Tag Archives: racism

The R word: What’s in a word?


Note: This article has also been cross-posted to  Womanist Musings.

special olympics retard






The above ad is part of a Special Olympics campaign that calls upon people

to recognize and rethink their use of the word “retard,” or as the organization would prefer, the “R-word.”

“Most people don’t think of this word as hate speech, but that’s exactly what it feels like to millions of people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends,” a statement about the campaign reads. “This word is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur.”

CNN report

Raising awareness about intellectual disabilities is a great idea. But the execution of this campaign is very problematic for three major reasons:

1. eliminating the R-word does not erase ableism,

2. setting disability against race and sexual orientation denies the realities of oppression that these groups still experience, and

3. de-linking the R-word from underlying societal power structures means that the campaign is attempting to erase a word from our vocabulary without creating any real social change.

I’ll discuss these three points in more detail below.


Eliminating the R-word does not erase ableism

The small type on this ad reads: “Most people who would never knowingly use disparaging terms don’t see a problem with retard.” To some degree this may be true. In many social settings, public use of the N-word has indeed become highly unacceptable. But racism is still omnipresent and verbally articulated, without any mention of the N-word needed.

Even in multicultural, “enlightened” Toronto, much overt racism can be heard. In my own area, I’ve often heard statements like: “The real problem in this neighbourhood is the Blacks.” “Black people are lazy. I work two jobs to stay off welfare, but they…” Erasing the N-word from socially acceptable speech has not erased the reality of racist speech.

Nor does erasing the N-word give blacks an equal position in society and equal access to resources. And the recent election of a black U.S. president has not changed that reality.

Just this morning I was saddened to hear that a female friend of mine, taking photos of a storefront on Yonge Street for a college project was harassed by the police for the crime of “walking around black”. Her little girl witnessed the entire incident. My friend had broken no laws, since she was on public property while taking a picture of a commercial building. I cannot count how often this kind of thing happens to my black friends.

Oh… but you can’t say the N-word anymore! So obviously racism isn’t so much of a problem anymore, right?

During the U.S. elections, we saw footage of people who were not reticent to make openly racist remarks and use the N-word. At least with these people, you know what you’re dealing with. It’s open and clear. It seems to me that the more liberal the social setting, the more that racism goes underground.  Black friends have sometimes said they prefer overt racism to subtle, underground racism. It’s harder to detect, harder to name, harder to fight. And it makes it easier for all us good-thinking white people to pretend that we don’t contribute to racist realities.

So I would like to say to the Special Olympics folks, when you focus a campaign on the erasure of a word – and nothing more than that –  you’re not doing anything to deal with the problem.

I would also ask: If people would stop using the R-word because it becomes socially unacceptable to do so, would that translate into respectful treatment of people with intellectual disabilities, equal access to employment and other social resources, and protection from marginalization of all kinds?


This ad implies that “Retard is the new Nigger” aka “Disability trumps race”

The Special Olympics seem to also be playing the Oppression Olympics.

The ad implies that racism and homophobia are much less of an problem than ableism. But a social justice initiative that pits one group against another is essentially trying to improve the lot of one group by minimizing the oppression of others.

This ad seems to be saying, “We’re more oppressed than blacks, latinos, and gays.” That’s a very offensive comparison, for reasons I have already mentioned. And there’s been too much competition  between oppressed groups, perhaps most noticeable after the passing of Proposition 8 in California. An important segment of the gay community felt betrayed, because the American people had elected a black man to the presidency but failed to defend the rights of gays and lesbians. In fact, some went even further by blaming blacks for being more homophobic than whites – making them responsible in large part for the passing of Prop 8. Black bloggers such as Renee at Womanist Musings quickly responded to the racist assumptions and factual errors inherent in these accusations.

This ad campaign risks setting up a similar conflict between different oppressed groups.

In fact, a discussion about this ad campaign shows how it has been received by some belonging to other oppressed groups. One commentator (referring to a diffferent ad in the series), states:

I’m Jewish and I’m personally offended that “Jew him down” is clearly written, yet Nigger, Spic & Fag are written with dashes. So basically you don’t want to “fully” offend the Niggers, Spics, & Fags, but you have no problem offending Jews?

(This person actually mixed up two ads in the same campaign, but my point is that the nature of these ads sets up the reader for these kinds of perceptions, e.g.,  that the other groups are treated more respectfully by the campaign than are Jews.)

Another commentator stated:

Small mindedness will only hurt you. Why must you call those with intellectual disabilities a negative name, if they have done nothing to hurt you? Why pick on people who can’t defend themselves in the same way that someone who was a “nigger” or “fag” can? Your small-minded comments represent your extreme insecurities, so take them someplace else.

Ah. A “nigger” or “fag” is better able to defend themselves than a person with an intellectual disability. Just take a moment to think through the implications of this comment…


I believe that unless an intersectionality analysis is applied, we will continue to see one oppressed group competing against another. Such an approach also views each group as homogenous and assumes they live with only one dimension of oppression.

In reality, there are black, latino, and gay people with intellectual disabilities. A black person with an intellectual disability will experience that disability in ways that intersect with their blackness.

I could refer back to my previous post on an anti-oppressive approach to AD/HD, in which I cited Gail Mattox, a member of the Black Psychiatrists of America. Mattox points out that black children with AD/HD receive treatment at half the rate of white children, with key factors in this disparity being: poverty, culturally inappropriate services, lack of information and misinformation in black communities, and the fact that many black children are in care. Why would it be any different for black children with intellectual disabilities?

Similarly, women with intellectual disabilities are at very high risk of sexual abuse compared to men with intellectual disabilities.

So how can you list different oppressed groups and set one against the other? By doing so, you are oppressing some people in your own group.


What’s in a word?

The R-word is a word.

Language is extremely important and, I believe, it plays a crucial role in creating and sustaining our social realities. Yes, the flippant use of the R-word is not only offensive, but continues to subjugate and stigmatize people with intellectual disabilities.However, any strategy that seeks only to erase a word from our vocabularies can never change the underlying realities of oppression.

In this campaign, the R-word has been de-linked from the power structures of a society that marginalizes people with disabilities. Instead, the R-word has been linked and compared to other hateful labels that have since been erased from the conversations of enlightened people. By decontextualizing all these words from the societal power relations they represent, this campaign will accomplish little or nothing of any substance that will help people with intellectual disabilities. The R-word becomes just a word.

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Black, female, poor, mentally ill — and incredibly strong



Introducing Marissa

My friend Marissa is one of my heroes. She constantly demonstrates her strength of character, courage and intelligence, in the face of a very severe mental illness. She is an interesting person whose life experiences have matured and deepened her character. Mental illnesses often steal people’s lives, but Marissa fights back every day.

Having a severe mental illness means taking heavy medications with side effects. Among other things, her medications give her seizures so she doesn’t sleep well – and if she doesn’t sleep well, she is very vulnerable to a relapse.

Despite all her challenges, Marissa is an excellent mother who is raising her child in a very conscious and reflexive manner. She also is going to college, one or two courses at a time, and hopes it will be a good role model for her child.


Intersectionality: Race, gender, social class, and mental illness

In addition to having a severe mental illness, Marissa is a black woman, a single mother, and lives on government assistance. All these elements of social location interact with each other.

Lets look at some school-related issues as an example.

Her medications make it impossible for her to get out of bed in enough time to get her 6 year old daughter to school on time, which has caused many problems. And let me note that Marissa is sending her child to a school that — despite the diverse student population– only has white teachers.

In December, the teacher had the children write a letter to Santa  with their gift requests. Marissa was angry. This activity was a real set-up for a parent on social assistance. How could she live up to the expectations this teacher was setting up regarding Christmas gifts? But if she had gone to the school to complain, she would be an “angry black woman”. And remember, she’s already in trouble because her daughter is always late for school (although her daughter is at the top of her class).

Marissa, as a black single mother with a mental illness, is also very vulnerable to having her child taken away from her. It is no secret that child welfare systems are systemically racist and that black families are over-represented in these systems.


What happens if she has a relapse?

She recently had her first relapse in five years – a severe and paralyzing depression. Because it was over Christmas, she was unable to get hold of her doctor when she felt it coming on. By the time everyone got back to work, she was too depressed to reach out for any more help. Luckily her mother visited her, sensing she wasn’t doing well, and admitted her into the hospital. Although she is out of the hospital, she has lost custody of her daughter. We hope that as she stabilizes, she will be able to get her daughter back. The little girl misses her mommy and cries for her, even though grandma is very good to her.

Something is really wrong with this picture.


The need for community support

Marissa is not  a victim. She is an independent woman and proud of it. She has worked very hard to get to this place. But if she just had some better community support – not even an intensive support – a hospitalization could have probably been averted. If someone could help her solve everyday problems, like how to get her daughter to school on time, her stress would be greatly reduced. A month-long hospitalization is very expensive. An ongoing community support worker who would meet with her once every week or every other week is not expensive.

Does the system expect Marissa to do it on her own? Do they not care that a child’s welfare is also part of the picture – if mom stays well, the child stays well. It’s just easier to yank the child away from the single black mother when she is sick, than to make a small amount of effort to keep things on an even keel.

I’ve got practice experience and research knowledge about mental health.

But nothing makes a social problem come alive as listening to the experiences of people who go through it.


Additional reading:

Mothers with Mental Illness by the Canadian Mental Health Association

Parenting, special issue of Visions (BC’s mental health and addictions journal)

Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (book)

Depression and Black Women from The Best of Dr. Marvin (blog)


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009


Six ways to be an ally


I’m a white, middle class, highly educated, and cissexual woman. That’s a lot of unearned privilege. I just happened to have been born into a privileged family. I don’t feel guilty about my privilege, because I can’t do anything about it. But I have learned that others continue to pay the price for my privilege.

I hate injustice. And as a woman with a lot of privilege, it’s my responsibility to try to dismantle the systems maintaining this privilege.

Racism is not something that is the problem of people of colour. It’s my problem, too. And I’m part of the problem as long as I close my eyes to the ways I benefit from the racist structures of society.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about being an ally to women of colour:

Accept your white skin privilege

Just accept the facts of your privilege. Don’t wallow in guilt. Don’t ask women of colour to help you feel better about being white. Don’t try to make up for it by being extra nice to women of colour.

Accept the facts. Then deal with them. Decide what you are going to do about them.

It’s not about you

As white women, we’re used to everything being about us.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like before the second wave of feminism. Women were dismissed, ignored, and invisible. For example, my sister was one of four women in her university engineering program. Some professors who believed women had no business in engineering would refuse to respond to the women in the class. They pretended they didn’t exist.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way. Do we make them feel invisible? Dismissed?

Shut up and listen

Shut up and listen. Bite your tongue if you have to.

I remember running a workshop for graduate theology students on the women’s spirituality movement. I had the bright idea of encouraging male seminarians to attend and learn about this movement.  I explained that this would be an experiential workshop. The first thing the men needed to understand was that they were in women’s space.

But they couldn’t do it. During the small group discussions, the men kept dominating the group. We kept pointing it out to them. One man tried to sit on his hands and his face grew red with the effort of taking a back seat in this setting.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way.

Embrace the discomfort

Deep down, a lot of white folks have learned to feel guilty about being white. We can be really uncomfortable with reality of our privilege and we wish to erase it. But wishing isn’t enough. And wishing can become a reality. In our discomfort, we make women of colour invisible again.

There are no shortcuts to sisterhood with women of colour. There’s a lot of history to undo.

So one of the hard things we have to do is embrace the discomfort. It’s uncomfortable to listen to the anger of women about racism. And even if we can stand to listen to it being expressed, we get really uncomfortable if we have to keep hearing it.

It’s uncomfortable to take a back seat to women of colour. It can be uncomfortable to enter the worlds of impoverished women, many of whom are also women of colour. It’s easy to judge their lives. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to try to understand.

I’m happy when I feel that discomfort. It means I’m uncovering more of my own racism and the ways that privilege manifests in my life. It means I’m getting out of my comfort zone.

Be reflexive instead of reactive

The more you recognize your privilege and the more you listen and embrace the discomfort, the more you will acquire the capacity to be reflexive. Reflexivity means that you make it a habit to reflect on your own social location and the social location of the other person. You reflect about how social power relations shape your reality and the reality of the other person. And, together with the other person, you work to co-construct a new reality.

Do something to create change

Remember — it’s not about you. This process is not about making you a better person. If you stop at the previous point, then you know it’s only about you.

To create change, you have to decide what action you can take in order to be an ally to women of colour.

One of my actions this week is to write this post.

Maybe your action will be to confront a racist joke. Or to join women of colour in an event or protest (if it’s OK with them). Or to read and promot the blogs of women of colour. Maybe it’s to notice that the teachers in your school are all white but the kids are very diverse – and work to change that. Or to make sure women of colour have a voice in your organization and that their voice is truly respected.

I am not an expert in being an ally. I continue to find ugly roots of racism and privilege in myself. But I’m working to heal myself and my world in the best way I know how. I might write a quite different post on this topic next year. This is where I am right now.

I invite your comments and feedback. This post will not be complete without them.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009

Can Obama create social change?



Can President Obama create social change?

I believe the answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Obama and I’m caught up in Obama-mania just the same as anyone.

I want to believe. I want to hope. I want to dream a new vision. I want to see things change.

It’s not about Obama. If anyone could be the catalyst for real change, it would be him. But no single person, no matter how gifted and powerful, can create social change.

Yes, I was glued to the TV on coronation – oops – inauguration day. Along with the rest of the world, I was weepy and inspired. But I also heard President Obama putting the responsibility for change back on the people. I wonder if they really heard him?

History has shown that social change requires people uniting for a common cause, against a common enemy. Inspired by Ghandi, Indians gained their freedom from British colonization. Under the moral leadership of Martin Luther King, African-Americans fought for equal rights under the law. Encouraged by the political reforms of Jean Lesage, Francophone Quebecers overcame economic and cultural oppression by Anglos.

Can Americans get past their hero  worship of President Obama and really pull together as one people?

He’s the latest celebrity, on the covers of all the magazines. America is having a love affair with the Obama family. My question is, “Do Americans get it that they will not be saved by Obama unless they decide to save themselves?”

Certain groups in U.S. society – the poor and the oppressed — are no doubt ready to work for change. But what about the middle class? And the elite?

The United States is a stratified society. Some groups have more privilege than others. Although many Americans would like to think they live in a meritocracy, the privileges attached to being white, or male, or able-bodied, or cis-sexual, for example, are unearned.

There is no merit in being white. It’s an accident of birth. White skin privilege is undeserved privilege. Unless white people actively take part in dismantling their own privilege, they continue, by their inaction, to perpetuate the racist structures of society. But it’s very difficult for white people to accept this fact. They think their tolerance and their good intentions are enough. It’s not enough. Social change requires sacrifice from all. Are white middle class people willing to sacrifice for the sake of those people who are marginalized in society?

So if the U.S. is looking to unite against a common cause, they first have to look within. The inequalities that are structurally embedded in American society make it very difficult for them to unite against a common cause. Are people willing to work to give up their unearned privilege so they can have a more just society?

If not, then the United States will remain split from within. The goals of the elite and the marginalized will remain at odds with each other. As Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us”. Until there is social justice, it will be difficult for Americans to unite and work for a common cause.

Yes, the middle class and the elite are hurting because of the recession. They are losing jobs and losing wealth. But the more privileged groups of Americans have always prided themselves on being rugged individualists in a capitalist society. The American Dream is an individualistic dream.

Given the nature of the American psyche, I’m not sure they are able to really fulfill the vision held out by President Obama. The “haves” in society are already feeling the pinch. They are going to hold onto what they have. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, that they will see the solution as opening their hands and joining them together.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008