“I have lots of gay friends,” the comedian says. “And I would never commit a hate crime, but…”
The young man behind the microphone tells the story of an annoying friend of a friend, who happens to be gay, who just “deserved to be hit with a baseball bat.” The crowd nervously laughs.
Saying “I have gay friends, so it’s OK for me to say the following offensive thing” is quickly becoming the new “I’m not racist but …” At this open mic night, in high school hallways, at gay bars, the boundaries of politically correct language are constantly shifting and being tested.
But to what extent is language implicated in real discrimination? Is it still hurtful when the words are used without hateful intent? When does hate language become hate violence?
These were the questions I asked myself while trying to wrap my mind around the Jewish Community Center shooting on April 13. Three people were fatally wounded when a shooter drove his car onto the Jewish Community Center campus and opened fire. I struggled with why someone would think that it was their right to take three lives because of a belief system rooted in hate.
I was reminded of a presentation I gave to a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at a high school in Johnson County several years ago. When I asked what hate words were most prevalent in the hallways, bathrooms and football fields, I heard the usual racial and homophobic epithets common in high schools across the metro. But I also heard a phrase that stuck out from most of the workshops I do with high schoolers: “That’s so Jewish.”
Calling someone a “Jew” to say they were overly frugal or even deceptive was also common at this particular school. This phrase seemed more prevalent than “That’s so gay,” a phrase common in the lexicon of many middle and high schoolers. I found this odd because, according to the students, that community had a large number of Jewish students.
After talking to students across the metro about hate language this past school year, I found that most of the students I talked to said the most common hate word was faggot. This statement was commonly followed by some variation of “but I have lots of gay friends; we were just messing around.”
Michelle Obama addressed the power of language on May 16 when she spoke at a gathering for Topeka high school seniors commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools.
“Too many folks are still stopped on the street because of the color of their skin, or they’re made to feel unwelcome because of where they’re from, or they’re bullied because of who they love,” she said.
She went on to challenge graduates to realize the power in their words and actions.
When we use language that equates being Jewish or gay or having a disability as being lesser-than, we set a precedent. We create spaces where hateful language is tolerated. We create spaces where hateful acts seem acceptable.
But equally important is the fact that we all have the power to change this precedent. By calling out hate language, by changing our ideas of what is socially acceptable, we set a new bar.
“There’s no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny,” Obama told the students.
That responsibility lies in our own hands.
Jessica Farmer is the youth outreach coordinator for the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project. KCAVP’s vision is to end all types of violence in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. If you or someone you love needs support or services, please call KCAVP at 816-561-0550.