On Knowing Better and Doing Better

Oprah Winfrey said one time that Maya Angelou told her, “When you know better, you do better.” I think about that often when I reflect on the conversation over a decade ago when a friend told me that using the word “retarded” casually was not very respectful. Those words slapped me in the face and made me angry and I reflected on them for a long time before finally loosening up my mind and my heart to the truth. Why use the word if some people are hurt by it? WHY? It’s definitely not the most creative language in any situation.

After that, I knew better, so I did better.

Same goes here when one of you kind souls pointed out to me that the preferred language nowadays is “undocumented immigrant” not “illegal immigrant.” I have also recently heard the phrase “unauthorized migrant” which I haven’t really heard a lot about in terms of whether it is better or worse than “undocumented immigrant,” but I still know now that “illegal immigrant” is on my NO list of terms.

I’m doing better.

On a recent episode of Dear Hank and John, Hank talks about how we – as a culture – are trying to steer away from the casual use of “crazy” and “insane” in our language. Hank tells how John (his brother) encouraged him to not rely on the words “crazy” and “insane” so much on his upcoming book. So Hank said he did a Search And Replace function on his novel and he was reflecting on how often he used those words and how in every case, when he found a better word, it improved the text. This was new to me. ME! The girl who uses the hashtag #normalizementalhealth did not realize how hurtful those terms can be. And just like with the r-word several years ago, I’m realizing now how much I use the words “crazy” and “insane” in ways which could be hurtful. This is not language policing or protecting snowflakes, this is not pc-culture gone too far, this is not an attack on free speech. This is simply me learning that people in my community could be hurt by those words and therefore me training myself to choose other words. This is me realizing that casually using those words in a negative way adds to the stigma of mental illness and since I suffer, I should consider that I need to be erasing the stigma in every way I can. And man, when you start thinking about words like that you realize how much you use them.

“That ending was INSANE,” is me talking about a TV show and using a mental health indicator in a way that undermines the value of it in any actual mental health situation. I’m trying to be more aware of that and substitute a word like “mind-blowing” in that term, which is more descriptive anyway. Another commonly used phrase is, “This is making me crazy,” but for me that is often a very accurate statement indicating that my mental health is in jeopardy. But I am trying to be more aware of how cavalier those terms are used and trying to be more descriptive and less reliant on them.

This is me learning better, so that I can do better.

Very recently I saw a woman of color on Twitter snark on how hearing a white person mention her “tribe” is a surefire way for her to avoid further relationship building with that person. And I was flashed back to the shame I felt every other time I have had my language questioned. Dude, I use the word “tribe” regularly. And I was so embarrassed because of COURSE that word is going to carry more emotional impact to a person who has any ancestral tribal lineage. Especially if that lineage was interrupted by white people kidnapping their ancestors and selling them into slavery. It is also a term weighted in insult as in countries with tribal populations, it is often a synonym for “savage” and can be insulting. here’s more about the word if you would like to read on it. I mean, the second I thought about those words I knew the truth, it just had not hit me before. And again – it’s not that the word is 100% offensive to 100% of people in developing worlds or with tribal ancestry. But it turns out a large population dislikes the word and I see much truth in their hurt.

Now I know better.

And finally on the road to Language Learning in Zoot world, erasing the term “committed suicide” from my dictionary. This is a tragic subject that, unfortunately, I have had to discuss with relative frequency and I now know that the preferred term is “died by suicide.” This is a sad one to reflect upon, and a term I hope no one has to discuss as it relates to loved ones, but I’m glad I now understand the difference so that I can be respectful with my word choice in the future.

I’m in a constant state of education where language is concerned. If I go too long without learning to be better, I should be worried. I try to push back the shame of these lessons every time I’m confronted with them, and remember the words Maya Angelou taught Oprah, words that she used 43 times on her show, by her count, to help guests. “When you know better, do better.”

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