Someone I know has a penchant for calling one of her buddies, who's a little spacey but of normal intelligence, "Retard." The other day, I asked her, "Why do you do that? You wouldn't call another friend, who has skin darker than yours, 'Nigger."" She was pretty mad at me.
"How can you even equate the two words like that?" she railed. I stood my ground.
When I was a kid, we used to call stupid kids "retarded." That was before we knew much about real mental disabilities, and we called the people who had them "retarded." Like they could catch up if they only hurried. We also had great fun telling "hair lip" stories until one of our mothers had a new baby born with a cleft palate. He couldn't nurse and had to be tube fed until he had surgery. Our mothers shushed our "hair lip" imitations, so we turned the "hair lip" jokes to "retard" jokes.
A few years later, I learned that "Mary," a sister of one of my mother's friends, was "retarded." I was shocked. Hadn't a clue she couldn't add numbers, drive a car, read a map and do other grown-up things. I always thought Mary was just a friendly, funny and kind woman who enjoyed hanging out with her older sister.
Fast forward about 20 years. My son had to do some volunteering (I know, that's kind of contradictory) during confirmation class in middle school. One of his friend's parents invited him to help his Special Olympics swim team. I learned a lot about mentally challenged kids that year, and so did my son. He was lucky to have one of my "Mary" experiences.
Do we ever grow out of our human penchant for making light of others' misfortunes, weakness, difference? Maybe not. Witness what we still make fun of here in Minnesota: Iowans, drunks, Indians, immigrants ("Ole and Lena" now are "Ahmad and Muhammad"). Do we laugh? You betcha. We're sooooo not perfect here. But maybe we can work a little harder to care about the folks at the butt of our jokes, and we'll eventually grow out of the name-calling years.