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The Power of Words


I have a confession to make. I really dislike “PC” language. It stressed me out worrying about whether or not I’m using the right words and it feels like they change all the time. But, as I’ve studied the topic of diversity and the power of language, I’ve realized that it’s not just the words we use, it’s the power behind those words.

I grew up in the 70’s. My father was black and my mother was white at a time when interracial marriage had just become legal. The racial world was changing but the language had not yet caught up. As a little girl, I went to my father one day and announced, “I’m mulatto”. He looked at me and said, “You’re black”. The one drop rule was still commonly used (If you had one drop of black blood, you were black.). The problem was, and is, I don’t look black – especially now in the days of flat irons. As a child, my hair was a kinky afro which made it at least believable for me to call myself black but now-a-days, in the age of white privilege, I can’t call myself black without a genealogy lesson following. Fortunately, for me, the term “biracial” now exists. Finally, there is a term I can use to describe my race without denying either side of my family.

The term “biracial” was powerful to me. It defined who I was accurately and non-pejoratively. It let me describe myself without denying a side of myself or “posing”. The same is true for others looking for terms to describe themselves that don’t make them feel bad about themselves.

So, what does that have to do with a blog about “mental illness”. Basically, I’ve realized the power of those words. It’s easy to think in terms of being mentally ill, as if that was your only reality but it's not. I have a mental illness. That is a part of my reality but only a small part. I also have brown hair. I have a family. I have a master’s degree. They are descriptions about me but when I say I am mentally ill that becomes who I am when I am so much more.

I have a friend who’s been struggling with the reality of having a mental illness. She’s stuck in the symptoms and pain. She’s falling into the trap of thinking that the illness she has defines her. It somehow makes her less than someone without the illness. That she’s broken. I reminded her she’s more than her illness. She’s stronger than her illness. When we think in terms of being mentally ill, there’s a fatalistic mentality that accompanies it but when we realize we simply have this illness, we can change our reality, improve on it.

I have brown hair – now. I had brown hair as a child and I have brown hair now but in the middle there, I had gray hair. There is nothing wrong with having gray hair but I wanted brown hair. There is nothing inherently wrong with having an illness but I choose to live beyond my illness. I will continue to get better, stronger. I may not be “cured” or, who knows? Maybe I will be but even now I will choose how I define myself.

There are many words we use to reclaim power. We talk of mental health instead of mental illness. We eschew labels altogether realizing we’re more than the labels applied to us. I don’t always like all the politically correct terms that have arisen over the last few decades but I understand the motivation behind them. And as long as they are empowering people, instead of demoralizing them, I support the effort.

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