Words Can Hurt in Any Language

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New Youth Connections, New York

When I heard that radio host Don Imus had used the terms “nappy-headed ho’s” to refer to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, I thought the words sounded funny. In fact, I thought he called the team nappy-headed because the girls were taking a nap instead of playing, and that’s why they lost the women’s national championship.

I didn’t learn English until four years ago, when I moved to the United States from Mexico. When I moved here, I already knew some bad words in English from my friends and watching TV in Mexico. But I didn’t know the meanings of the words Imus used.

I wondered what the big circus in the media was all about. I tried to play detective to find out what the words meant.

I asked Kaela, a teen from Haiti who is black, what the words meant. She’s been in the United States for seven years, three years longer than me. She told me that nappy-headed meant people with curly hair, but she didn’t say anything about race.

It didn’t make sense. It was crazy that someone would get fired for talking about curly hair.

So I visited some forums on the Internet where people were discussing the quote. I learned that it was a racist term often directed at African-American people to make fun of their hair. When I found that out, my opinion about the comment changed completely. The comment that I thought was funny turned out to be a nasty, stupid slur that had offended the basketball team and the African-American community.

Then I learned that the term “ho,” which at first I’d thought was a nonsense word, was one of the nastiest words someone can call a woman: “whore.” This last term really surprised me. I didn’t think that a radio host could call the members of a basketball team “whores.” I finally understood why so many people got upset at Don Imus.

All languages have bad words. My first language, Spanish, is no exception. Back in Mexico, bad words are a common thing in the everyday life of a teenager. At school, the guys call each other “maricon,” which is an insulting word meaning gay. We used that word when we had to prove our manhood; when someone runs from a fight, for example, he’s called a maricon.

I didn’t think anybody got hurt when we used this word, but now I realize it was the cause of many of the fights at school and in the streets.

I don’t think bad words have to be a big deal. If someone is using a bad word with a humorous tone, people may have a good time with it. But when it’s racist, it hurts other people.

The context of the Don Imus show was humorous and he made fun of everyone, including himself. But I think he went a little too far with the language that he used. It was inappropriate for national radio and offensive to the African-American community.

© 2007 Youth Communication/New York Center. http://www.youthcomm.org.