When a Politically Correct Term Becomes Politically Incorrect
On October 13, 1979, a new episode of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids titled “Mainstream” aired on CBS. This episode deals Fat Albert and the Cosby kids meeting and befriending a new student in their school named Dennis, who has a mild intellectual disability. Only, they don’t call Dennis intellectually disabled. They call him… well, a word that we no longer use to describe disabled people. It starts with the letter “R”.
Now, you’re probably wondering how an episode about accepting people with disabilities could use a word like that. After all, “retarded” is considered a slur now, so why would anyone describe someone like that? This is not the politically correct term to use nowadays!
Except… that was the politically correct term to use back in the 1970s. Yeah, believe it or not, “retarded” was what you were supposed to call intellectually disabled people. “Retard” was used as a medical term back then with words like “idiot”, “imbecile”, and “moron” being the pejorative terms. Ironically, “retard” is the pejorative term while “idiot” and “moron” are more acceptable terms to use. How’d we get this way, and is “retard” the only word that was once considered politically correct?
While coming up with ideas for this article, I thought of both this Fat Albert episode and another book I talked about earlier- Iggie’s House by Judy Blume. Much like Fat Albert, Iggie’s House was published in the 1970s and deals with important social issues (the difference being that Fat Albert is a TV show that deals with social issues less often while social issues is the whole point of Iggie’s House). If you click on this link, you’ll see that I had a lot to say about this book, and I guess I have some more to say.
Iggie’s House follows the main character Winifred “Winnie” Bates Barringer as she tries to combat racism by befriending the black neighbors, Glenn, Herbie, and Tina Garber, who have moved into her friend Iggie’s old house. I’ve brought this up in some parts of my article about the book, but there’s one part in the book I feel is more appropriate for this article. When Winnie decides to go to the pool with her aunt Myrna, she makes a questionnaire to counter the antagonist Mrs. Landon’s petition to get rid of the Garbers (the black neighbors). What makes this part stand out is, while making the questionnaire, when Winnie tries to think about which word to describe the Garbers to the people at the pool.
Should she write “Negro” like her teacher said? “Black” like the Garbers said? Or “colored” like her parents said? She decided that most of the people at Aunt Myrna’s swim club acted more like her parents than her teacher. And they certainly weren’t like the Garbers! They were all white.
Despite the book’s message being timeless, there are some words that you and I might not use anymore. Do you use the terms “Negro” or “colored people” to describe black people? Well, you may be using “negro” to learn the colors in Spanish, but unless you’re talking about historical standards, then there’s a huge chance that you don’t use “Negro” and “colored people” to describe black people. Yet, those were the more acceptable terms to use during those times. Nowadays, those terms are considered bigoted, and we now use “black people” and “people of color” as descriptions (though I can’t really see the difference between “colored people” and “people of color”).
There have been debates about whether words like “colored” and “retarded” are actually slurs, and they’ve been going on for some time. One of those words that has been especially hit by this debate is the word “queer”. “Queer” is now considered an umbrella term for people in the LGBTQ+ community, but the word itself has had a long and bumpy origin story. The original definition of “queer” was “strange” or “peculiar” and quickly became pejorative towards the LGBTQ+ community. Some people (namely my sister) still consider this word a slur.
Yet, as early as the 1970s and 1980s, the word “queer” started getting reclaimed by activists. These activists used the word “queer” to be politically radical and to stand out from the more “assimilationist” branches of the community. And nowadays, “queer” is used more than ever and has been expanded to many non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities and politics. What was once (or maybe is still) considered a slur is now used far and wide by millions of people. Meanwhile, the previous two words I have mentioned in this article used to be considered “politically correct” and are now considered slurs.
This makes me think about the terms we currently use and are considered acceptable and politically incorrect. Will those terms be considered politically incorrect in about twenty or forty years? How about ten years? Five? One? The world is changing ever so rapidly, especially with the internet and social media. Look at how much has changed within the 20th century! How can we get used to all of this?
I’ve talked about why older people are more likely to be conservative/right-wing, and I think the terms and ideas they once thought were politically correct now being politically incorrect may have something to do with it. It’s pretty inevitable that the terms we use will be considered politically incorrect later on. How will we react? Will we turn more right-wing/conservative and lash out at “political correctness”, or will we try to grow and learn to use more appropriate terms? I think I’ll leave that up to time to tell us. The world is a big place and continues to change at a rapid pace, and that includes our society and the words we use.