Thinking About the Word “Retard”

For weeks now as all the controversy around Tropic Thunder has developed, I’ve been rolling around thoughts, trying the figure out what I want to write. Here are some initial thoughts:

Crip Chick is so right on about intersectionality, there’s nothing left for me to say.

–What I think about the construction of the phrase “R-word” is completely influenced by Emily Bernard’s incredible essay, “Teaching the N-Word.” I’m wildly ambivalent about the turning of hate language into euphemisms–n-word, b-word, f-word, and now r-word–that somehow are to protect marginalized communities from the pain of hearing those words yet again and privileged peoples from having to repeat the violence. There are two pieces to my ambivalence.

1) The violence has already been done. The damage won’t be rectified by a refusal to say the words. In our activism and analysis around hate language, we need to be vigilant and conscious about triggers and re-creating the power dynamics put in motion by hate language, but I’m not sure that euphemistic substitutions for hate language is a good stand-in for vigilance and consciousness. At the bottom of this part of my ambivalence is a sense that the “r-word” construction is designed largely to protect those of of us who have been battered by the word retard and by the institutional, material, and attitudinal realities that come with it. As one of those people bruised by the dismissiveness, hatred, and physical violence of retard, I don’t need protection; rather I need compassion, rage, allies, and an end to ableism.

2) The “r-word” construction mirrors the “n-word” construction, which precedes it. I don’t know from where the “n-word” construction originates nor what mix of opinions/feelings/thoughts Black people have about it. But whatever the origins, the mirroring of the two constructions communicates that retard and nigger function in the same ways as hate language and carry the same violence and that all the repulsion and outrage white people supposedly feel upon hearing the word nigger should also be felt in the same measure by non-disabled people upon hearing retard. Here again is analogy failing to do the deeper work of intersectionality. Certainly racist hate language and ableist hate language share much in common. (The ways the word monkey has been used against disabled people (both poc and white) and people of color (both disabled and non-disabled) highlight these commonalities.) But there is so much historical and present-day difference between the usage of retard and the usage of nigger and such a lack of real anti-racist work among white disability activists that the analogy reads to me like white people appropriating the political work of Black activists yet again. The analogy sidelines Black disabled people’s experience, and assumes that disabled people are white and Black people are non-disabled. And the question isn’t asked: how does the snarl of hate sound in the lives of disabled people of color?

–Call me a crank but the Special Olympics “Stop the R- Word Campaign” makes me pause. Don’t get me wrong, organizing around retard as hate speech and even protesting Tropic Thunder as a specific cultural example of the use of ableist, as well as racist, hate speech is important work. But since when is the Special Olympics about justice for cognitively disabled people? For many years that organization has been one of the biggest creators of super crip images–that is “heroic” disabled people “inspiring” audiences with their “bravery”–and and have often fanned the flames of pity with its charity-model fundraising. Even the name Special Olympics sets up a charity-model context, rather than a social-justice-model context. I believe that an organization that frames disabled people as inspirational and/or objects of pity is also setting the stage for the unquestioned use of retard. If the Special Olympics is serious about its r-word campaign, it has a lot of internal work to do.

–The image below coupled with text from the Special Olympics website that says, “Historically, we have seen the elimination of other negative stigmatizing words through awareness and education campaigns and societal pressure. We no longer tolerate calling blacks, Jews, Chinese, physically handicapped, homosexuals, or Hispanics by the words nigger, kike, chink, crip, faggot, and spic, respectively,” frankly pisses me off. I want to say, “Oh, really.” What presumption to try to persuade people to take action regarding ableist hate speech by claiming that the the struggle against other kinds of hate speech has already been won. Presumptuous, naive, and privileged, I say. And to suggest that the Black, presumably disabled women in this image don’t hear the word nigger, at least occasionally, while using their images in the struggle against retard is so suspect on so many levels.

Two dark skinned young women stand next to each other dressed in shorts and tank tops with medals hanging around their necks and smiles on their faces. The headline next to them reads, 'R-word is hate speech.'

Two dark skinned young women stand next to each other dressed in shorts and tank tops with medals hanging around their necks and smiles on their faces. The headline next to them reads, 'R-word is hate speech.' Protest poster found at

r said,

November 4, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

personally i feel that these euphemisms have a place in discussion because some people are actually emotionally affected by slurs to the extent that they are really awful to hear in any context- i know a few folks who are triggered by them. out of respect for these people, i try not to use the words themselves unless i have to, or i make sure to warn for it.
i think your criticism of the special olympics is spot-on.

Anna said,

December 23, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

I agree with the fact that the special Olympics is inducing pity on the people that are involved. The r-word should be stopped but the people involved in fundraising for the special Olympics need to help the people involved be more empowered rather than pitied. Starting with the name of the “special” Olympics.

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