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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Identities Are Not Insults: Addressing Oppressive Language Among Children

By: Liberate Zealot
Content Warning: Discussions of oppressive language and slurs, use of oppressive language and slurs as examples

Part III of the Feminism and Children Series : Feminism and Children MasterPost


So the roommate and I are both teachers and we're both concerned with challenging oppressive language and the normalization of slurs. I'm with elementary schoolers and she's with middle schoolers so our approaches are a bit different.  But a recent purchase of hers, and some recent conversations with my students have brought this topic to the forefront of my mind, and so I wanted to share some resources, techniques, and conversations we've used to challenge the ubiquitousness of the kyriarchy in the language of children.

Now the exact approaches we take as teachers are different from the approaches that parents would need to take, but the general ideas and information are the same.

So First:
The thing to remember if you're a teacher, baby sitter, camp counselor, or even neighbor or relative (but not the parent) is that often (but not always) children learn slurs from their parents.  If I have time for a longer conversation or lesson I'll ask the child where they heard that word or phrase, and then tailor the conversation around that.  The reason I point out this concern first is many children are very resistant to their parents being wrong, "bad", or uninformed about something.  Likewise there's the danger of parents being insulted and trying to get you fired because you "indoctrinated" their children.  These two points very much shape how I discuss/teach these topics with children.

Right of the bat I'll stress how a lot of people might not know "x" word or phrase is racist/sexist/homophobic/classist/ableist.  If it is a word that's more obviously oppressive (when used that way) like "gay" then I'll mention how words can be used as slurs so often that we forget why they shouldn't be, or we don't think to question, and how this is true for adults as well as children.

Now on to the actual conversations/techniques:
The most important thing is to be prepared.  No matter how liberal or progressive an area or child's upbringing is everyone grows up in this kyriarchal culture and will learn oppressive stereotypes, language, and slurs and in the moment it can be quite shocking and/or difficult to know how to address something.  I've spent nearly a decade working with children of various ages and have been educating myself on intersectional feminism and oppression for about the same amount of time.  I've had planned responses that I've refined and adapted for five years, and I'm still surprised or unprepared for a specific phrase, word, or stereotype.  But the more prepared you are the easier it is.

The general premise I use, in both my quick responses and longer lessons is:
Identities are not Insults

Sometimes just telling a child that is enough, especially if I'm using it as a reminder.  A short expansion of that is: 
"We never use people's looks, where they're from, what they sound like, how their bodies or minds work, or who they love as insults.  If we do that then we are saying that being that way is bad and wrong and every person like that is bad and wrong.  That is a very mean thing to do. How would you feel if people used something about you or your name as an insult?"

Many of my children don't immediately understand how what they say has to do with identities, or what to know the specifics/history of a phrase or word.  So I've had to prepare responses to specific words or explaining what ableism/classism/sexism is and why it's bad, or how it's racist. 

Gay - Being gay means loving other boys/girls and wanting to date/marry them.  Many people and animals are gay and our state recognizes gay marriage.  When we use gay to mean bad or silly we're saying all these people and their love are wrong and bad. 

Retarded - Is a word that has been used to hurt people whose minds and bodies work differently.  For a very long time people like this would be locked away, treated like animals, or even killed.  It's still used to hurt these people, and every time we use it we're making fun and hurting them too.  Would you like it if people made fun of and hurt your because of how your mind and body works? (This can also be used for other ableist slurs like lame or crazy.)

Making "slanty eyes"/talking in a fake accent - When people pull at their eyes to make them slanty, or talk in "x" accent they're actually making fun of people who might look or sound a bit like that.  Often it's an exaggeration or stereotype too.  Would you like it if people made fun of how you spoke or look because you look or sound a bit different from them?

Classism - How much money you or your parents have doesn't tell us anything about the type of people you are, if you're smart/funny/hard working.  The only difference is having more money makes things easier because you don't have to worry about having enough food, or losing your home, or buying medicine when you're sick.  Is it ok to make fun of people who don't have enough food to eat?  Then why would it be ok to make fun of people who don't have enough money to buy the toys and clothes you have? 

Sexism "scream/run/throw like a girl" "don't be a girl/pussy" - When you say "don't be a girl" or "you do 'x' like a girl" you're saying it's bad to do things like girls.  Which makes it sound like you think it's bad to be a girl.  And this means all girls, even the ones who are important to us or who are awesome.  Would you make fun of someone by comparing them to a girl you like, like your mom or (girl/women they admire/like)?  Then why make fun by comparing them to girls as a group?  Your mom/x-girl is part of that group. 

It's rare for the kids I work with to use slurs that are recognized as cuss/swear words, but that's not the case with the roommate's middle schoolers.  Now as teachers if students swear in class, especially at another student or teacher often they'll get sent to the principle/counselor.  So the conversations around bitch, or the f or n words get built into other lessons and conversations around oppressive language (with specific history about those words). 

A note on slurs that are being reclaimed by the oppressed communities, as I've prepared for discussing with older children/students - Even if a community, or some people in the community have reclaimed a slur that doesn't make it ok for other people to use to word.  And if the word is used as an insult it's still a slur.  Unless you a LGBT or black or Latin@ or a woman you don't get to use the words that they are reclaiming, even if you mean it in a good way.  And even if your friends who are from that group are ok with you using it, many people from that group will not be,  so do not use it in public. 

A note on being a teacher with a certain privilege and working with children who do not share that privilege.  No matter how educated on a topic of oppression you are, no matter how well you understand the oppressive roots of a slur, you still will not have the true understanding that the children will have, the word/phrase/slur will not be yours to decide how to use, it will be theirs.  So you can teach about oppression and language, you can start conversations, you can connect the children to the naming/theory/work done by other oppressed people, you can caution them to be thoughtful in their language.  But you don't know the oppression, not like they do.  You don't know what the slurs mean and do to the people they are used against.  So this is a time when you need to cede   your place as teacher.  By all means ask your students questions, but then shut up and listen to what they want to say or decide to share.  And if they don't want to say or share anything, then don't push it. Because it certainly isn't feminist to force the oppressed to discuss their oppression with/or teach the oppressor/privileged


Another point is to continue educating yourself.  Kyriarchal language is so pervasive that many of us are unaware of all the oppressive language and slurs that are a standard part of speech. In the past F.A.R writers worked to compile an obviously incomplete list of potential slurs/oppressive language.  Likewise it's important to remember that different locations, cultures, and identities with have different relationships with language. For example calling an African-American an eggplant or saying they look like one is insulting and racist.  Now I don't know why a person would call anyone eggplant, but a co-worker of my roommate did, not realizing the connotations of the word.   So really, continue educating yourself and examining your own language.  We're all going to fail at this sometimes, but when we do, we can use our own failures and learning experiences as a lesson for the children in our lives. 

My roommate has posters by Alison Rowan for her classroom that address not using slurs.  Along with the "gay" one pictures above she has one for "retarded". 

It's important to bring intersectional feminism to all areas of the lives of children.  To the media they consume, toys the use, the history and geography they learn (traditional education/schooling totally needs expanding), sports they play, and a variety of other internalized kyriarchy that they'll need help dismantling.  Do everything you can to model your feminism and to make intersectional feminism and everyday part of their lives.  Other posts from Feminism and Children will discuss these things.

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