Walking Sticks and Stones
“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”
We learn at an early age how untrue this statement is. Not only can they hurt, but they can sometimes cut us the deepest. As children we are told not to bully others, and yet how many of us have run home crying? But the bullying does not stop. We get older and the bullies just become more articulate. Their words are weapons to which we are defenseless, each one artfully chosen to inflict pain. Words have been used to motivate separation throughout history: racism, sexism, religious bigotry, homophobia, almost any evil we see in the world has been motivated by words. We see the seeds of those evils at an early age. We are called names on the playground. How much has changed?
“Retard” “Nigger” “Kike” “Fag” “Cunt”
These terms are rampant. We hear them out of the mouths of many, mostly for the purposes of separation. Name calling. Nothing has changed—we are still on the playground.
So what’s in a name? We are given names as a child, nicknames as we grow up, and soon we become old enough to choose and change our own names. We choose our names and form our identities. As we are forming our own, we form identities for others. As humans we tend to group things and people in our minds. To these groups we give names. And we give names to people. But the names we give others are not always the names they choose. And that is where the problem lies. Kids grow up hearing hateful words and learn to use them just like any other ones. We learn to names others, putting them into categories, whether they have chosen to put themselves in those categories or not.
Writer and activist Eli Clare writes about the phenomenon and danger of naming, in his book Exile and Pride. He speaks of words and names as having had a large effect on his life. He explains his life as a disabled transgendered person, and how he grew and shaped his identity. Throughout his life he was given the names “crip, queer, freak, and redneck,” and he says that “none of these are easy words” (12). He explains how these names have shaped his life, but more importantly how his life has helped him to shape these words. He says they “mark the chasm between self-hatred and pride….how the dominant culture views marginalized peoples and how we view ourselves” (12). These words, these names, had been shouted at him, told to him, and forced upon him, until they “burrowed into [his] body.”
“crip, queer, freak, redneck”
Names do not just stay on the surface; they are not just said and forgotten. “No matter what our relationships with these words—whether we embrace them or hate them, feel them draw blood as they hit our skin or find them entirely fitting, refuse to say them or simply feel uncomfortable in their presence—we deal with their power every day.” Each day we take our own names, deal with the names we have chosen for our selves in our lives. But along with those chosen names or nicknames are the names we do not choose, like the ones Clare was given and was then forced to carry with him.
In reality, boiled down to their purest form, all these names and categories are just stereotypes. People see other people, put them into categories, and assume things. Clare talks about certain stereotypes and the names they have been given. Clare articulately well how “stereotypes and lies lodge in our bodies and as surely as bullets” (13). Being disabled himself, he explains different terms that have been given to describe him and others with disabilities.
He starts with “handicapped,” explaining that it started in the early 20th century to describe disabled people. Begging, they would stand or sit “cap in hand,” and the term was flipped around to be “handicapped.”
Disabled “in all it’s forms it means ‘unable’ ” (82). Just as a “car stalled in the left lane of traffic,” humans are described as disabled or unable to function properly.
Both of these words lack the true essence of any of the people who are forced to take these names. Instead they bring pain to many, and only help to continue the pure ignorance with which these words are used.
“That’s so gay” “You’re retarded”
Yet despite the pain that hateful or misused words bring about, they have only continued to be abused. Even now, in school, at work, on the street, we here words like “gay and “retarded” as insults. To express someone’s stupidity, “retarded” is used, as if it is an acceptable way to say that that person or thing is unintelligent or ridiculous, and to then mock them for it. Usually, it is said from one non-disabled person to another. “Gay” is used in an even more multi-purposeful way, ranging in meaning anywhere from stupid to lame to generally undesirable. Then words have not only been taken out of context, but are then used in a situation to put down their subject, and completely debase any people who actually identify with these words. In other words, “gay” and “retard” are used to describe people or things which do not fall under these categories, and are instead meant as insults. So then how do we oppose this name calling?
We stand up and fight. We fight for the names which hurt us so badly -- fight to be freaks. And we freaks are everywhere. We are the minorities. The unwanted. The abnormal. We are anyone who is not the majority, does not fit in with the crowd. So we make our own crowds and get out and march or roll or hobble or limp. We take these terms that have been used against us, and we turn them on their heads, redefining and reclaiming them. The LGBT community took the name “queer,” which is used frequently as a derogatory name for gay men, and redefined it as a blanket term anyone in the LGBT community, now more commonly referred to as the Queer Community. Queer is now said with pride. The disabled community did the same thing with the world “cripple,” which is usually used an insensitive and derogatory way of describing physically disabled people. “Cripple” was turned into “crip” and is now associated with a culture which has turned out “crip art” and “crip pride” and become a source of positive identity for many. Clare speaks of the two words and their relation: “Queer and Cripple are cousins: words to shock, words to infuse with pride and self-love, words to resist internalized hatred, words to help for a politics. They have been gladly chosen—queer by many gay, lesbian, bi, and trans people, cripple or crip by many disabled people” (84).
In many ways, more than just through their defiant use of words, the Queer and Crip (or disabled) communities are related. Both communities have suffered deeply because of the oppression, intolerance, and ignorance of others. Both communities also have had to face legislation and regulations which limit their members from functioning as easily as people who are not parts of these communities. Clare speaks about this particular similarity between the two communities. He says that “oppression is about access” (7) and because members of the Crip and Queer communities are not like the majority, they are denied access. He says that oppression is brought about by stereotypes and attitudes and that it can lead to “lack of access, lack of employment, lack of education, lack of personal attendant services” (3). So we again reach the question of how to stop this oppression, whether it be in regards to access or the simple social oppression which comes from the problem of naming.
We return to the idea of pride. But we do not stop at parades and taking back names. We prove to the world that we are in no way “queer” or “crippled” unless we say we are. We do all that we can and want, fearing not the restrictions that will no doubt be put on us. We keep striving and pushing towards our goals. We do not say in the face of our triumphs that we have “overcome” anything. Because we are just as valid, vital, and able as anyone else. Our successes are not miracle stories; they are us living up to our greatest potential.
“And as for the lies and false images, we need to name them, transform them, create something entirely new in their place.” (Clare 13)
So let us chose our names. Form our identities and become proud of them. Work to make others appreciate us and our identities. Work to stop their oppression. But mostly just work to make them keep their names for themselves.
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride, 1999. South End Press, Cambridge, MA.