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Let’s be honest: contrary to much of our current media coverage, most people value courteous and productive communication. Most of us don’t aim to offend anyone purposely and we’re fully aware of the slurs and derogatory phrases to avoid, especially when it concerns minority groups. But the problems arise when we are not aware that a phrase or word is actually discriminatory and hurtful. Sarah Jones, one of my favorite comedians has one of my favorite examples of this reality. In one of her performances as an elderly woman, she says, “When you’re standing up here you can see all the different people, it’s like a rainbow.” And then she pauses and says. “It’s okay to say rainbow? Yes? I just, I can’t keep up with whether you can say, you know, the different things. What are you allowed to say or not say…”
It triggers audience laughs, and I myself laugh for the thirtieth time watching it, but these are knowing laughs. Jones pointedly illustrates the problem of feeling like we’re walking on eggshells, hesitant to unwittingly offend. It is a legitimate concern since many of our idioms and well-meaning comments are actually quite problematic, but also deeply engrained in our speech patterns. So here are a couple rules of thumb on how to avoid unintentionally offensive language when speaking about, and to, minorities.
Tip 1: Don’t use someone’s identity or condition as a derogatory remark.
This one should go without saying, but I still so often hear it used. “That’s so gay” is a resounding example where the word “gay” is essentially used to mean “stupid” or “bad.” To be fair most people trying to be conscious of their words have picked up on this and avoid the phrasing. But I’ve noticed that even the most inclusive, aware, and progressive people still tend to slip up here when it comes to the disability community. The phrase “that’s schizophrenic” is used so casually, I’ve heard it referring to anything from the weather to political parties. But that is a problem.
Schizophrenia is a serious and complex mental health condition with a variety of symptoms. According to Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America, 3.5 million Americans have schizophrenia and “it is one of the leading causes of disability.” As with most other illnesses, there is a spectrum of severity and a spectrum of symptoms, including hallucinations, delusions, lack of affect, and garbled speech. Not all of these have to be present for a diagnosis and many people who have schizophrenia can, and do, lead productive and fulfilling lives with the proper treatment and care. Yet when someone says “that’s so schizophrenic” they are reducing a whole diverse set of human experiences to mean “incoherent” or “volatile.” It is not only linguistically lazy and inaccurate, but it is demeaning.
There is no need to turn someone’s condition or identity into an insult, and luckily, it’s quite an easy thing to notice and avoid. When it comes to the next tip, it’s a little bit harder to catch yourself doing it.
Tip 2: Don’t impose your feelings on others.
What do I mean by that? I’ll take the disability community as an example again. We often hear of so-and-so suffering from Parkinson’s or depression or insert any other condition you please. At first glance that phrase seems perfectly innocuous, but the tell-tale problem word is “suffer.” It’s always well-meant, but if you are saying that someone is suffering from their condition you are immediately imposing one single view of their life, namely a negative one.
Now don’t take me wrong. There certainly are plenty of people who do feel like they are suffering, but that is something for them to articulate, and not for you to impose on them. So when in doubt about someone’s subjective experience, don’t assume their feelings. If someone has a condition, just say that so-and-so has a condition. There is no need to use words with strong emotional connotations, especially since the ones usually used have strong negative connotations. Another similar example is the phrase “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” Again, people using wheelchairs may or may not feel confined to them. A lot of this language is rooted in an ableist perspective that implies the feelings of the speaker, not the feelings of the person spoken about.
Even outside the context of minorities, it’s a good rule of thumb to not impose your feelings on others. Think of the last time you congratulated your friend on a break-up to find out he wasn’t so happy about it.
Tip 3: Don’t frame ordinary things as extraordinary.
Similar to the last tip, being super impressed by relatively ordinary things when they concern minorities should also be a red flag in your quest to stop being inadvertently offensive. I’ve had several of my black friends roll their eyes when a well-meaning person told them how articulate they were for not much more than speaking in complete sentences. This intended compliment that’s more akin to an insult stems from the unexamined perception that the minority in question isn’t as smart or accomplished as you, or that their needs and goals and interests are so unlike yours.
I asked friends in the disability community what language they wished people would refrain from and several echoed the issue with disproportionate praise in light of small things. The term “inspiration” is often over-used in that community, as is the term “special.” But perhaps Alec Frazier explained it best when he said, “I am fine with referring to my need to meet Stan Lee as a special need. My need to be accommodated like anyone in the planet with or without disabilities isn’t very special. In fact, it’s quite mundane.”
At the heart of all these tips is the premise that everyone would like to be approached as a peer—someone with an equally rich inner life as ours, with the same needs and desires and capacity for accomplishment. Just like obviously derogatory language isn’t the way to go, neither is excessive praise. So next time you’d prefer not to be inadvertently offensive, just approach people as your equals.