Monday, November 25, 2013

A mom seeks justice—and gets an amazing apology

When Kari Wagner-Peck, mom to a 7-year-old boy with Down syndrome known as "T" in her blog, discovered that journalist Chuck Klosterman—who pens The Ethicist column for the New York Times—had a history of using the word "retard" in his writing, she wrote him a letter. "Is it ethical to contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable?" she asked. "Please enlighten me: What are the ethics of using the r-word?"

She never expected to get the astounding response she did.  "I was wrong. You are right," Klosterman wrote. "I should not have used 'retard' pejoratively. It was immature, hurtful and thoughtless. I have no justification for my actions.... I take full responsibility for my actions and understand why this matters so much to you. I'm truly sorry."

Here, Kari shares some background on what went down.

What made you first aware of Chuck Klosterman's usage of the word "retard"?
I googled him when his appointment as The Ethicist was announced this summer out of curiosity because I have read him for years. While I was searching, a quote by Klosterman that refers to "hipsters and retards" came up on some website titled something like Best Hipster Quotes Ever. I could not believe the writer I loved wrote that. Then I discovered he had, for New York magazine. 

What went through your mind as you googled and found more instances when he'd used the word?
I thought it was crappy to use these words for the punch line of a joke. All of them were meant to be funny. What stood out was they were beyond the pale. And the excerpts were just hostile.

Have you had to deal with instances of people you know in real life using the word?
Several times. When I hear someone say, "That’s so retarded!" or some variation of that I try to wait until I can speak to them privately. I say pretty much the same thing every time–and I have lost count on the number of times I have had this conversation. I say, "When you said [insert r-word phrase here] I know you were not talking about my son who has Down syndrome. But, I want you to know that word hurts our family." That’s usually enough for the person to fall all over themselves and apologize. I have had a few people start crying. I have had a few people get defensive. To those that get it, I would like to think they stopped saying it but I don’t ask them to. I am having a conversation that is my intention. My husband had an ugly experience a couple years ago. He and my son walked through the door at a holiday party. Our son was immediately engaged by a friend so he did not hear this but my husband overheard a kid whisper to her brother, "Look a retard." My husband said he felt like he had been sucker punched. The other thing that struck him is the kid didn’t sound mean. He really thinks that who our son is. He was completely ignorant.

What were you hoping for when you wrote Klosterman? 
First, I wanted an answer to my question. I incorrectly assumed he would make it about political correct speak and that I am over-sensitive. So there you go, don’t judge a book by his cover—or the author by his words. If he had come back that way my hope was for dialogue.

What was your reaction when you saw first Klosterman's email in your in-box, and as you read it?
Well, first he actually emailed me two after I posted the letter but it went to the SPAM of my blog email! I hammered away at him with other on social media for another three days! He must have been like, "What does this mother want from me!" I had sent an email to the Public Editor at The Times, Margaret Sullivan. She emailed me back and asked if we could talk on the phone. She told me Chuck Klosterman had emailed. She then relayed to him what happened and he re-sent the email to my private account. As I read it I burst into tears. I was completely overwhelmed. I still get choked up when I read it. What he wrote and did is beyond anything I could have imagined or has been done in the struggle for people to get it. He is a game changer.

Klosterman offered to donate $25,000 to a charity. Where is that going?
He offered two places in his letter as example but it was clear whatever I said would go. One of the places is totally inclusion-based. They also do excellent legislative work. It felt like we were on the same page. He sent the money out that day. It is his money and his donation—he created a self-imposed debt. Where it went is private unless he chooses to share the information.

What do you have to say to naysayers out there who say things like "Stop being so sensitive!" and "It's just a word!"
I have no interest in addressing them. My energy is limited—I am raising a kid, I have a job, I write, I have a life. My energy is for moving the conversation forward with whoever I think can help me. The reality—the word is a reflection of how we view "these people." That is true whether someone means that when they use the word or not.This sounds very grand but my goal is to help change the world in favor of people like my son. I cannot be pulled down by people who want to plant their flag on saving a hateful word.

Someday, when T grows up and can read this, what do you hope his reaction will be?
Seriously, I hope it’s something like, "What else would I expect from you? You’re my mother." This is mother’s work. This is my real job. Your kids aren’t supposed to throw a parade every time you have their back.


  1. I think I'm going to have to steal her last line every time someone uses the cliched (and very annoying), "I don't know how you do it. I could never do what you do!", line. What a perfect response:
    "This is mother’s work. This is my real job. Your kids aren’t supposed to throw a parade every time you have their back"
    Exactly. :)

  2. I wrote him a letter as well, so it was nice to get a response- even if it wasn't directed to me :)

    1. That letter I received from Klosterman in response to my Open Letter... was for all of us:)

  3. This will sound insensitive but she should consider herself extremely lucky. I mean that's a letter-writer's equvilant of hitting a grand slam in the major leagues when an author replies to you directly

    1. Of course I consider myself lucky:) I had been planning this letter since July. I just had to screw up my courage and do it. And it does feel like a grand slam! Yay!

      I am the subject of this interview and author of the original letter.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this story Ellen -- it's great to hear Kari's experiences directly.

    As you know I had an ongoing correspondence with the editors at the NY Times because of their routine use of the word "retard" to describe someone with an intellectual disability. They said they would be making a new style rule in their style guide to suggest "mental retardation" not be the descriptor used, but after months of following up I gave up. I also had some words with them about the use of imbecile and moron and was told that modern readers don't equate these with their original uses.

    To be honest, I am thrilled that Klosterman did the right thing here. But I am astonished that an ethicist had to have this pointed out to him? REALLY???? Come on. Where was his ethical radar when he was writing these things -- not once, but a number of times. Where was the radar of the editors reading it???

    I think it's a very sorry indictment of the brain elite and their complete lack of understanding of people who didn't have the random "luck" they had to be born with a certain IQ.

    And has the NY Times magazine said anything about what they'll do differently in the future when one of their esteemed writers uses this language? I just did a quick Google search and nothing came up from the NY Times. The story has been covered by other bloggers but it doesn't seem to have penetrated the NY Times. And when I did the search, all those old stories in which Klosterman used the word retard so liberally popped up.

  5. I like this lady! I agree with "smilinjo" above!

  6. Ahh, a refreshing breeze of reasonability and humility. Not too often that it comes along.

    I figured I'd introduce myself to you in this post, as I've been reading for years but have never commented. Hopefully you'll forgive me for the massive post. My name is Emily, I'm 19 years old, and I'm a university student and a camp counselor. I started reading your blog because I spend so much time around children, and I'll admit I've come to a point where I get a bit sappy hearing people talk about kids.

    The most unexpected result of my following of this blog has been the tools it's given me. I coach summer camps that teach people to sail- a challenging skill for anyone, but especially rewarding for kids. After all, when you spend all your life with grown-ups telling you what to do, what's better than being the 'captain' of your own little boat?
    Our headquarters and classrooms are right next door to the local Disabled Sailing Association, where a close friend works. We share dock space and the two of us spend the majority of our time trying to prevent our students from accidentally committing a felony of some kind or another.
    It's great for kids from both groups to be able to interact with one another, but it does lead to the unfortunate side effect of the "awkward kid question." That's where this blog has come into play. It's given me the tools to be able to accurately and sensitively react to my kids' questions. Most useful, I've found, is the 'Why don't you go ask them about it?' tactic. Along with the reminders to use 'pleases' and 'thank-yous,' it's produced some outstanding results!

    So thank you. I hope to see some great blogging and some great Max adventures in the future!

  7. What a great outcome, and good for Mr. Klosterman. Still, like one of the commenters above, I don't believe that someone in this position ... a professional writer ... could possibly have been unaware that using the r-word might be unethical, until getting an email from Ms. Wagner-Peck. Which would mean that there was some length of time during which he knew better, but didn't change until now. It would be an extra help if Mr. Klosterman would address that publicly, as The Ethicist. Why is it that so many people have a time gap between being aware that something is wrong, and changing their behavior? Do people rationalize it for awhile? Is it defensiveness? Forgetfulness? Habit?

  8. Thank you for this interview. I am always thrilled when I see a new post from Kari, I follow her blog. Her writing is amazing and she is funny and smart and articulate. We share alot of the same views and I learn, from her on how to express them.
    Liz Tree

  9. Some words were not meant to be used. The R-word is one of them.


Thanks for sharing!

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