Ask Damon: My cousin keeps using the R-word after I asked her to stop

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Dear Damon: A cousin whom I’m not really close to insists on using the r-word about herself. She’ll text me and say, “I’m so [stupid]!” (But using the r-word instead.) I’ve told her not to use the word, but she insists that she has a right to “reclaim” the word and use it for herself. (Never mind the fact that she’s not even doing any reclaiming — she hasn’t tried to put a positive spin on the word.)

She’s going through a hard time — dealing with the recent death of her brother by suicide, estrangement from other family members, etc.

We both grew up in a family and culture that didn’t teach us how boundaries work, so I’m struggling here. On one hand, it seems petty to block her entirely because of her use of this word. On the other hand, it seems like there is a bigger issue if she’s not willing to respect my right to not hear/see such an offensive word. Could you help me sort this out, please?

Not just semantics: So I’m thinking about water, and how language reminds me of that sometimes. Not because of its shared fluidity, though. But because if you alter the conditions, the same substance can feel like a breeze (condensation) or a brick (ice).

For instance, the words “make,” “America,” “great,” and “again” still mean the same thing, by themselves, that they always have. If I would have worn a shirt or a hat with those words, in that sequence, in 2015, people might have thought it was a curious sartorial decision (“Is that a garage band?”) and then they probably wouldn’t have thought about it again. A choice to wear something with those words in that sequence in 2022, though, suggests that you’re sympathetic to fascism.

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That drastic change in connotation, in just seven short years, is whiplash-inducing, but not uncommon. Your cousin’s favorite word has undergone a similar shift, but stretched over a longer time. The r-word used to be a catchall to describe people with intellectual disabilities. As that word eventually was erased from polite discourse, it retained a second life as an off-color insult — something you’d freely hear at bars and on elementary school playgrounds. Today, it’s recognized as a slur; one of the few words so offensive it’s been given a euphemism (the r-word).

I do not think it’s petty to allow your cousin to experience a social consequence of using that word in 2022. She should know that while she’s free to say whatever she wants, you’re free to decide if her behavior demands that you alter your relationship with her. You don’t even have to be petty. Just firm. Before you do that, though, I would try again to talk to her about some of the history of that word, including why it’s a pejorative, why (assuming she has no intellectual disabilities) her right to “reclaim” it is nonexistent, and how hurtful her language might be to other people. Then ask her if it’s worth using that word, and hurting people, when there are dozens of other words that would convey the same sentiment.

Considering the trauma she’s recently experienced, I’m curious if this is out-of-character behavior for her. If so, it might help her to see a therapist. If not, it … still might help her to see a therapist. Also, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has links to support groups for family members of people who died by suicide. I think it would be a good idea for her to attend a meeting. Maybe you, too.

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