These Common Words are Offensive: Why?

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The U.S. has undeniably seen a rise in polarized perspectives. Simple acts of politeness are now sometimes misconstrued as political statements, with some on the extreme right using "woke" as a blanket term for any views diverging from theirs.


Gen Z often finds themselves at the receiving end of various critiques, ranging from being called overly sensitive to "soft." Yes, navigating the ever-changing landscape of what's considered offensive can be perplexing.

But why is it worth the effort to stay updated?

Language is an ever-evolving entity. Meanings change, words and sayings come and go, while others enjoy a renaissance. Though many words hold onto their core meanings, our societal journey toward greater empathy and understanding has highlighted that some words can cause hurt, perpetuate negative stereotypes, or lead to misinterpretations.

So, which terms might be seen as potentially insensitive? The list below, while not exhaustive, aims to shed light on a more considerate use of language, emphasizing the importance of understanding their effects on others, and suggesting alternatives:

Pow wow

Rooted in the Narragansett word "powwaw", it's historically a gathering of North American Indigenous people celebrating their culture. So, using it to mean a casual chitchat or workplace banter feels a little off, doesn't it?

Instead of dropping this term on a casual convo, you’re better off using simple words like "meeting," "gathering," "conference," or "discussion" when talking about getting together with other people.

Spirit animal

A "spirit animal" is a concept that originates from various Indigenous cultures around the world, including Native American and First Nations traditions. It refers to an animal that is believed to have a special and personal connection with an individual, often guiding and protecting them spiritually. This concept is deeply rooted in these cultures' spiritual beliefs and practices.

For many Indigenous communities, this term is deeply sacred. So, next time you're tempted to say pizza is your spirit animal, consider using “muse” or “inspiration” instead.

Crazy or insane

These terms have historically been used to belittle and demean people with mental health conditions, contributing to the discrimination and misunderstanding they often experience.

On the other hand, using the phrase "person with a mental health condition" is more respectful and inclusive. This phrasing emphasizes that an individual's mental health condition is just one aspect of who they are and doesn't define their entire identity. It recognizes their humanity, individuality, and the fact that they are dealing with a medical condition, similar to any other health issue.

And when using “crazy” as an adjective, alternatives like bizarre, absurd, wild, unreal, strange, and fantastic also work. There are actually plenty of options when it comes to taking "crazy" out of your vocabulary.

Off the res

"Off the res" is a slang phrase that originally comes from the term "off the reservation." In historical contexts, Native American reservations were areas of land set aside for Indigenous peoples by the U.S. government after the U.S. stole the land that was originally theirs. The phrase "off the reservation" was often used to describe Native Americans who left the boundaries of the reservation without permission, which was sometimes seen as a violation of government policies.

Using the phrase "off the res" or "off the reservation" in a casual manner today is considered offensive and disrespectful. “Going rogue” or “unorthodox” might be what you're looking for.

Non-white

Using the term "non-white" can be problematic because it defines individuals based on their lack of whiteness, which reinforces a white-centric perspective as the norm. This term can unintentionally marginalize and otherize people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds by placing them in relation to whiteness. Instead of using "non-white," you can use terms like:

  • People of Color: This term refers to individuals who belong to a racial or ethnic group other than white. It acknowledges and respects the diverse backgrounds and experiences of different groups.
  • Racial and Ethnic Minorities: While this term may not be ideal in all contexts, it's still more neutral than "non-white" and recognizes that certain groups have historically held less societal power and privilege.
  • Underrepresented Groups: This term acknowledges that certain racial and ethnic groups are not as well-represented in various contexts, such as education or employment.
  • Specific Racial or Ethnic Groups: Instead of using a blanket term, you can refer to specific racial or ethnic groups by name, such as Black, Asian, Indigenous, Latino/Latina/Latine, etc.
  • Global Majority: This term highlights the fact that the majority of the world's population is made up of people of color, providing a more balanced perspective than the "non-white" framing.

Sold down the river

"Sold down the river" is a saying that originated from the history of slavery in the United States, specifically referring to the practice of selling enslaved individuals from the upper South to the lower South via the Mississippi River. This phrase is now used to express being betrayed or deceived by someone you trusted.

Using this term casually makes light of a painful history and trivializes the suffering of enslaved people. Instead, choose other expressions like "betrayed" or "let down" to avoid perpetuating hurtful historical connections and to show sensitivity towards people's experiences.

Exotic

Using the term "exotic" to describe people, cultures, or things from different or non-Western backgrounds is problematic because it often objectifies and fetishizes those aspects, reducing them to something unusual, foreign, or otherworldly in comparison to a perceived Western or Eurocentric norm. Instead of using "exotic," you can use terms like:

  • Culturally Rich/Diverse: Highlight the uniqueness and variety of different cultures without reducing them to being "exotic."
  • Distinctive: Emphasize the unique qualities of a culture or thing without implying that it is strange or foreign.
  • Rich in Tradition/Heritage: Focus on the historical and cultural significance of a particular aspect without turning it into a curiosity.
  • Global/International: Emphasize the global reach and diversity of cultures without singling out anyone as "exotic."
  • Traditional/Authentic: When discussing cultural practices, using terms that highlight their traditional or authentic nature can be more appropriate.

Homeless

Using the term "homeless" can be dehumanizing and stigmatizing because it reduces individuals to their housing status and neglects the complexities of their situations. It's important to use language that respects their dignity and acknowledges their humanity.

Instead of using "homeless," you can use more person-centered and empathetic language like “person experiencing homelessness,” “people facing housing instability,” or “those in need of housing.”

Sex change

Using the term "sex change" is considered outdated and insensitive when discussing gender-affirming medical procedures or the process of transitioning. This term implies a simplistic and inaccurate understanding of the complex and multifaceted process that transgender individuals go through to align their gender identity with their physical appearance. It can also perpetuate the harmful idea that a person's gender identity is solely determined by their physical attributes, which is not the case

Instead of using "sex change," you can use more respectful and accurate language like “transition” or “gender-affirming surgery.”

Language is powerful, and the way we choose to express ourselves can make a world of difference in fostering understanding and empathy. Despite the demonization that’s occurring to the simple act of being respectful of the experiences of others and aware of the harm words can cause, choosing to make different language choices isn’t “soft,” it’s just basic human decency.

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