Silent Shame

Last week I was eating dinner with a bunch of friends when one of them said something that made me really uncomfortable. I don’t want to give the full context of the comment–mostly because I try to keep my friends and loved ones relatively anonymous when I write about them here–but the important background info is that I’m sure she thought the comment was harmless. She was being self-deprecating, referring to herself and our other friends, many of whom have the usual aches and pains that often come with getting older, many of whom have had minor or major injuries. She referred jokingly to “us cripples.”

Now, I’d like to think that the comment would have bothered me in any set of circumstances, coming from any friend or acquaintance or stranger. And I have reason to believe that’s true–the more I’ve read from amazing writers like the folks at FWD/Forward, and the more I’ve wrestled with the ways that things like mental illness and trauma intersect in my own life, the more I notice problematic language. I’ve been working really hard to erase “lame” and “crazy” from my own vocabulary, for instance.

But I can’t really know if the comment would’ve bothered me in another situation, because it happened in the situation I was in: sitting in a restaurant where, just moments earlier, our waitress had held the door open for someone using forearm crutches–who was seated at the table next to ours.

Man, the more I write about this, the worse I feel. I’m making a set of huge assumptions here: that the person next to us is disabled; that they overheard us; that they would take offense at the term my friend used; that my friend was being flip and doesn’t actually identify with the term herself… The list goes on.

But now–as I did then–I also feel crappy because I didn’t say anything.

Silence followed the comment. Not the kind of big, uncomfortable silence that is sometimes followed by “Wait, that’s not what I meant,” just a pause in the conversation. It was a weighty pause on my part–I remember looking down at the table, not meeting anyone’s eye, wondering if I should say something–but I don’t know if it even registered with anyone else.

My mind raced. Should I say something? If the comment had been overheard, would it just make things worse to keep talking about it? Could I pull her aside later, by herself, rather than address it at the table? And now as I write this, I realize my whole framework for this sounds an awful lot like the way many white people are more afraid of sounding racist than being racist.

I didn’t say a single word.

When I got home, I though about how crappy I still felt about the conversation, and it occurred to me that the students I teach must find themselves in situations like this all the time. Not necessarily with language use around disability–although “lame” and “retarded” are still very, very ingrained in many teenagers’ vocabularies–but with all kinds of insults and jokes that often seem harmless to the people who speak them, even while they solidify group divisions and prejudice.

I try to think back on being in high school and having to hear things I didn’t agree with, or that I knew were hurtful to me and other people I loved, but those incidents just aren’t jumping out at me. I can remember one particularly startling use of the word “faggot,” coming out of the mouth of a friend I’d never have expected to say something so vile, and I can just as clearly remember that I said nothing. I froze, just like I froze the other night, some ten years later and (supposedly) wiser.

So how do you do it? How do you stand up to other adults? I focus so much on strategies for opening dialogues with my students that sometimes I forget these issues intersect with my own life and social circles. How do you respond when the offensive comment comes not from a friend, but from a colleague–perhaps even someone higher on the pay scale than you?

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