I didn’t notice when the word appeared. One day I was looking at the abandoned house across the street, as I often do when I pause at my window, and something about the red paint impinged on my conscious mind. It wasn’t there when I moved in a year ago, but it is there now and has been for at least the past few weeks.
The boarded-up house sits in the middle of the block. Of the four lots on that block, two have inhabited homes, one is an empty lot, and – smack in the middle – is the derelict: a relic of the flood that decimated this neighborhood eight years ago. My apartment building, a renovated warehouse converted into “urban lofts” sits across the street. Two floors of 8-foot high windows look out upon the other side of the block. From my shiny new apartment interior it’s hard to know who might be the intended recipient of the one-word message.
I do not doubt, however, that there is an intended recipient. This word is a sharp weapon, used with a soft target in mind. “Derogatory term for a female, implying trashiness or tackiness, lower-class status, poor hygiene, flakiness, and a scrawny, pock-marked sort of ugliness. May also imply promiscuity, but not necessarily,” says the Urban Dictionary and all of my 1970s high school.
One night, in my former life in college administration, a student nearly died as I watched paramedics attempt to revive her from an alcohol-induced stupor. Later, I was told, she coded in the ambulance – I was in my car waiting to follow them to the ER, but the ambulance sat for more than forty minutes before leaving the campus. She was legally an adult at 18, but the hospital called her parents anyway because they were next of kin and it was not a given she would live through the night. Later – technically the next day, but as I had never been to bed it seemed like one nightmarishly run-on day – I interviewed students about what had happened. The first person told me, “She had a reputation.” I asked what kind of reputation. “You know, she’s kind of a skank.”
Interview after interview I heard the same things. Always, first, the definition of what she was – skank, slut, ho. Then stories that made my heart break, stories that would normally have led the students on our campus to intervene or seek help for their classmate. But not for this skank. Even my usually empathic resident assistants had stood back and watched, judging but not intervening.
A lot of students felt bad after the fact: after they’d spent months sharing salacious gossip about her, but never reaching out to her; after they were forced to confront their tacit complicity with a campus-wide “freeze out”; after the skank had been returned to her residence hall, unconscious and dumped on the floor by several guys who then fled before any questions could be asked. But until she nearly died, no one questioned their indifference or compassionless judgment.
I knew a young woman who was nearly annihilated by that word.
When I see that red scrawl on the boarded up porch across the street, I think of her. And I remember the incredible power of words. I think about the interplay of the words people use against us and the choices we make – a stranger in a car yelling “fat bitch” at me as he passed didn’t make me fat. But it did affect choices I made that day, including whether I felt strong enough to face the world, or worthy to even be in it. Over time, their accumulated impact was a wall of isolation I had to tear down brick by painful brick if I wanted to live my best life.
I hear a lot of angry rhetoric about “political correctness”, how it has harmed us, made us weak and unable to confront hard truths.
I’m calling bullshit on that.
There has, in my lifetime, been a movement away from using the harshest and most derogatory terms. A movement away from the weaponization of words to harm, hold back and harass whole classes of humans. Compassion and clarity are never misplaced, and they unify us rather than make us weak. What makes us weak? This backlash against “political correctness” being used to call forth all of our racist, misogynistic, jingoistic tendencies. Because we human beings have these proclivities – just as we have the propensity to feel empathy and care for others in distress.
Which of these tendencies do we really want to call forth in ourselves, to bring out into our world? I know which I always hope to share. That doesn’t make me politically correct, it makes me someone who consciously chooses to bring my best self to the world.
Every day I have an anonymous tagger with a can of red spray paint to thank for reminding me of that. Skank: every day, I see that word and I remember that I choose kindness.