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Not Just Words

BY QUINN VOLPE


Marginalized groups in America have to deal with too much. Groups like the Black, Asian, and LGBTQ+ communities of the United States are systematically oppressed by their own government, and they are associated with harmful stereotypes, most commonly by those who do not have to deal with similar ill-treatment. Along with this, ignorance of the meanings behind slurs that hold historical weight is widespread in the US. Some slurs are largely accepted or ignored, while others are not. Even the slurs that are not generally accepted by modern American society are still used to a certain extent.


In the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, white Americans often compared Black Americans to animals like apes, raccoons, and monkeys. The purpose of this was to dehumanize them even further than they had been by policies like the three-fifths compromise, a compromise that set the African slaves’ legal and societal status to less than fully human. White slave owners used words like the n-word to put the people that they enslaved into a position of inferiority. The slave owners wanted the African slaves to internalize their own oppression in order to convince them that a life of involuntary servitude was where they belonged.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, innumerable white Americans saw Chinese people immigrating to the United States as a threat to their way of life. On the West Coast, though, there was a labor shortage, and Chinese workers were needed. Chinese butcher crews were extremely admired for the work that they did. When Edmund Smith invented machinery to replace these crews, he called it the “Iron Chink.” The word c***k could refer to the phrase “ching chong” that some non-Asian Americans use to mock Asian people, or it could refer to historical aspects of China like the Qing Dynasty. After Smith’s invention was publicized, the c-word was used against not only Asian Americans that appeared to be of Chinese descent but also people of other Southeast and East Asian ethnicities. Even today, the word is used in pop culture and can be found in a multitude of popular rap songs.


The word “f****t,” during the European Inquisitions, was a term used to describe the sticks used to set fires for burning people who were opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church. These people, otherwise known as heretics, had to carry this bundle of sticks to the fire that was being built to kill them. Soon after this period, Europeans used the f-slur to refer to anything that was a burden, and the term was commonly used against women. In the 20th century, the word was used against more feminine or openly gay men in the United States. The use of “gay” as an insult is still common to this day because of the negative stereotypes surrounding LGBTQ+ people that have been popularized throughout history.


Before the United States can consider itself an inclusive and welcoming place, it must (at the very least) confront the ignorance of the people who have been able to disregard the historical weight of certain terms used against marginalized groups. Slurs that hold this much meaning are not “just words.”

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