Sometimes I think I live a sheltered life. I live in an area where the worst human misery manifests on my doorstep. It’s where the people live who are considered to be human garbage by much of society. In my professional work, I’ve seen a lot of different ways that human beings can be damaged, sometimes beyond repair. But it’s when I come into contact with privileged children that I am angered, shocked, and saddened in an unexpected way.
I dearly love these particular children. They are great kids with good hearts and affectionate dispositions. But as I drive them home, I cannot bear the verbal violence I am hearing from the back seat. It’s unrelenting and the worst of it is that they don’t even know what they are saying. It’s part of the everyday speech of these children and their friends.
The first thing I hear is, “What a fattie! You fattie.” I decide to ignore it. But it is repeated as an insult over and over again, like a mantra. Finally, I have to intervene. At this point, I’ve let it go on too long and I say something quite stupid, considering the audience:
“Do you hear what you are saying? Do you realize how size-ist that is?”
Let me mention that even my third year social work students rarely have heard the term “sizeism”, which refers to the marginalization of people based on their physical size. I don’t know why I said that. But I did.
Dead silence. All video games have now stopped. The children don’t say a word.
Finally, the 12 year old ventures, “What’s size-ist?”
I explain it.
“You’re kidding!” Incredulous.
“No, I’m afraid I’m not. It’s the same thing as being racist.”
“Even if I’m saying it to a video game?”
“Yes. A racist label is racism. A sizeist label is sizeism.”
At this point, I don’t know how to get out of this conversation, because it’s really not the right way to handle it.
The games start up again.
Then I hear, “You spaz.” “No, you’re a spaz.” “Stop being such a spaz.”
It goes on and on.
I can’t listen anymore.
“You children have no idea what you are saying with the words you use. They are so offensive. I have a very good young friend who is a spaz. She is spastic because she has cerebral palsy. You don’t even want to know how difficult her life is. She has had to have many surgeries to cut tendons on her limbs so that she spasms less. She can’t speak, she needs someone to take total care of her, and her only movements are spastic. So when you talk about being a spaz, you are talking about my friend and you are using this word as an insult.”
My partner gives me a warning look, lays her hand on my arm. She thinks I’ve gone overboard. Maybe I have. But I had to tell them, because they are so ignorant. What they are saying is considered part of everyday speech.
I have often heard the word “girl” used as an insult towards the boys. “Don’t be such a girl.” “You girl.” It’s said by adults around them.
How does this happen in such a privileged, educated setting? And why am I surprised?
Maybe that’s the real question. Why am I surprised?