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Was Prince Correct? Are Parties Meant To Last?

It might surprise many of you to know this, but about a year ago I was approached by a group of students who had been informed that a theme party was being planned that I might want to know about. These students were visibly upset, and after listening to their concerns so was I. I left that conversation with them with my stomach in knots. Looking back on that time period I discovered that I really walked around in a fog for a while trying to find a perspective in which to place that potential party's chosen theme. Try as I might I was unable to do it.

Now, if you have never been to a college party, a theme party more specifically, you don’t know what you may have missed or are missing. I remember during my undergraduate college days throwing one myself. My mother went out of town on a business trip and it just became apparent to me that it was the ideal time to do it. (Oh yes, I still live in fear of my mother to varying extents and am fairly confident she won’t see this blog or I wouldn’t be telling you this story). I had just finished pledging my fraternity, was now a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and was ready to party after having done without a social life for too long a period of time.

The theme parties that I had previously attended were always Toga, Beach, or Sports gear parties. Always looking to do something different I decided to host a pajama party. Suffice it to say it was off the charts. People arrived in bunches around 8:00 p.m. and didn’t leave until 3:00 a.m. No neighbors complained about the noise, everyone made it home safely, there were no fights, no one got excessively drunk, and more importantly, my mom didn’t discover that there had been a party in her absence. On some level, that party made me a legend at Cal State Long Beach (not too far from the legendary status imparted upon Tom Cruise’s character in Risky Business). The party was so off the hook that a year later I actually met the woman who would become my wife when a group of women who had heard about the party and now lived in the same apartment complex as me in Culver City, California asked me to come over to their apartment and share with them my insights and strategies about throwing a pajama party. In that group was an out-of-towner who would return to attend the party, and then return to party with me. The rest is history!

So, as theme parties go, I know a little something about kicking a party off. I also heard that SUNY Plattsburgh students know how to party as well. So, I was blown away when I was told that the theme party that they were preparing to throw was a “retard party.” Yes, you read that correctly, some students were going to throw a “retard party.” I guess many of you are out there thinking to yourself, what is a retard party? Well, I was informed that it is a party that only grants access to those who portray themselves as retards. In other words, to attend the party you have to dress and act like a retard! I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I was to hear this. At the Center for Diversity at PSU we work so hard to educate our students about social justice and respect for diversity. It was heartbreaking to discover that there could be a population of students on our campus that could even believe other students would even want to attend a party with such an insensitive theme attached to it. It was apparent that none of these students throwing the party had a disabled family member because if they did how could they begin to even conceptualize such a party?

Well, fortunately the party didn’t occur, largely in part to a large number of the Examining Diversity through Film students (both past and present) who decided they were going to take action to make sure that it didn’t. They created such a fuss about the party that they may have shamed the students who were planning the party. When asked why they would even host a “retard party” some of the students planning the party laughed and claimed it wasn’t that serious. So, my questions to you are:

1. Was their throwing a “retard party” something I should be taking serious?

2. What is it that could even make students host such a theme party?

3. How could that group of students not have one amongst them who would step up and challenge the idea?

4. How is it possible that not one of those students would emerge as a voice of reason to end such a horrific idea for a party theme?

5. How many of you might have attended or did attend a party as disturbing as this? Why? Is this truly a social injustice, or just a party that college age students who are not necessarily fully mature yet attend along the way to achieving maturity?

6. Though I am describing a party, are there other moments that you have encountered that mirror or resemble the basic level of inconsideration about to be exemplified by these students as they planned to host their “retard party?”

7. What do we tell our children as they grow up to better ensure that they will never participate in such a party?

Please recognize I don't have any expectations that anyone will answer all the question, and that some may want to only answer one or two. That is fine with me, I'm just looking for answers! Believe it or not, sometimes I am badly in need of second and third opinions!!!

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Comments

JW --

Okay, here it goes with my two cents:

1. Was their throwing a “retard party” something I should be taking serious?

Absolutely. At the very least, these students needed someone to say, "Um, really bad idea." It sounds like some fellow students actually did, which is great to hear.

2. What is it that could even make students host such a theme party?

It depends a little on what the students meant by "retard". I think that the word has taken on a much more general meaning in use than you would find in the dictionary. I think "retard" often means anyone who is awkward, out of sync, and not cool ... interchangable with "geek" or "nerd". What I'd like to know is how, exactly, did they think people would "dress like a retard?" How do people who are cognitively impaired dress? I have no idea ... not even a clear picture of a stereotype. That's why I wonder if they meant "retard" extremely broadly.

3. How could that group of students not have one amongst them who would step up and challenge the idea?

Either nobody thought it was a bad idea, or some did, but didn't feel confident enough to say so. Hard to say which is more discouraging.

4. How is it possible that not one of those students would emerge as a voice of reason to end such a horrific idea for a party theme?

Probably nobody wanted to be a party-pooper. Still, you'd think that SOMEONE would at least speak up in favor of a better idea of their own, if only for selfish reasons.

5. How many of you might have attended or did attend a party as disturbing as this? Why? Is this truly a social injustice, or just a party that college age students who are not necessarily fully mature yet attend along the way to achieving maturity?

If I were still in college, I'd have been tempted to attend, just to see if anyone would be embarassed to be having such a party when a demonstrably disabled person showed up. I'm not sure if I'd actually have the guts to do it, but I like to think I would. I doubt there was any real hatred intended. I do think that this was probably an example of unchecked immaturity. I think it happens in college a lot. Elaborate bad plans have the leeway to go much further along without more mature minds around to put a stop to them early on. Is this a potential social injustice? I don't know. If any of these students become employers, would they be more or less likely to hire a cognitively impaired person after having participated willingly in planning this party?

6. Though I am describing a party, are there other moments that you have encountered that mirror or resemble the basic level of inconsideration about to be exemplified by these students as they planned to host their “retard party?”

Well, any time someone casually uses the word "retard" would be a similar example.

When I was in high school, there was a week of dressup days every year, with a different theme every day. The two I remember were "Greener Day" and "Nerd Day". "Greeners", in Olympia, Washington were students of Evergreen State College, which was thought to be full of "hippies". On "Nerd Day", people tended to dress up by wearing mismatched clothes and putting a piece of masking tape on the bridge of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Ha ha. To my knowledge, none of the teachers or administrators ever said a word about either theme day. I hope I didn't participate, but to be honest, I don't remember if I did or not. That's a disturbing thought ...

7. What do we tell our children as they grow up to better ensure that they will never participate in such a party?

The first time, and every time, a child uses "retard", "gay", or other second-tier slurs (not red-hot offensive like the N-word), we need to tell them to stop, and why.

Thanks for your post, JW. (And for your shout-out last week!)

*** Apulrang, the pleasure in both the post and shout out were all mine. Your question in response to my 5th question is quite provocative itself. You asked

"If any of these students become employers, would they be more or less likely to hire a cognitively impaired person after having participated willingly in planning this party?"

What a question! I must say that I can see them responding either way. Perhaps the guilt of having attended such a party would be enough to contribute to them having an epiphany, thereby wanting to overcompensate for their transgressions by becoming an advocate for social justice, and in this case, people who might be construed in some given context as "retards." On the other hand, I can also imagine nothing being learned from the experience at the party and the thoughts that motivated them attending such a party becoming further exacerbated by them not having the ability to see beyond someone's physical condition and therefore devaluing the person(s). Oh, and you suggestion that perhaps we start at defining "retard" because they may see it as similar to "nerd" or "geek." I agree that it is always wise to start off by defining our terms so that we can enhance the possibility of being "on the same page" in terms of our communication. However, I'm from the old school with any term that disparages others. For me, referring to someone as "geek," "nerd," "freak," "ugly," etc. is equivalent to calling them "niggers." So, that retard party for me couldn't have been any worse or better when they chose a derogatory term as their theme. A rose by any other name...

As always I get a blast from any engagement with you Apulrang. We are overdue for breakfast or lunch! Expect a call soon! *** -- J.W.

Just a thought, which doesn't answer any of your questions...

What about society's role in caving in to slurs such as "retard?" Retarded simply means that an individual is slower on the learning curve or has a condition which impairs cognitive abilities.

There is nothing wrong with people who are retarded. They feel, they love, and they have the same needs as the rest of use.

When people started using retarded as a slur, did society scream with outrage? No, it changed the terminology.

When we don't, linguistically, draw a line in the sand, but just blur it and back away, should we be surprised?

*** Karen, what do you mean society "changed the terminology?" I am really interested in what you mean in saying that? I am under the impression when someone uses the term as an insult they somehow mean to imply that the person they are speaking about is, for lack of a better term "dimwitted." I think someone of slow wit seems to fit the description you applied in your response when you said "an individual is slower on the learning curve or has a condition which impairs cognitive abilities." I know people have appropriated the term for their own usage, many of these people only knowing it is an insult and probably themselves unable to define it. But I am not sure what you meant if you meant something beyond a slow witted individual. Are you saying the term has more/less meaning than this? *** -- J.W.

"INSENSITIVE" is the word that comes to mind when I think of the individuals that decided to throw a theme party that pokes fun at others. As a parent of young children, it is very important to take opportunities such as this to educate. I can only hope when my children are faced with a choice like attending a party that pokes fun at an under-represented group, they will reflect on conversations that we have had in the past and make the right decision. Furthermore, I would hope that they would seize the moment to educate some of their peers.

Mr. Wiley, your posting is timely with this being the weekend for Halloween parties. It always amazes me how some of the costumes that people wear are often poking fun at others.

~JA-JA~

Sad but oh so true, the term retard is callously used in a slanderous and derogatory fashion to imply that a person is dimwitted, by many of the youth today. The word retarded, in actuality, is a rather "new" term, created by professionals that actually work with developmentally disabled populations, to replace the terms of yesteryear, such as moron, idiot, and the such. Oh yes, that is how medical and educational professionals USED to refer to the population of individuals who's IQ's fell below 75. The term then evolved to RETARDED of varying degrees, i.e., mildly, moderately or severely retarded. Today, you hear most professionals use the term DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED, to encompass this group of individuals, many of whom may also have some type of physical, behavioral or genetic problem, secondary to or in addition to, their cognitive delay.

You ask a responder above, how does a "retard" dress? Lets suffice it to say that, because the majority of individuals who are classified as "retarded" ofen live together in state or private agency funded group homes (at least those that don't have family able to provide them with care and supervision), they aren't shopping at The Gap, American Eagle, Macy's, or Abercrombies for their wardrobes. Many of the "retarded" individuals that the students at PSU most likely see in Plattsburgh are receiving clothing that has been donated (hand me downs) or purchased at a store where the more "fashion savvy" college students aren't shopping. And...... in some cases, there is little attention given to 'style', when the clothing is distributed to the people living in these homes. I've seen and worked with many who have items that do not match, are too big or small, and yes, sometimes even items that need laundering. When I think of what type of costume a person might be thinking of "creating" to wear to a "theme" party as you've described, I would guess that many would show up wearing outfits, much as I've just described.

Yes, its appauling to think that the students in our college (or any college), those individuals that are to be this country's next set of lawyers, doctors, teachers, social workers, and business men and women, could even consider throwing a party that is "humiliating" or pokes fun at a group of individuals less fortunate than they. But do I believe it..... sadly, I am not in the least surprised to have read this.

But.... sensitivity typically comes from "knowing", "experiencing" and/or "education"..... so it sure sounds like there is MUCH still needed to be done at our (and other's) campuses, to enlighten our future leaders.

As you once said to me, there is still lots of work to be done, J.W. .... so lets keep on keepin' on.

Take Care.

CC

I think someone of slow wit seems to fit the description you applied in your response

Maybe I need remedial English, J.W. I have often seen "retarded" people outwit those who are thought to be smarter than they are.

As we know, the measurement of intelligence is an extremely complex task, for there are so many kinds of intelligence, and the workings of the mind are still shrouded in mystery.

An I.Q. test is limited. Because one has a low I.Q., that doesn't mean that he/she can't have valuable insights or that he/she can't make valuable contributions to society. It doesn't mean that people labelled as retarded are any less human or worthwhile than those not so labelled.

Lucius Mangrum, a "retarded" individual, expresses it better than I ever could. In this instance he is more "witted" than I am.

"Changing the word could possibly make it better," he says. "But also you got to change the attitudes. You know, because if the attitudes are not changed, the word is not really going to matter. I don't look down on myself. I don't think anybody's better than me or less than me. You see, but others, they do see themselves as being better."

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6943699

In fact, those words show that he's a lot smarter/more "witted" than a large portion of our society.

Retard…clothing think class…larger context…who really is slow???


CC’s post about the way a “retard” would dress caused me to think about class. Mentally disabled people “often live together in state or private agency funded group homes (at least those that don't have family able to provide them with care and supervision), they aren't shopping at The Gap, American Eagle, Macy's, or Abercrombies for their wardrobes”(shout out CC!). I had never put the two “isms” in the same category before. Basically, one could say that a disabled person is of a lower class, therefore cursing them with a double negative. But two negatives equal a positive-if we choose to look at the bright side…

College students partying, often involves alcohol. This being the case, I’ve heard that true feelings are revealed as a result of this social lubricant. If college students have to be drunk to dress up as “retards” what are they revealing about their emotions deep inside. People who are mentally disabled were born that way, while college students purposely choose to alter their state of minds to act in a way that their peers would label them “retarded.” That being said, such actions are associated with bliss-hence the reason why college students insist on losing brain cells every weekend-so what the conclusion is, is mentally disabled people may be happy and college students are jealous (giving them the false yet common justification to defecate on the disadvantage to privilege of others).

Just a thought…by the way, grand topic choice J.W.

Language, like everything else, is evolutionary. It is true that society has shifted from "retard" to the current politically correct term "developmentally disabled," or "mentally challenged." It happened because compassionate members of society recognized over time that mean-spirited and insensitive people abused the word "retard," by using it in a manner that was belittling and hurtful.

The Clinton County ARC is a non-profit human services agency that provides services to a wide range of local developmentally disabled individuals. This organization is an example of such. In the mid- 90's the organization changed its name from Clinton County Association of Retarded Citizens to Clinton County Advocacy and Resource Center, still maintaining the abbreviation ARC. I commend organizations such as the ARC who serve their clients in the dignified manner they deserve. I have had the opportunity to volunteer my time to the ARC in the past by serving on their golf tournament fundraising committee, and over the course of five years, I gained immense insight to the developmentally disabled community. The clients of the ARC, as well as those providing services have affected me in a profound way.

When I hear a story like the one you described about the retard party, sadness is not sufficient in describing my feelings. Although I feel it shouldn't be necessary for one to experience something first-hand in order to have a compassionate heart, perhaps these students have not had the privilege of interacting with members of the developmentally disabled community. Perhaps if they did, they would realize the need for compassion and respect...something that should be acquired well before entering college.

In response to Karen's very important comments regarding terminology, and JW's question about it:

I agree that sometimes we do have to "draw a line in the sand" and not back away from yet another word that tries to be usefully descriptive without being negative. "Retarded" isn't the greatest term, but it does beat "moron", and it is at least somewhat descriptive of a type of cognitive impairment without being excessively perjorative. Some would ask why have a label at all. Why not just refer to "people"? In a sense, I am all for that. However, there are people in our population who have more than just slight differences in their thinking process and ability. Their cognitive differences actually do impair their ability to function in society the way most other people do. Yes, they can love, feel, enjoy and accomplish things. They may be able to do these things more than we can possibly imagine, if given the appropriate supports. But the fact remains that they have something in common that we'll need to refer to from time to time.

Backing away from a workable term because insensitive people have turned it into a negative leads eventually to terminology that has little or no meaning at all.

Maybe "developmentally disabled" is better, but I'm not so sure. It's a bureaucratic term designed to establish eligibility for certain kinds of services. At the moment, it does encompass some people who have no cognitive impairments at all, so it is a misleading substitute.

A really progressive viewpoint on this recognizes the impairment, while affirming the full dignity, worth, and humanity of the person who has it, not matter what we call it.

Thanks for the kind words, JW. You humble me.

1 . You absolutely should have taken it seriously, and, my reaction is similar to yours...profound sadness and dissappointment. But with me there is also a measure of annoyance - you mean they couldn't come up with anything more creative?

2. The reason to come up with such a party? A lack of creativity compounded by profound ignorance magnified by a total lack of self-esteem with a dash of sheltered privledge thrown in for good measure. They couldn't come up with a better idea, or, just have the party for its own sake. They probably never encountered anyone with any kind of disability before in any meaningful context. They feel so amazingly BAD about themselves that they only way to make themselves feel better is to degrade others. And, they believe anyone that's different from them is less than they are.

3. This is perhaps your most difficult question, unless the answer is simply "birds of a feather..." But take heart and GREAT pleasure in the fact that a group of students DID speak up and squash it.

4. Same answer as part A above - birds of a feather - combined, maybe with a little cowardice. Most of us are followers, JW, and in the absence of true leadership, we'll follow most the loudest, or most obnoxious, or best looking, or coolest person in the room.

5. Never did attend anything like this. Halloween parties, toga parties, marching band parties (and I was in the band, so, that was cool then) yes - but a RETARD party? No way. And I think you're being generous on the "maturity" angle. My 11-year-old (and probably yours too) knows this is a bad - even cruel idea. You know though - I remember one of the guys at a HUGE Halloween party we through was dressed as a soldier with his arm blown off. This was during the first Gulf War and the costume really offended me at the time. I told the kid so (Freshman). He swore at me and walked away.

6. I guess I'm pretty sheltered myself because I just can't think of a situation I've encountered with such a degree of inconsideration as you've described.

7. Maybe your most important question, JW. And I don't have a flippin' clue. I try to use "teachable moments" with my son whenever I can. The times I've come down hardest on him, I think, are when he's excluded some for the sake of others. Usually it's just pre-teen cliqueiness (new word?), but, the lesson is the same. I try to get him to put himself in the "Other's" shoes and imagine someone doing to him what he just did, or was about to do, to someone else...trying to go easy on the guilt, striving more for understanding and dialouge. You know, his lesson in religion class this week was about this very topic - excluding or degrading members of our society who we perceive as less than we are. Another teachable moment? I'll let you know how it goes!

Wow, I have read some shocking posts on your blog but this takes the cake. I guess it's probably because it's so personal.

My one year old, Sammie, has 1p36 Deletion Syndrome, which means that he will be considered mentally retarded. My little peanut is so much more than mentally retarded. Actually, we saw a Developmental Pediatrician yesterday and he informed me the term Intellectually Disabled has replaced Mentally Retarded (that's another blog though!!). People who use the words "retarded" or "retard" in their daily life do so out of ignorance. I have heard all kinds of people use this term during conversations that have nothing to do with being mentally retarded. It does surprise me that this term is used so lightly, without thought. When I hear it I honestly feel sad...sad because most people do not know what families with people with disabilities go through, what the parents, sisters, brothers, grandparents or whoever go through.

Of course these are not things that someone using the term would think about or even understand unless they were some how involved in the life of someone who is mentally retarded.

I am not saying that everything about having a child with disabilities is hard. Sammie is the most wonderful little boy. He has brought so much hope and happiness to so many. He is an answered prayer for hundreds of people, including his Mama! He continues to grow and learn each day at his pace. It's a slower pace but he continues to persevere and go on like a champ!

Now to your questions:
1. Throwing a "retard" party is something you should have concerned yourself with and if I had heard about it I would have made sure to concern myself with it! The students throwing the party need to know and understand how ignorant, inappropriate and hurtful their "theme" was.

2. I am not sure what could make the students even consider a "theme" like this. I know that the term is used loosely and maybe the people using it are using it out of habit and have never been confronted about using it, but to plan a party based on the theme retarded was insensitive.

3. I think that the term has been socailly accepted by the majority. I have been a substitute in a few of the area schools and have heard the term used out of context many times. I have never heard anyone confront the students about using the word. I must admit, I myself never called anyone on it until I had Sammie. Now I don't hesitate.

4. Peer Pressure? I am not sure....I would like to think that someone would have spoken up. There was probably someone who wanted to but they didn't because of their own fears of not being accepted.

5. I have not and would not attend such a party. Being immature doesn't mean you have the right to be a coward. In my opinion it is cowardly not to stand-up for social injustice. If my 12 year old step-daughter is mature enough not to use the word and understand why it's inappropriate then I would assume a college student could understand.

6. Of course, like I stated above...I have heard people use the word retard probably hundreds of thousands of time and no one calls them out on it. There are other words that could be used.

7. That is part of the problem....a lot of parents don't talk to their children about social injustice. We should simply tell them the truth. It's part of parenting to inform your children about social injustice, be open with them, let them ask questions, ask them questions (they usually know more than you think!), we should not just sit around and expect that they will understand these things on their own.

Something I guess I missed reading your Blog the first time that CC pointed out.... how would you dress going to a party with such a theme???? Great question because my little guy dresses in baby GAP, Gymboree, and The Children's Place clothing...... wonder if those students think I should dress him differently? Now I'm just being a smart a**!

Nothing needs to be said before answering the questions as Shay, the mother of my Sammie sam, said it above, so I'll just get to the guts of this:

1. Definitely. I can only speak for myself, but the deep hurt this story causes me insists that something immediate be done, and the true victims in this, some of whom can't speak for themselves, need warriors of social justice to make their voices heard and feelings known.

2. My first guess is none of them have experienced the array of disabilities out there first hand. I can see how people can be ignorant to the power the word carries, as I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but I would use the word retard when talking at times, such as "That's retarded," and even after Sammie was born, I caught myself slipping a couple times. Now I look at my son and cry when I think of my own ignorance.

3. There could be several answers, such as upbringing, role models, whether they were educated on the cruelty of such actions. Group mentality can also take over, and sometimes all it takes is a few cruel, ignorant or insensitive people to steer the larger group in malicious directions. Fortuantely for myself, while I regret my previous use of the word, I recall angrily and a little savagely beating a friend down in high school when he knocked the books out of the hands of a teenager with Down Syndrome and then taunted him by calling him retard.

4. JDubb, I don't like to answer the same question twice.

5. Again, while I social conditioning bred my ignorance to have used the term to describe unpleasant situations or things that ticked me off, I would never have attended such a party.
This is a horrific social injustice, because it dehumanizes a group of people. It's especially cruel if someone belonging to the group described is affected or someone close to such a person who perhaps has yet to find his or her voice to speak out.

***I don't know how Plattsburgh State handled this situation, but the university had a responsibility to seek those students out and educate them, possibly by having them spend some time with "retarded" people and their family members and friends***

6. While in the Army at a barraks party, a group of black men I knew started acting out stereotypes of white men, dancing with no rhythm, cracking jokes about ALLEGED smaller private parts, acting uptight and dorky. I can take a joke and might have participated, but this particular event was done maliciously, and it was clear some of the white members of the party were uncomfortable. That woudl ahve been an excellent opportunity to educate the ignorant ones, but sadly the white people didn't say anything because they felt historical white injustices gave black people a pass to behave in such a way.

7. My daughter's biological mother is half African American and half German, so Darby has benefited from the insight of being a so-called minority and her brother will have moderate to severe mental retardation and she already cringes and grows angry when anyone tosses out the term ignorantly.

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