3 Reasons to Find a Better Term Than ‘-Phobia’ to Describe Oppression

Closeup on a person gazing sadly into the camera as they rest their hands on their knees.

Closeup on a person gazing sadly into the camera as they rest their hands on their knees.

If you’re LGBTQIA+, there’s no doubt in my mind that you know firsthand the power of liberation and freedom to be oneself. While we all come into our identities at different times in our lives, with different experiences and journeys, we all understand the feeling of finally being “home.”

Of course, whether we’re shouting it loudly and proudly or circumstances force us to hide ourselves, being who we are comes at a price.

In an age where marriage equality is the law of the land in the US and some other countries – a feat many of our elders never imagined they’d see in their lifetimes – there is still much work to be done. We still experience higher rates of poverty, hate-based violence, and job and housing discrimination when compared to our heterosexual/romantic, cisgender counterparts.

And of course, even within our community, those rates vary. Bi+ (plus) folks have higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, and depression, among other things, than gay and lesbian people. The same is true for rates for trans people (of all orientations).

For years, through to today, we have named these oppressions as homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, or queerphobia. Other movements use phrases such as xenophobia, fatphobia, and Islamophobia.

It’s important to put a name to the systemic structures that marginalize us and have effects on our day-to-day living. This language is essential in the fight for liberation for all marginalized groups. I remember how empowering it was to have a name for the specific experiences and needs of the bi+ (plus) community.

Naming, well, just about anything in life – a spoon, a tree, a breed of dog – allows us to identify it. And in the case of oppression, being able to identify it allows us to tackle it head-on.

Unfortunately, in our quest to do so, we have chosen language that isn’t just problematic, but downright oppressive.

And I get it. Most of us were born into this language. Whether we belong to the communities who use this language or we’re just allies, it has informed much of our experiences – how we began to understand inequality, how we talk about the discrimination we experience, and how we relate to others with similar oppression.

But Islamophobia, transphobia, and other constructions that use “-phobia” as a suffix erase the fact that “phobias” are a real thing that happen to real people. Those of us who use these terms know all too well the damage that erasure can do in the fight to achieve liberation and social equity.

Regardless of good intentions, at the end of the day, it’s not okay to build our righteous movements on the backs of other marginalized people. Further, in choosing inaccurate, inadequate language, we harm ourselves as well.

So, here, I outline a few ways that using “-phobia” as a suffix can be oppressive – and I want to offer alternatives that can strengthen our intersectional struggles for freedom.

1. Phobias Are Real Mental Disabilities

I’ve talked a lot about my multiple disabilities throughout my work as a freelance writer. I use a cane in public. I have depression and PTSD. I live with a learning disability. I wasn’t born into disability, so it took me some time to understand myself as disabled, but I’ve found an amazingly resilient community, diverse in racial identity, age, sexual orientation, and even in our disabilities themselves.

One thing I almost never talk about, though, is my phobia. I won’t name it. Even thinking about it can be triggering. Plus, Internet trolls are a thing.

Phobias aren’t really something you hear much about, except as an exploitative tabloid episode on shows hosted by the likes of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer.

Like all marginalized groups, disabled folks have little representation in the media and in real-life institutions. This is reflected in how we are portrayed, talked about, and treated. Mental disabilities – from schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder to bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder – are particularly notorious for being misconstrued and inaccurately and harmfully portrayed, usually just for ratings (read: money).

For example, I’m a huge fan of CBS’s Criminal Minds, but its modus operandi is literally: “What mental illness does this week’s killer have?” We are pathologized, mocked, and criminalized. And that’s if we show up on screens and in spaces at all.

Phobias are virtually invisible in society outside of the aforementioned daytime talk show segments.  But the fact of the matter is that we are real.

We exist. We navigate this world, to the best of our abilities, every single day. We’re on disability. We work. We find love and sex, if we desire those things. We have dreams. We struggle.

And our lived experiences and truths deserve dignity and respect, not the further erasure and trivialization that phrases like “-phobia” actively perpetuate.

The use of “-phobia” as a suffix erodes the dictionary meaning of the word, but more importantly, it is one tool that helps society forget that phobias are real phenomena that affect real people every day, some of whom, like myself and my friends, are queer and trans.

2. Language Is Part of the History (and Present) of Ableism

Many of us understand the pain and power of hurtful language. Some of us have been bullied. Some of us have been bullies. Of course, some people would never admit that words can hurt.

Whether it’s the older kid who won’t stop badgering you about your fucked up family situation, the parent who innocently suggests that your jeans have gotten too small, or the coworker who always insists on making snide remarks in front of the boss, the language people use – intentionally or not – can cut deep.

But that’s just on a personal level.

In a society built on hierarchical systems of power – wherein one group dominates over another in all institutions – words are more than just personal. They have a political effect on our day-to-day lives.

Of course, when people think of the “powerful tools” that those “in charge” wield, their minds may conjure up offshore bank accounts where the 1% hold their money; election rigging; or using the law to legislate against marijuana, criminalize sex workers, and re-enslave Black people through the prison industrial complex.

But there are many gadgets in the toolbox of oppression. And language is, and always has been, one of them. And this truth is no different for disabled folks than it is for people of color, immigrants, queer and trans folks, or other marginalized groups.

The direct power of harmful, oppressive language is the sociopsychological effect it has, both on the privileged and the marginalized. Derogatory slurs and phrases are dehumanizing. They treat those who are different as “other” – defective compared to the standard.

For the marginalized, they remind us of these “truths.” Even for the strongest among us, they have an effect on our self-worth and dignity, which can affect how we move in the world and how we see ourselves as well as each other.

For those aligned with the oppressor, language emboldens them with the “truth” of their superiority and purity and the inferiority and tainted nature of the “other.” And you don’t have to be a KKK member, “men’s rights activist,” or president of the Family Research Council to get these beliefs ingrained into your mind.

All you have to do is be born into an oppressive society. Which you are.

For those of us who are disabled, ableist language – which is, remember, rooted in a belief that we are inferior – marks us as less than, assigning value to us (or rather, taking our value and dignityaway) based on our different abilities. It’s one thing to say I have depression and PTSD, but you’re communicating something very different when you say I’m insane or crazy based on my diagnoses.

A person, like me, with a learning disability, is a “moron” or “stupid.” A deaf person is “dumb.” A person with cerebral palsy is “ret*rded.” A person with a disability that affects their legs or feet is “lame.”

These terms are very old and they are directly linked to the historical oppression of disabled people. We were institutionalized, sterilized, abandoned, neglected, murdered – by our families, our schools, our doctors, and our government. This is the language they used to remind us and our allies of our “place” in society, our inherent inferiority, and our worthlessness.

Like oppressive language for other marginalized people, the damage of the sociopsychological effects is that it goes beyond those hurtful interpersonal exchanges mentioned above.

In a society where disabled folks are associated with all of the above words and more, along with all of the qualities associated with those things, what happens when we apply for a job? When we date? When we seek out education? When we search for access to important resources? What happens when we interact with the police?

The same thing that happens to other marginalized groups: We meet the gatekeepers, those with social privilege and those marginalized folks with internalized oppression, who deny us our humanity based on an oppressive society’s idea of what we deserve – which is to say, nothing.

Further, the appalling history of disabled people – our forebears subject to eugenics, institutionalization, and denial of our rights and bodily autonomy – shows just how deep the roots of oppression are. All of that ugliness is connected to language as a tool of oppression.

You may not think that you’re calling up social memories of sterilization when you say “dumb” or “ret*rded,” but you are.

And continuing to use “-phobia” language contributes to this well-oiled machine, too.

3. It Does a Disservice to Our Struggles

It has been said by some that fear is the root of hate.

Deep down, those who hate are really just afraid. For some, the fear is of a changing world – that they will be left behind and forgotten. For others, the fear is of the unknown – of people, things, and experiences different from their own. And for others still, the fear is of themselves – the feelings and possibilities they’re unable to explore. The mere thought of their whole worldview unraveling is just too much to bear.

I, for one, believe that there’s a lot of truth to that. In fact, it is the truth – but it isn’t the whole truth. And that’s part of what makes “-phobia” an inadequate use of language.

As has been noted previously, oppression is surprisingly intricate. There are many moving parts that make it work the way it’s supposed to – to uphold the status quo and prevent the liberation of those who are marginalized.

When we use language to name oppression that doesn’t fully capture the impact of what the system does to us, the language loses some of its power as a tool for liberation.

I’m sure you’ve probably run across a person in a comment section who said, “Well, I’m not scared of [identity], I just…”

And while it’s true that people with social privilege will always find a way to invalidate the language we use and how we use it – because they must invalidate who we are and our struggle in order to uphold the status quo – the better our language tells the truth of what we’re trying to express, the easier it is for us to advocate for ourselves and bring us to a point of liberation.

That is to say, while fear is behind much of the oppression we face, it’s not the whole story. It’s not even the primary story. The language we use should reflect that.

When we say what we’re actually talking about, it paints a more accurate picture for our movements and our allies of our needs. It makes our goal clearer, which makes it that much easier to accomplish.

Further, “-phobia” as a suffix ultimately centers the oppressor instead of the oppressed. The language becomes about their fear instead of our struggle.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m quite tired of privileged people being the center of attention.

***

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve used “-phobia” language myself – quite a lot in fact. I’m sure most of us have.

Today, though, communities that have historically used “-phobia,” like the LGBTQIA+ community, have begun to recognize the harmful nature of the term – and have begun to move away from it.

Many people, including yours truly, now use “-antagonistic.” The verb to antagonize means “to cause (someone) to be hostile” and comes from the Greek word for “struggle against.”

From the queer and trans communities to Muslims and fat people, that is literally our experience. Our existence and identities cause the majority culture to be hostile toward us and, as a result, we struggle against them – for our humanity, our dignity, and our liberation.

But we can never be free until we’re all free – and this includes folks with disabilities. So it’s imperative that we begin to deliberately abandon “-phobia” once and for all.

Denarii (rhymes with “canary”) Monroe is an aspiring screenwriter, freelance writer, and a weirdo. She’s a Rutgers University alum and has written for BlogHer, Black Girl Dangerous, and is a current regular contributor for Ravishly. She loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as soul food, red wine, cooking and baking, and the blues. Hanson is her favorite band ever (yes, *that* Hanson). Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.