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Slurs story: Girl holding phone

King senior Taelour Cox posed for this Mash photo illustration.
MASH PHOTOS BY VERONICA HANNSBERRY, KING

By Lara Jung, Walter Payton
Kasey Carlson, Whitney Young
and Ulysses Serrato, Brother Rice

Editor’s note: The following article uses sensitive words—many of which society deems extremely derogatory—for the purpose of a serious discussion about their use and place in Chicago teen culture. The Mash cautions readers that the language that appears here may be offensive.

You may have heard slurs in the hallway or in a conversation—“nigga,” “faggot,” “bitch”—and felt very uncomfortable, angry or even hurt. Seeing those same offensive words on your phone or computer screen may cause the same gut reaction. But almost everywhere you look online, or many times at school, it’s common to see and hear slurs, words that often are intended to stereotype or dehumanize other people but are sometimes embraced as slang among friends or social networks.

According to a study conducted by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV, 52 percent of young people between the ages of 14 and 24 said that it’s never OK to use slurs, even if you’re talking with friends and don’t mean it in an offensive way. That’s barely a majority.

Nearly six in 10 young people think that using slurs is wrong even when it’s followed by “just kidding,” the study also found.

“A society that uses and tolerates slurs is more likely to blow off those who are passionate about attaining equal opportunities for oppressed people,” said Drew Richardson, an African-American and senior at Walter Payton. “When someone is offended by a slur and the community responds like, ‘It’s no big deal,’ that makes the larger issues regarding prejudice seem like not a big deal.”

Curie junior Fernando Davalos agreed that racial slurs are usually inappropriate but said that sometimes people overreact to them.

“I have been called racial slurs by others before. It doesn’t feel like anything,” said Davalos, who’s Latino. “Everyone is too sensitive nowadays with what others say to them. I too have called others by racial slurs and I think they took it to heart too much.”

Francis Parker senior Alli Bennett added, “You can’t take things strangers say on the Internet too seriously.”

In fact, other students told The Mash that it’s common for people at school or online to use racial slurs in a joking way. That goes for gender-based slurs too, such as “bad bitch,” often used to refer to women as sexy or fiery.

Could these usually offensive slurs be changing into something entirely new? Or is it just putting a pretty face on an ugly past?

According to a study by think tank Demos, over 10,000 tweets that include some sort of racial slur are posted per day. However, 70 percent of those slurs are used in a non-derogatory fashion to refer to either the person who’s tweeting or to someone in his or her community.

The change is also being seen in pop culture. One of rapper Kanye West’s most popular songs is “Niggas in Paris,” while he himself is African American. In their hit song “I Love It,” female electro-pop duo Icona Pop sings, “You’re from the ’70s, but I’m a ’90s bitch.”

The problem, however, is that no matter how the speaker intends them, some words become loaded with social and historical weight.

In other words, it’s complicated.

Payton senior Lur’e Thomas said it depends on who it’s coming from. “If it’s coming from someone I don’t know personally, then I still take it personally, because you don’t know me,” Thomas said. “But if it’s, like, one of my best friends, or my sisters, or someone who I play with in that manner, then I don’t take it personally.”

Maya Rodriguez, a senior at Payton, added that slurs used online also can be confusing because “you can’t really tell if they’re trying to offend you or they’re just saying it because it’s become a part of their common vocabulary.”

“I know one word that youth use these days on the street is ‘THOT (or ‘That Hoe Over There’),’ ” said Harold Washington College freshman Antonio Reed, adding that it refers to a girl who has sex with different guys. But even that slur has been used by girls online to refer to themselves or their friends. Some tag their selfies “#ThotNation.”

Davalos, at Curie, said it can be hard to tell what’s offensive and what’s not.

“It’s ironic how (some girls) hate being called ‘bitches,’ yet they refer to themselves as ‘bad bitches.’ It’s the same thing as the rappers who become upset when someone calls them the N-word, yet they use it in all of their songs,” he said. “There’s really just no logic to it.”

Whether the words are meant to put others down, are loaded with a history of oppression or are just meant as a joke, many teens and celebrities are trying to get people to stop using offensive language.

Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes have appeared in commercials that ask teens who use gay slurs to “Think b4 you speak.” MTV has two campaigns that encourage people to eliminate discriminatory language in their conversations.

A Thin Line (athinline.org) is a campaign dedicated to showing the “thin line” between harmless jokes and online abuse. Spread The Word to End the Word (r-word.org) brings awareness to the harm done by the word “retard.”

Nevertheless, some people may never completely stop using slurs, especially if they feel they’re accepted by their communities.

“I still believe that racial slurs are just words,” Davalos said. “They’re not acceptable, but the reality is that racism is never going away.”

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The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free each Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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