On 10 October, World Mental Health Day, I put out a note describing two lessons I had learnt about the power of language in mental health conversations. One of those lessons was concerning the use of the colour black to describe depression. The moot point was this: does equating black with mental illness (or other negative phenomena) perpetuate oppressive racial stereotypes?
It triggered a highly polarised conversation in the contribution section. One group of members thought that banning people from using the word ‘black’ to describe their illness would itself be oppressive, since it takes away the right to authentic expression. Instead, we should just be more mindful of the context in which we use it, and perhaps work towards a cultural and linguistic renaissance where the word can be rescued from its offensive connotations. After all, black is beautiful. Of course, this depends on our own subjectivity: some members who held this view admitted that they were from privileged (white) backgrounds.
The other point of view was that the human brain isn’t good at this kind of context-sensitive usage. If we use black to describe one kind of bad thing, the brain will automatically use it to describe other bad things, too. I chimed in by admitting that before our managing editor Eliza nudged me to think about it, I had never considered the problematic aspect of using black to describe my depression, even though I come from a country that was under colonial rule for 200 years. Perhaps my identity as a Brahmin - the highest caste in India - prevented me from seeing the problem. It had never even occurred to me to try and find an alternative word, so instinctive was the default use of black to paint my melancholia.
A couple of members proposed that instead of black, depression can be described as the lack of light. One member pointed out that there are two words in Dutch - donker and duister - of which the former is almost the same in meaning as the English word dark, whereas the latter is about the absence of light, without explicitly invoking blackness.
Another member raised a question that haunted me all week: whose right is more important? That of a person of colour? Or that of a mentally ill person? How do we decide whose marginalisation deserves more urgent remedy and greater sympathy?
My newsletter last week - which featured the story of a person with schizophrenia who refused to call it a "disability" - had raised similarly complex questions. Some readers told me that treating disability as a pejorative undermines their fight to embrace it as an integral part of their identity.
Luckily, around the time these debates were unfolding, I bumped into a tweet that led me to a website that lists problematic words - part of a construct called ableism - and explains when and why they ought to be avoided. I found this paragraph particularly powerful:
“Ableism is not a list of bad words. Language is *one* tool of an oppressive system. Being aware of language - for those of us who have the privilege of being able to change our language - can help us understand how pervasive ableism is. Ableism is systematic, institutional devaluing of bodies and minds deemed deviant, abnormal, defective, subhuman, less than. Ableism is *violence*.”
The key to appreciating that passage is to understand its appeal to those of us who have the privilege of being able to change our language. I for one have used words like “nuts”, “deluded”, and “manic” unconsciously - often in seemingly harmless contexts - without considering whether the job could be done just as competently by other words. Even as I write this, I am torn between “manic” and its alternative “wild”. A part of me still believes that the exact flavour that manic conveys is lost with wild. It is the part of me that militates against anything that forces me to make compromises with my ‘creative freedom’.
So, I may not be able to immediately expunge every word on that website from my vocabulary. But at least now I have access to a worldview that will inform my choices in a way that simply didn’t exist earlier.
As far as the question of defining your illness as a disability or not is concerned, I believe individual agency is paramount. No one else but you has the right to make this choice.
Meanwhile, can you think of a way to say black without saying black?