Let’s Talk: RI Slur Culture

By Joan Ang (17A01B)

A few weeks ago, my 13-year-old brother came home from school crying. When my parents asked him why, he choked out the phrase, “my senior called me retarded,” and vanished into his room.

My brother has a learning disorder.

Of course, his senior couldn’t possibly have known this when he said those words, but the experience does call to mind some things that I have heard in my past eight months at RI. From my first days in January, I’ve heard slurs thrown around in casual conversation like nobody’s business — a real culture shock in contrast to my secondary school days.

A slur is an insult, but one with a specific set of connotations. Broadly speaking, an insult becomes a slur when it’s historically associated with a minority group and their consequent marginalisation. Slurs include words such as “n****” [or the n word] for black people in America, “faggot” for homosexuals and “retarded” for the intellectually or mentally disabled.

The problem is, most slur users aren’t aware of that history. In fact, there’s a pattern to this: when I first ask a slur-user the meaning of the words they’re using, they can’t tell me. When I respond badly, they then attempt to pass their word choice off as a joke, which just worsens the entire situation, because I think that slur usage is really anything but.

Because slur usage does contribute to societal marginalisation. Whether you like it or not.

For example, the n word is historically linked to black people in America, having been used to refer to black slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s therefore intrinsically linked to the black community, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

And so, when a person uses the n word, they bring up an entire history of oppression, and one that continues to perpetuate to this day — possibly even through the unknowing actions of slur-users.

To use the n word as an insult is to insinuate that it’s bad to be black. To frivolously fling the n word around as a joke, as someone thoroughly unrelated on a sunny island halfway around the world? That’s erasure. Both of culture, and of history.

Now replace the n word with retarded, or faggot, and see what you do every time you throw a word like that around.

By making slurs a joke, you trivialise the real issues of real people who have to deal with the negative impacts of societal discrimination on them.

You might then say, “but we live in a different context than the one the negative associations stem from! I can’t be hurting anyone, and neither can anyone in my circles.” Maybe the words that you say don’t apply to any of the people in your immediate friend circle or within earshot, but we do not, and cannot exist in a void.

These words have been used to oppress, alienate and discriminate. To say that their histories are no longer relevant and to eradicate them ignores the status of the society that we live in, and the people that we live with.

But when I bring this up to said friends who use slurs, more often than not, I get written off as not being able to take a joke. Or they say that it’s too inapplicable to them. Too irrelevant. That the issue is too macro. That I’m just being overly critical.

Or that they just can’t find it within themselves to care.

These are all troubling, because perhaps you in particular do not mean what you say. Saying it does not necessitate action, after all. But for every joke you make, there is a chance that you validate a person who espouses the views you unintentionally preach. And there is a chance they will do something about it.

Discrimination isn’t dead. Oppression isn’t obsolete. There are people dying – not just around the world, but in neighboring countries, possibly even in our own streets. Maybe you don’t personally experience it, but there are others who do. And to imply that their pain is irrelevant, to turn death and destruction happening right at this moment into another joke for your personal amusement — that’s not just ignorant, that’s obtuse.

Because, people are getting hurt, and for someone who cannot find it within themselves to care: where is your sense of empathy?

So you argue: “but I do have empathy!” Then please tell me the measure by which we’re supposed to judge it. Does “having empathy” mean taking part in service initiatives and being kind to animals, all so you can turn around and yell across the room that someone is a retard?

And I beg your pardon, but I don’t understand the point. It’s ironic, hypocritical even, that a person can claim to care about others and still spew words of hate on a daily basis. If you want to say that you care about people, apply that principle across the board. There is little value in half-hearted kindness.

Most people don’t feel bad about the harm they cause simply because it’s not immediately visible — after all, saying the word “retarded” does not make a mentally-disabled person drop dead across the street. But by using those words, you do indirectly contribute to societal discrimination, and the thing is that most people don’t even acknowledge it as such, or even work to make the situation better.

We aren’t babies, and this isn’t object permanence. Just because something is out of your line of sight doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist. Just because something isn’t physically present doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Someone does not need to break down in front of you for you to realise that there is an issue with the words that you speak.

At the end of the day, being human means what comes out of our mouths are the results of our own choices. If we made the effort, we could eradicate slurs from our vocabularies.

The question is, really, whether we care enough to.

16 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: RI Slur Culture”

  1. Very much agreed. I’m sorry that your brother had to experience such an insult. I feel the same way when people use the term “autistic” as an insult; my sister has autism, and hearing the term used as an insult trivializes her struggles and difficulties.

    1. no it doesnt. the use of the term ‘autistic’ as an insult in no way trivialises the ordeals your sister goes through. the word can be used to describe a medical condition as well as being an insult both at the same time, it all depends on context. the usage of the word in one context does not affect neither positively nor negatively that of the usage of the same word in the other context.

      1. So what, you use “autistic” as an insult, and his sister is supposed to listen to people using “autistic” as an insult, and she’s supposed to face people who associated “autistic” with “bad”…… and she’s supposed to not mind? Because the context is different?

        Stop posting such comments just because you don’t want to come up with proper insults. Don’t blame others for your own intellectual laziness in wanting to stick to the same old insults you’ve always used. Please learn something from this instead.

      2. I’m sorry that I might be wrong but in my opinion this comment in no way clarifies how slurs are not necessarily insensitive. Why would the user of such slurs choose to use such words as insults in the first place before they became derogatory, instead of plethoras of others that the language grants us? Is it because they fundamentally hold the belief that being one of such minority groups is shameful and humiliating? Is it because the users fail to commiserate with, or even derive pleasure from, the marginalisation and discrimination of minorities that they decide to use these slurs other than their originally intended meaning that gives rise to their state as an insult?

  2. When it comes to the usage of the f word for example, does anybody use it in the original meaning anymore? Likewise when it comes to the n word, there are basically zero blacks in Singapore. I don’t know whether you know this, but black people in the US use the word internally ALL the time. How could using it in SG bother anyone? Your philosophy may include worrying about cultural misappropriation and disrespecting centuries of oppression but many other people have a simpler philosophy; if it doesn’t offend anyone it doesn’t matter. Is it to deplorable to use these words in a context which offends people? Yes. Is it right to say that these words cannot be used at all because of that? I don’t think so.

    1. ^. if the target audience of your slurs do not affect the actual supposedly ‘oppressed’ group of ppl, what harm is there? some [liberals] from their high horse feelingg that they’re doing the right thing and being offended in place of that oppressed group? is not that mentality equally flawed and perpetuating oppression as it suggests that the oppressed group is unable to fight oppression themselves and require the help of other non oppressed members of society in ending their oppression?

  3. I think many people are missing the writer’s point by saying that it’s alright to use these slurs “because it’s not used with its original derogatory meaning” or “those that I tell it to know that I’m using it in a friendly and casual manner”. The fact that we are disassociating these slurs from their original context to transform it into something casual and everyday is perpetuating the idea that it’s okay to use these words. I mean I understand why you might feel it’s alright if it’s used in a “closed” environment but you’re actually turning the use of the word into a habit and something you don’t have to think twice about. Being human, we have our impulse moments and the word can slip out when we’re talking to someone that these slurs can have an effect on. Look at the writer’s example: her brother was devastated that he was called ‘retarded’ and I’m very sure that ‘retarded’ is a phrase that lots of people throw around casually, and this is exactly why the use of this word still has negative consequences. We become so comfortable using it that we don’t realize that we use it on someone who is genuinely affected by it. Slurs like “n***a” and “f*g**t” are representatives of oppression that still are prevalent in our society: racism and homophobia. Just because in our society we might not experience as obvious and media-fied events as the ones we see overseas doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t there. These slurs still retain their derogatory meaning and its not an excuse to use it just because the context they’re associated with isn’t very highlighted in Singapore. There is a need for us to stop using these slurs because we are contributing to a growing phenomenon of using them casually and it is certainly going to offend someone at some point in time. Don’t erase the derogatory connotations just because you don’t want to believe that you’re being insensitive and contributing to a big problem. It literally does us no harm or loss to stop the use of slurs in our conversations, and I feel that it’s an effort that we all need to make.

  4. I think many people are missing the writer’s point by saying that it’s alright to use these slurs “because it’s not used with its original derogatory meaning” or “those that I tell it to know that I’m using it in a friendly and casual manner”. The fact that we are disassociating these slurs from their original context to transform it into something casual and everyday is perpetuating the idea that it’s okay to use these words. I mean I understand why you might feel it’s alright if it’s used in a “closed” environment but you’re actually turning the use of the word into a habit and something you don’t have to think twice about. Being human, we have our impulse moments and the word can slip out when we’re talking to someone that these slurs can have an effect on. Look at the writer’s example: her brother was devastated that he was called ‘retarded’ and I’m very sure that ‘retarded’ is a phrase that lots of people throw around casually, and this is exactly why the use of this word still has negative consequences. We become so comfortable using it that we don’t realize that we use it on someone who is genuinely affected by it. Slurs like “n***a” and “f*g**t” are representatives of oppression that still are prevalent in our society: racism and homophobia. Just because in our society we might not experience as obvious and media-fied events as the ones we see overseas doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t there. These slurs still retain their derogatory meaning and its not an excuse to use it just because the context they’re associated with isn’t very highlighted in Singapore. There is a need for us to stop using these slurs because we are contributing to a growing phenomenon of using them casually and it is certainly going to offend someone at some point in time. Don’t erase the derogatory connotations just because you don’t want to believe that you’re being insensitive and a contributor to a big problem. It literally does us no harm or loss to stop the use of slurs in our conversations, so I feel that it’s an effort that we all need to make.

  5. Hi all, I would like to express my views on this matter, for I am reminded of George Carlin’s warnings on political correctness…

    I think the essence of the argument really boils down to whether or not people really care about these minority groups or not.

    I can understand why some people may not particularly care about, or be affected by certain minority groups, especially when they are more culturally remote, such as African Americans, Uyghurs or Syrians. These people will not really seek to monitor their speech as long as they do not contravene our legal system.

    For people who care about these minority groups, I guess then the issue boils down to a conflict between utilitarianism and deontology. A deontologist will argue that the act of using such slurs are not allowed because it mocks the suffering of certain groups of people, and as such treat others as merely a means to one’s ends. Such a person will find such an act to be wrong regardless of the consequences caused, or lack thereof.

    A utilitarian may argue that when such slurs are used within friends and out of the social context of such slurs, the possibility creating a hostile social climate may be tenuous. This is because most people have their own perspectives on the manner and can understand the context of jokes, and the possibility of changing their opinions based on jokes is arguably unknown. This utilitarian may find that the negative impact of such jokes to be smaller than the risk of creating a restrictive thought climate, and hence argue against the restriction of such speech.

    Both the deontologist and the utilitarian have valid viewpoints and it may not be easy to argue who is right and wrong. I think that even the person who is not really concerned about the plight of minority groups is justified to a small extent. After all, who determines which group of minorities should we care about? The American left, fraught with its own cultural concerns and issues? There are so many groups of suffering people, it is not probable for a person to care about all of them. Furthermore, for such culturally remote groups, there is little that one can do for them to improve the situation, being in another country and all. As long as they are not openly advocating harm towards these groups, I think it is ok for such people to just go on with their daily lives and thoughts as they are not likely to harm these groups.

    As such, I think that the many viewpoints held by people over these issues are valid and justified to some extent. As such, I find the original author, and some comments on this thread perhaps a tad too harsh on people, and I disagree with them.

    Personally, I am more of an utilitarian in this aspect, partly by upbringing. I do wish to state in advance that I am merely expressing my own opinions on this matter and have no wish or intent to put down others or hurt their feelings. I would like to apologise in advance for any greviances caused by my argument. Thanks!

  6. To clarify first, the author looked at some specific contexts of slur use that are problematic. Other than the obvious use of slurs as derogatory and to demean that community, the other contexts she had an issue with were when we use it 1) jokingly/casually and 2)as an insult in general.

    And she then went on to elaborate the problems with these uses:
    1) when used casually, the issue is that we “trivialise the real issues of real people who have to deal with the negative impacts of societal discrimination on them”. To elaborate, I think what she brings up here is that slurs today are still being used to demean the communities they were originally directed against, and so if we toss them around in casual conversation, it in effect promotes the attitude that these slurs are no longer a problem, and that by extension that community is not facing a problem – when in fact they are still disadvantaged today. I’ll admit I can’t quite articulate it well, maybe someone else or the author can (actly there is a relevant paragraph above in the article, the one beginning “Discrimination isn’t dead…”), but if I may bring up an example to try to illustrate: you wouldn’t joke about Hitler and Auschwitz without at the very least getting some really odd looks, and feeling uncomfortable about the insensitivity of joking about such issues of suffering, and so by extension, joking about and casually employing terms with the historical and present-day connotations of injustice is also similarly problematic. The result is the trivialisation of that communities issues that the author raises, as such lighthearted use detracts from the gravity needed in the effort to motivate people to tackle injustices.

    2) when used as an insult, well. The problem here’s pretty clear, insults in themselves not only offend and hurt, as you’d be able to see not only from your own personal experience, but also from the anecdote raised by the author about her 13-year old brother. The problem is also in the harm done to the community linked to the slur, since by using the slur as an insult, even if not towards a member of the community, it lends a negative connotation and stigma towards the community. As the author writes, “To use the n word as an insult is to insinuate that it’s bad to be black.”, the same way that calling a clumsy friend “spastic”, while possibly amusing, does perpetuate the perception that to be “spastic” is to be negative and possibly even shameful. A stigma is thus perpetuated through our social interactions, a stigma that has real harm in terms of not only isolating those communities, but also of consequently making important discourse and raising awareness of those communities’ issues harder, since they now have to work to not only raise awareness but also combat these stigmas in the process.

  7. Great article. There’s no reason for anyone to use such words, whether there is “harm” done or not. There is history behind such words, and when you use these words you are disrespecting and trivialising issues – many that are still prevalent in the world. Using it in another country, or perhaps in what you deem is a “safe environment” does not give you the license to do so. The intention behind the usage does not magically erase what these words were created for. Plenty of other words to use, to call your friend a buddy, why choose a slur?

  8. This perpetuation of a really awful climate of apparent social justice is only a form of intellectual masturbation for a self serving placation of your self-perception. ‘We aren’t babies, and this isn’t object permance’. Really??? Is that the best you can do? Your entire notion of what constitutes an offensive slur is on that is one that is without any historical or cultural context. The historical baggage of a word is applicable only to those who give it relevance in the first place. Surely, one cannot argue that our school should be renamed to preclude the word ‘Raffles’ since Stamford Raffles was after all a pawn of the Queen in imposing her expansionistic imperialism, which resulted in the erosion of intricate native cultures and extended exploitation of our resources.

    Your anecdotal experience with your brother does not and should not be a commandment for all to stop using such words entirely. You have made the fatal and narrow-minded presumption that ‘retarded’ is always used to degrade and condemn those who are mentally challenged. You have chosen to paint your pocketed argument with thick strokes, with the full knowledge that such words can be used as a playful rebuke when one’s friend has done something silly – an entirely cheery gesture.

    Such words are not an issue if one even has a meagre amount of emotional awareness. Now admist all these self righteous social justice warriors who spend their time whining about cultural norms or even conjure up issues such as implicit racism, can we have some real journalism here that is worthy of Raffles Press?

  9. I think the problem is when people don’t actually view something as important to them and therefore the problem becomes marginalised and trivialised. This goes back to the issue of something appearing not to be discriminatory but in fact it is an indirect discrimination on the aggrieved person, just that the discriminator does not see it.

  10. While I do think that the writer has a very valid point about being sensitive about the things we say, does avoiding these slurs entirely really solve the issue of discrimination? Won’t new slurs just spring up anyway, and by avoiding these words, aren’t we further acknowledging that those who use these words to denigrate others are doing so in the “proper use” of the word?

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