Reclamation: Marginalised Bodies, Self Labeling, and Empowerment

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.

5 Replies to “Reclamation: Marginalised Bodies, Self Labeling, and Empowerment”

  1. Personally, I feel the same way about the word bastard. It reminds me of the occasional selfishness of my behavior; its a reality check. Being a “bastard” is also empowering in some ways because it is necessary to be a selfish bastard sometimes, and if I wasn’t, I’d just be a sad, lonely person, no matter how well loved I was.
    However, though you’re right about the reclamation of language in most cases, but what concerns me is, that there are times when the reclamation of language by a person or group, can slow progress away from the negative words that we can self identify with. Its true that labeling these word as negative is partially the problem, but there are terms that I associate with myself that seem more like apathy than reclamation. Sometimes we reclaim words not as empowering language, but as safety language, to serve as the justification for the things we don’t like or understand about ourselves. Sometimes we use this language because it has been applied to us for so long that we believe it accurate.

  2. Yes, that’s key; is it really ‘reclamatory’ if we are applying a pejorative to ourselves because we believe it to be true? ‘Safety language’ is a really good way to frame it. Sometimes I feel like I call myself [x] so that people can’t call me that because I’ve already applied the label, which isn’t really a very reclamatory use of language at all.

  3. What about someone in a marginalized group using language in a pejorative context that could also be reclamatory? For example, suppose a queer person says something like “ugh I can’t wear that clothing, it makes me look like a dyke”. When I once heard that, I was going to call out the person on ou pewjorative language, until I realized ou identifies as queer. Given that I possess straight privilege, I felt it was not my business to police the language of a queer person, but then again, such language can have pejorative effects. As another example, I sometimes use “crazy” in a negative/pejorative way about myself, even though I also use “crazy” reclamatorily.

  4. Astrid, the short version is: If the person is using the word as self-identification it’s fine. If the person is a member of the group the word is used against it can be uncomfortable but it’s complicated so it’s hard to know what to do and I’d be inclined to let it go. If I knew a queer woman who said something like that I might ask gently why she thought looking like a dyke was a bad thing.

    If the person saying it were not a member of the group the word is used against — and being a member of a super-group but not the sub-group does not give a person license to use a word and defend themselves as having meant it in a reclamatory sense — say, in your example, the person is queer: a cis binary gay man. (I’ve heard men say this often enough it’s a cliché.) In this case the use is strictly pejorative and not even complicated. I might do the same thing and ask why he thought looking like a dyke was a bad thing, only a whole lot less gently.

  5. Thanks K0 for the clarification. I would think in case of doubt (as in, not sure whether the person belongs to the appropriate minority subgroup, as was the case in the example I gave), it’s appropriate to let it go or ask gently about the rasons behind the maybe–pejorative language? I would think more caution is needed if you possess privilege, because you’d run the risk of reinforcing the idea that the majority dictates what the minority should find offensive.

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