Of course we don't allow students to use pejorative epithets in school. (The original title of this post was "The real problem with epithets." Then I remembered that epithets are a literary device commonly found in epic poetry.) I fancy myself an intellectual, so until recently, when a student said, "What's wrong with calling someone 'gay'?", I would tell them in excruciating detail. For the student, it probably sounded like: "Because when you zzzzz...."
Then I tried overcompensating the other way. "Because I said not to. It's my classroom, and I don't want to hear that kind of language. When you have your own classroom, you can use whatever language your morals and your lawyers decide is acceptable." "But..." "We can talk about it further in detention tomorrow evening, if you'd like. But I'm done talking about it now."
But Ta-Nehisi Coates, an actual intellectual, one who writes quite intelligibly about the complicated state of race relations in the US, and in the meantime has a lot to say about language and how it's shaped by (and shapes) our thinking, has the perfect sentence. It encapsulates both the ethics of my lecture, and the brevity of my discipline-based approach. (It's even better, because it's shorter.)
"[...I]t's always wrong to treat individuals as a 'collection of others.'"
I think I'll get it on a T-shirt.