Today, I’d like to delve into an aspect of the discussion about language which I haven’t really talked about before, because I thought it was self evident. Only, as so often occurs when I make an assumption, I was wrong. There seems to be a profound lack of understanding about what reclamatory language is, how it is used, who uses it, and what function it serves.
This post marks a bit of a return to 101 style content for me, because I very much think of reclamatory language as a 101 issue. It’s something which people who are active in social justice communities should be very aware of when they are going to engage in discussions about not just language, but identity, at any level.
Reclamatory language is language with pejorative connotations which people with marginalised identities use to identify themselves. Language which has been used as an insult, and which is still used as an insult today, can be reclaimed through the use of reclamatory language.
This is not an idea which I initially believed in. I felt that some words were too far gone to reclaim, and that people who used reclamatory language were wrong and undermining their own cause. Fortunately, I realised that I was wrong, and that what I was doing was simply engaging in policing of other people. Telling people who use language to self identify in a reclamatory way that they are wrong, that they are using bad language, and that they are hurting their cause is profoundly not helpful. If you haven’t done it yet, please don’t do it. If you are doing it now, please stop.
Here are some examples of language I use in a reclamatory way: Fat. Crazy. Bitch.
I use these words to describe myself because I want to take them back from people who use them as pejoratives and pithy epithets. And because I identify with them. I am not portly, stout, pleasantly plump, fluffy, curvy, or any number of other euphemisms, for example. I am fat. When I own my identity, when I embrace it, when I look it in the eye in the mirror, I empower myself.
Reclamatory language is tricky. It is not language which is ok to apply to other people without consent. When I see another person with mental illness(es), I don’t call that person crazy. Maybe that person doesn’t self label as crazy. Maybe that person does, but doesn’t know that I self label and feel kinship with that person. Maybe that person thinks that I am just hurling an epithet. And maybe I am in a space where use of reclamatory language doesn’t have a reclamatory meaning, where using it reinforces problematic beliefs, or suggests to people that it is ok to use.
For example, I used ‘crazy’ recently when discussing the Lost episode ‘Recon,’ talking about the depiction of mental illness on the show and, specifically, the ‘crazy ladies‘ of Lost. I did so because I was in my own space, where I can use that word in the context of social commentary, with care. I am allowed to do that; it’s my word, it’s my space, you are my guest. Someone who does not use that word in a reclamatory way? Would do well to think twice before employing it.
When I call myself a ‘bitch,’ I do so with conscious rejection of the pejorative associations with that word, and with some of the gendered ones too. I am a bitch even though I am not female-identified. When I call someone a bitch at that person’s explicit invitation to do so, in a safe space for us, it is a mutual celebration of our identity and our rejection of certain social attitudes. We are bitches together. It feels good.
If you do not identify with a marginalised group, you had better be very, very, very careful about how you use reclamatory language used by that group. This language is part of a vocabulary of insiders. As a person with privilege, you aren’t an insider. And when you use that language, it becomes hurtful, unless you are specifically invited to do so, and you do so with the knowledge of how reclamatory language works, and what your role in systems of privilege and oppression is. After reading this post, for example, you have my permission to call me fat. Because I understand that you know how I am using the word, and why I am using it, and that it has positive, not negative, associations for me, because it is empowering for me to take hold of my identity.
But when someone shouts ‘fattie!’ at me while I cross the street? I have no way of knowing if that person is a member of the size acceptance movement and is crying out in solidarity, or if that person is saying ‘look at that disgusting fat person crossing the street.’ When someone says ‘what a fucking bitch’ in response to something I say, that’s not empowering or reclamatory. It’s derogatory. Even though I self label with that word and embrace it as a part of me, that’s not how the word is intended in this case, and the meaning shifts. Just like when people call me it as an insult because they want to deride my gender.
Language is slippery stuff. There’s a reason that there are entire academic disciplines dedicated to language, that people can spend months picking apart and exploring a single word. I love language and I love words, obviously, or I wouldn’t be a writer, and I especially love exploring the ways in which language slips, changes, evolves. The way in which people use language, and the way in which language becomes both weaponised and positivised. Language is cool stuff, folks.
And thus, when we get into discussions about language and we say things like ‘this word is hurtful, please be careful about how you use it,’ we do not mean ‘this word should be eliminated from everyone’s vocabulary.’ What we mean, specifically, is ‘if you have privilege, you had better think carefully about how you use this word and what you mean by it, and if you do not, are your uses of the word unwittingly contributing to oppressive structures?’
The one thing that we are not saying? That we will never say? Is that people shouldn’t use that word to self label. Because that is a denial of identity, and it is disempowerment. It is policing, and it is wrong.