More than sticks and stones: Words do hurt

Bryan Wroten

Sasha Parker was 5 years old the first time she was called “nigger.” She was taking the school bus in the morning when a sixth-grader came up to her.

“I was getting on the bus and this white boy said, ‘Move, nigger bitch. I wanna sit there,'” she said.

She started hitting him and punching his face, not because he called her a nigger, she said, but because he called her a bitch. She didn’t know what nigger meant.

Later, when Parker told her father why she was in trouble, he explained to her why she should have been angrier that the boy called her nigger.

Nigger, faggot and dyke are all “just words.” Words are not supposed to break bones. But they still cause pain.

The N-word

“The N-word is a word that was used by our people’s oppressors,” Pan-African Studies professor George Garrison said. “It’s a perversion of the Spanish word for Negro.”

Garrison said the word has been used from the time of slavery to modern times, always full of contempt and disrespect.

During the civil rights movement and the Black Consciousness movement, he said blacks tried to get rid of the word nigger and replaced it with the word black.

“The N-word in my generation was laid to rest in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “There was an emphasis on black unity and empowerment.”

But, he said, today’s young people have learned the word from the hip-hop culture, which saturates its lyrics with the word.

“It’s a way of being defiant to the system, the establishment and the older generations in general,” Garrison said. “It’s the natural rebellion of youth. To that extent, it’s no different from whites, Asians or any other youths.”

It’s sometimes a sign of friendship, said Matthew Cox, president of Black United Students.

“They’re just saying, ‘You’re my dude,'” he said. “It has to be in the context of the use. If they’re trying to put me down, then I might be offended.”

Cox said he tries not to use it and replace it with other words.

“It’s so simple to use because it’s beat into your head every day because other people use it,” Cox said. “It’s easy to forget you even use it in the first place.”

But Cox said if a white person uses the word nigger, “It’s offensive no matter the context because there’s so much history behind it.”

Still, Cox said, he tries not to use the word because it creates the idea that it’s all right for anyone to use it.

When Parker, BUS political officer and grievances chair, was in high school, a white friend sometimes would use the word around their black friend because they were so close.

But once, the white friend used the word near a large group of black students after a party in Youngstown.

“My friend said ‘Man, nigga, stop playing,'” Parker said. “The black guys came up and told him he better watch who he says that to.”

Her other friend stepped in to diffuse the situation, telling the crowd his friend was cool and not trying to be mean. She said he was lucky because the situation could have escalated into something bigger.

“If he were alone, he would have gotten jumped,” she said. “He would have gotten beat up.”

Parker said she wasn’t mad at her friend afterwards because no one really explained to him why the word is so offensive.

“The way I looked at it, he never understood why he shouldn’t say that,” she said.

Not all situations turn out peacefully as in Parker’s case.

When sophomore hospitality management major Idris-Farid Clark played football in middle school, another player came up and called him a nigger.

Not sure that he had heard the other player correctly, Clark asked the player what he had just said. The player repeated himself.

“I punched him in his mouth and didn’t stop until the teacher stopped me,” he said.

Ryan Robinson, sophomore theater studies major, said that once he was working as a cashier at a K-Mart when a check printing machine there stopped working.

Frustrated, the customer who wished to use the broken machine said, “Oh, you stupid nigger,” and walked away.

“It hurt me that he stooped down to that level,” he said. “It wasn’t my fault the machine was down.”

However, he said the word itself didn’t hurt too much.

“It’s a word,” he said. “To me, it’s like any other word in the language.”

The F-word

Being a skinny guy in high school, John Barham couldn’t fight back when he would get shoved into lockers and called a fag.

“It made me feel very much cut-off,” he said. “No one else was getting called that.”

Barham, senior applied conflict management major, said he used to push it away, he said, and hide it. He tried not to let it bother him, but it still hurt him.

Jae Lerer, PRIDE!Kent community affairs and financial liaison, had a similar experience in high school. As Lerer walked down the halls of his high school, some of the other students would whisper, “fag.”

“I would rather have someone call me names to my face. I can rip you apart if you’re in my face.”

Fag, Lerer said, basically means, “I want to see you burn.”

When burning witches during the Spanish Inquisition, homosexuals were used to keep the fires burning high, Lerer said.

“Faggot means a bundle of sticks used to put on a fire as kindling. That’s why they call cigarettes fags in Britain,” Lerer said. “During the ‘good times’ called the Inquisition, homosexuals were what they used to stoke the fires.”

He said faggot is one of the longest-running derogatory terms in the English language, a word he has dealt with since he came out.

Now when people call him names, Lerer said, he tries not to get upset.

“I’ll turn it around on them. ‘Is the best thing you can do is point out I’m gay?'” he said. “They hate that.”

The D-Word

When Bridgit McCafferty was in high school, she and a friend wearing a rainbow necklace (a symbol of homosexual pride) were talking in a girls’ locker room. A girl walked by and yelled “dyke” at her friend.

“She just started crying,” said McCafferty, who hadn’t come out at the time.

The term dyke, PRIDE!Kent president Christopher Taylor said, is his favorite because of its strange origins. He said the word comes from morphadite, a variation of hermaphrodite. This is a person with two sexual organs, he said, so dyke was used to describe a woman who is very masculine.

Taylor said the word is offensive because not all lesbians fit this stereotype. He said they don’t all have the “dyke-spike,” or short spiked hair, have a deep voice or ride motorcycles.

“In that way, it’s demeaning to lesbians who don’t see themselves as masculine or butch,” Taylor said.

Lerer said another origin of the word may have come from American soldiers seeing women work on dikes in Europe during World War II.

When the American soldiers returned home and found American women working with their hands, the term took on a negative connotation.

“A woman that worked on the wall is not the marrying type,” Lerer said. “If they’re good with tools and good with their hands, don’t look to them for breeding.”

But as blacks have adopted the word nigger, so have some lesbians taken the word dyke as their own.

“Some in the LGBT community use the words in a casual way to take the hurt out of it,” Taylor said. “I’m a supporter of getting rid of the word completely.”

McCafferty, senior English major and former president of PRIDE!Kent, said she and her lesbian friends call each other dykes.

“I’m a big fan of empowerment (through) disempowerment,” she said, which is using the word to take away its power.

That’s when it comes to her friends, though. She said when she was first coming out, the word dyke was very hurtful to her because she was still dealing with her identity.

“It made me feel like a total outsider, unsafe in school,” she said. “It made my whole body tense up. It’d make me angry but I couldn’t do anything. If I did, I’d be singled out.”

She’s better at handling this sort of thing now, she said. Whenever she walks down the street and people yell out car windows, she simply gives them the finger.

Contact religion and minority affairs reporter Bryan Wroten at [email protected].