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Words

August 30th, 2015

As a white girl growing up in country Victoria I didn’t have much personal experience of racism when I was a kid. Or at least it wasn’t directed at me, and I don’t remember it.

I think I learned about racism through books. The first one I remember was an audio book called The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden. It was about a Roma girl called Kizzy who lives with her grandmother in a caravan in England. They have a lovely life together, which is presented in a very positive way. When her grandmother dies Kizzy’s life becomes very hard as an outsider  in the community. She is teased by other children and excluded and ridiculed by many adults as well.

This book made me very angry. I could see very clearly how terrible and unfair racism was. I was outraged that people would behave that way. The people in the book lived nearly 20,000 kilometres away but it was a universal lesson. After listening to that book, I knew that racism was bad everywhere. I also developed a strong conviction that would not be like that. I would stand up and say something.

Today I hear people using the word gypsy as a socially acceptable derogatory term and I find it shocking. Perhaps for Australians it sounds like a fun word, colourful, a bit unusual and unconnected to any real people who might be hurt by it. I don’t like it, but I’ve never said anything. I’m probably worried about how people would react and don’t want to make a fuss.

Some people would roll their eyes and think it was Political Correctness Gone Too Far Again.  Is there to be no culture we can mock? How will we have fun? How will we express ourselves? Is life worth living if we can’t call the incompetent finance officer at the stationary suppliers a gypsy?

Here’s something I’m not proud of: I went through a phase in my twenties where I used the word retarded quite a lot. I used it in an ironic way. I was referencing juvenile primary school insults in a self-mocking way. I wasn’t making fun of disabled people, I was making fun of people who made fun of disabled people. That’s what I thought. Anyway, it was fun, I liked the way it sounded, and people often laughed when I said it. Until one day I used the word in front of my housemate. She didn’t say anything, she just looked like all the fun had gone. I remembered that her brother had an intellectual disability. I apologised to her. She was nice about it and said that she’d grown up hearing that word a lot and she hated it.

I’m embarrassed that I lacked the imagination to see how hurtful this word can be (even with a myriad of ironic, well-meaning, self-mocking justifications) before being told. I stopped saying it. Sometimes it made people laugh, but it wasn’t worth it. It’s one thing to use a word when you don’t understand how it affects other people, it’s another to keep using it after you’ve been told.

I probably should say something.

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