and fuck any of us r-words

and fuck any of us r-words who want to be treated with respect, right? unbelievable.

Education is the answer

I am also posting anonymously, for my shame is great. But I feel the story must be told. A mere three years ago, I too was throwing the "retard" word around rather casually. I don't know why. Maybe I'd heard other people using it. Maybe I'd not outgrown the playground and was letting childish phrases creep in. (When I think of that word, I think of a bunch of boys in my third grade class that loved to call people those words.)

What I do know: I never thought about it critically. Not ever. If I had, I never would have said the word. I had friends who used "gay" as an expletive, and I knew that THAT was insulting and crude, but for some reason I just never connected the dots on the r-word.

It all came to an end when I was training someone at work, and referred to a piece of furniture using the word. And she very gently -- but firmly -- asked me not to use that word. We had a brief discussion about it. And that was that.

And here's the thing: I was deeply embarrassed -- because I DID know better, and that's not the kind of person I am, and I wouldn't want people to think that that was the sort of person I was. And so despite my embarrassment I was deeply grateful to that coworker for correcting me, because for some reason that's what it took for me to really get with the program. Enlightened feminist though I was. (Or thought I was.)

So while the friend might be a jerk, it's more likely that the friend is simply a fool, as I was. and either way she should be privy to, say, this very article right here. To understand to what degree people take offense to an offensive word. Because chances are, no one's had the balls to say anything, and so the assumption is that the word is still an okay word to use. That was my problem. That might be hers.

THIS. Very much this. It's

THIS. Very much this.

It's linguistic habit for a LOT of us, especially those in our teens and twenties, I think. Even though I'm queer myself(!) and know mentally disabled people(!), I still catch myself slipping and either using or realizing I was about to use, the term "gay" for "lame" and "retarded" for "completely idiotic".

The sad thing is that these terms caught on not just because they were edgy and offensive, but because they're damn catchy - said in the "right" tone, they somehow perfectly capture, in sound, what you're trying to convey (namely, disdain). They're SO good at doing that, that once you've gotten into the habit of hearing them used that way, it's sometimes hard NOT to use them.

Being queer, I'm especially irked at myself for often wanting to use "gay" dismissively, and I hate the fact that my culture has basically trained me to see nothing "wrong" with the usage - but the temptation strikes on occasion precisely because it's part of our language's basic idiomatic rhythm.

Of course, that doesn't mean we should keep using them (AT ALL!) - but like you say, even if you're a very liberal and caring individual, you may have to seriously train yourself out of using them! And it's harder than you'd think, precisely because it's something that's ingrained habit and not conscious.

"Lame" is also an ableist

"Lame" is also an ableist slur.. I haven't figured out a better word for... it... so my language has become more positive.

... and so is "idiot", if you're keeping score.

Let's not forget that there was another medical term that preceded the r-word. Many people now freely use that word as an insult. The r-word was seen as a less-offensive replacement. http://www.dailywritingtips.com/idiots-imbeciles-and-morons/

So in another 50 years, the writer's friend will likely have nothing to worry about. Somehow we'll turn "intellectual disability" into an insult, there will be a new medical term to replace it, and the r-word will be a free agent again.

And people who impart knowledge to schoolchildren will be offended if you call them educators.

Thank you!

I just wanted to add a different voice to the comments.

I am very pleased with your advice Ms. Opinionated. I think it was spot on. Thankfully I grew up with a clear understanding of how hurtful that ableist word is. My aunt has down syndrome. I do sympathize with other's protest that it become habit and our society influences it. However, that is no excuse not to continue to work on not using the term. That is no excuse to act like being called a jerk is a bigger offense than being ableist, and it is no excuse for acting like being called a jerk is THE WORST INSULT EVER.

Using an ableist slur, even if you don't know, is being a jerk. When we are unintentional jerks the response is to apologize and try not to do it again. Instead, everyone posting is clutching their pearls and 'standing up for' the person being a jerk! Come on people, you need to do better.

Confused

I grew up thinking the "B" word was a "slur" on women.
I don't see how, using a slur, it's possible to tell someone else to stop using a slur or even have a judgement about them.

as mentioned in the response

as mentioned in the response it makes a difference when you reclaim a slur and make something positive out of it. women can use the b-word in a positive way, which doe not mean that men can use it too. the person here using the r-word can't reclaim it though because she is not part of the group of people this slur refers to.

"whose lives are proscribed by that insult"

Megan, "proscribe" means "to condemn or forbid as harmful or unlawful." The word you were thinking of is probably "circumscribe."

i call em as i see em

not sure what the uproar is here. i call my friends jerks all the time - if they deserve it. a friend of mine used inappropriate language (slurs) on my facebook, and i told him straight up: don't be an asshole. use appropriate language or prepare to be unfriended. i think that saying that someone is a jerk means they arn't really thinking about the way their language or behaviour is effecting others. maybe it's personal semantics on my part, but i really don't think that calling a stranger a jerk is cause to tear this response to ribbons. sure, it's not the most polite method of saying this... but it's up to the asker to take the information and pass it on in a way that will actually get through to the friend. i can be a jerk sometimes. usually when i want to get my own way, regardless of the consequences. but when i'm reminded of what i'm doing, i can actively change that - become less of a jerk.

on the other hand, i think it's a little condescending to presume that only republicans in backwater towns haven't heard the term ableism before... in my experience, many educated people haven't heard the term, because they're educated in different ways. that doesn't excuse anyone's use of ableist language, but it's unfair to assume that everyone who is educated is educated in the 'right' way.

this slur is not ok in reclamation or otherwise

this slur cannot be reclaimed. there is no unified movement of developmentally differentiated people who have agreed to reclaim it. all organizations agree it is offensive, including self-advocacy orgs. there's no layer of complexity that justifies allowing this atrocity to continue. ugh, are you kidding me? only we are treated this way. who would say that about a blog called niggertech?

the person needs some good sense talked into them, in increasingly firm tones until they get it. the blog name is NOT OK. it hurts people every day and justifies our dehumanization. I'm so sick of fighting this shit. so fucking sick of spending all my energy on this topic just to defend my dignity and humanity.

what fucking century are some of you antiquated bigots and apologists living in. smh. you have limitless patience for 'nuance' but heaven forfend someone stand up for us so we can take a fucking break every once in a while and oh, I don't know, clean the house without worrying about whether my portrayal in social media will justify an attempt to strip me of autonomy in the legislature or the courthouse.

I am so fucking sick of allistic bigots and their excuses. the slur is NOT OK. you do NOT USE THE SLUR. IT PERPETUATES VIOLENCE. 20% of us are abused in childhood according to recent evidence, and that's probably laughably low compared to the reality. our abusers are treated as saints for putting up with us at all, and when our parents try to murder us they receive outpourings of sympathy that a dog abuser would never get.

we are literally lower than dogs to many people. some people gleefully describe, in comments on huffpo about issy stapleton, how if they had a r-word kid like us they would chain "it" to something in the basement and keep it from society. we also get raped behind closed doors there, ya know.

we are lower than dogs in this world and throwing around that slur perpetuates it. IT IS NOT OK. is that fucking clear enough for you oh so superior normal-thinking geniuses? DON'T USE THE FUCKING WORD. STOP MAKING EXCUSES FOR PEOPLE WHO USE IT.

it sickens me that the writer saw this person start the blog and never said anything. there's no context that makes it ok. the letter writer knows that and should be ashamed of themselves for letting it get this far. let me be clear - IF YOU HAVE THE PRIVILEGE, IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO COLLECT AND CORRECT YOUR FRIENDS. being autistic and/or having developmental disorders means we have limited reserves of energy that we must spend wisely and cannot get back. we have to spend massive amounts just to clean ourselves and our homes (the lucky ones) and prepare our meals, wardrobe, employment, transportation, etc. then we have to deal with discrimination and microaggression all day.

we don't have time for this stuff. you normal people have to step up to the plate. STOP MAKING EXCUSES. what is a minor inconvenience to you is life or death to us, not to mention contributing to the aforementioned abuse and the massive underemployment problem that devastate our lives, and the continuing travesty where researchers and politicians make decisions about us without consulting us.

WHAT THE FUCK DO WE HAVE TO DO TO BE CONSIDERED PEOPLE TO SOME OF YOU?