Meaning beyond definitions: Student experiences with misused phrases, slurs, labels on campus

Meaning beyond definitions: Student experiences with misused phrases, slurs, labels on campus
“I’m going to kill myself”
“I’m going to kill myself”

Versions of the phrases “I’m going to kill myself” and “go kill yourself” are everywhere at Gunn: They might slip out after a difficult test or during playful bickering. The phrases, however, belittle the struggles of Gunn community members who are facing issues with their mental health, causing them further pain.

Junior Jennifer Li, president of the Reach Out, Care, Know Club, which focuses on mental health awareness, shared that although students might not be trying to offend others, using these phrases shows insensitivity — and the harm is real.

“You genuinely don’t know the severity of what someone’s going through, and if you haven’t experienced it yourself, then you’re not going to know that it takes (a certain type of) sensitivity to understand these issues,” she said. “I just think people need to be more aware that there are actually people who do want to kill themselves at this school, and it’s not just funny.”

Li said these phrases cause those who are experiencing severe problems with mental health to think their struggles are normal, which discourages them from reaching out for help.

“In reality, not everyone is experiencing these mental- health problems, and it is important for you to get help,” she said. “(Just because) other people are depressed at this school doesn’t make (depression) normal.”

Beyond hallways and classrooms, the typed-up letters “KMS,” short for “kill myself,” fill social media platforms. According to sophomore Dolly Wu, founder of mental-health nonprofit Solis Mental Health, posts like these portray suicidal thoughts as not only normal but appealing.

“Trends of glorifying and romanticizing mental health (can be) really harmful because if teens are being constantly exposed to depression as a beautiful thing — for example, the aesthetics of crying or self-harming — then they will start making that part of their identity instead of trying to seek help,” she said.

As these phrases are so common, students can find
it difficult to know when someone is actually struggling with severe mental health or simply exaggerating.

Wu shared that one friend, for example, says “I’m going to kill myself” frequently. Because of how normalized the saying is, however, their struggle or cries for help can be easily disregarded.

“A lot of people around him just wave it off, but I think these are kind of the instances where we should really  try to reach out to them,” Wu said. “These are specific examples where we have to draw the line between people just saying and joking about (suicidal thoughts) versus people having those thoughts actually.”


The R-slur
The R-slur

Gunn continues to see uses of the R-slur – a slur that targets individuals with intellectual disabilities – on campus, despite its derogatory nature. Though many students refrain from using the R-word itself, they may instead use other pejoratives aimed at students with learning differences: Some use “SpEd” and “autistic” as synonyms for “stupid.”

Sophomore Naomi Naveh has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. According to Naveh, using “SpEd” as a synonym for “stupid” directly targets students in Special Education programs.

“It’s just explicitly using ‘Special Education’ as an insult,” she said. “I’d never seen it used like that before (Gunn), and it was really jarring to me how it was used all the time and very casually.”

Naveh noted that even aside from explicit insults, misusing language relating to disabilities invalidates the experiences of students who have them.

“When people say, ‘Oh, I’m so ADHD’ when they get a little bit distracted on one thing, or when people say, ‘Oh, I’m so OCD’ when they talk about how they like to keep things tidy, it both minimizes the effect of the disorder itself, and it also feels like (students) don’t know what (they’re) talking about,” she said.

In anticipation of this invalidation, English teacher Danielle Whichard tries to prevent the use of offensive language in her classroom.

“I’m very sensitive to and intentional about language that’s used with intellectual disabilities,” she said. “Every once in a while there is a time that someone uses some language that crosses the boundary, and I would address that with them individually.”

Some students who use offensive language such as the R-word may simply be unaware that their words are hurtful. Naveh suggests giving students the benefit of the doubt — educating them rather than accusing them — to prevent them from becoming defensive.

“I think it’s probably best to go with the assumption that they’re just ignorant and not malicious,” she said. “Whether or not that’s true, they’re less likely to get defensive.”

Whichard employs a similar strategy in her class.

“One of my first tactics is usually just to sort of repeat back to them, not saying those words, but just asking (the students), ‘Is that really what you intended to say? Was that the intention that you’ve had?’” Whichard said. “A lot of times, students were not thinking about it and realize that that was problematic or hurtful, and usually are apologetic.”

“That’s so gay”
“That’s so gay”

“That’s so gay” originated as a pejorative phrase in the late 1970s, with the word “gay” implying stupidity or unpleasantness. According to junior Noah Murase, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, while students may attempt to divorce the phrase’s meaning from its origins, it still reinforces the harmful stereotypes against LGBTQ+ students.

“This word, specifically, has not evolved,” he said. “(When it is used,) we know that you want to associate ‘gay’ with femininity.”

According to Gender-Sexuality Alliance President senior Chania Rene-Corail, expressions like these also stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community.

“Saying the phrase, ‘That’s so gay,’ can make members of the (LGBTQ+) community feel ashamed of being queer, and it makes (Gunn) much more of a hostile environment,” she said.

These words also make students who are discovering their identity feel ashamed of themselves and afraid to openly join the LGBTQ+ community.

“When you are a young person trying to come out and you see that people around you aren’t that supportive of it, that makes you not want to come out of the closet,” Rene-Corail said. “You just stay stuck in that situation where you can’t openly be who you are.”

Rene-Corail said this phenomenon affected her personally in middle school.

“People at my old middle school used the word ‘gay’ a lot, which made it hard for me to come out,” she said.

Students who use these phrases also prevent the formation of meaningful relationships, alienating potential friends.

“I’ve had a lot of people in my life who were like, ‘Oh, that’s a red flag about (him),’ and I should be on alert,” Murase said.

According to Murase, the phrase also reflects badly upon the user, making them seem childish for attempting to represent something “girly” or silly as “gay.”

“If you want to say something is stupid, don’t relate it to sexuality,” Murase said.

According to Rene-Corail, many students are simply ignorant of the phrase’s connotations. Thus, raising awareness is the first step in changing the conventional image of the LGBTQ+ community.

“A lot of the time, it’s used to not actively be mean, but as an ignorant statement,” Rene-Corail said. “What I’ve gotten from listening (to others’ experiences) is that it’s not about people being mean, it’s about not knowing of the negative effect on others and not knowing that it might make others feel embarrassed.”

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Eanam Maor
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Sophomore Eanam Maor is a reporter for The Oracle. Outside of school, she enjoys listening to music, reading, binging TV shows all while drinking coffee or boba.
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