My Words, Your Words, Our Words: On Reclamation

Reclamatory language is a subject of nearly endless debate in society as people argue over who gets to use it, whether it should be used at all, where it should be used, and how it should be used. It’s a subject that has no one right, easy, or unconflicted answer, which makes it even more challenging to talk about, because many people seek for neat, tidy solutions and the discussion about reclamatory language doesn’t offer that kind of satisfaction. Yet, it’s an important conversation to have, and to understand, especially for people interacting with minority groups who might not understand their relationship with the reclamatory use of slurs.

Taking slurs back — reclaiming them and turning them into terms of solidarity, empowerment, shibboleths, or insider commentary — is critical for some marginalised groups and some people who belong to them. One of the most famous examples of reclamatory language is probably the N-word among Black men and women, but there’s also bitch among women and people read as such, crip among disabled people, fag among the gay community, and the T-word among trans women. At some point, reclamation can reach a critical mass, turning a slur into something deeper and more powerful, a weapon against hatred rather than a tool for expressing it, and that becomes an incredibly empowering thing.

Yet, reclamatory language isn’t necessarily for everyone. Some gay people, for example, especially in the older generation, are uncomfortable with words like ‘fag’ or the larger rise of ‘queer’ as a slang term and identity category, remembering acutely when these terms were used against them. Likewise, not all disabled people feel comfortable referring to themselves as crips, or to hearing the term used around them, just as some people are opposed to the use of ‘crazy’ within the mentally ill community. The debate within these communities over language has been particularly harshly illustrated this year with the swirl of controversy over the T-word.

The T-word has long been used as a slur against the transgender, transsexual, and gender-noncomforming world in general, but it takes on a special connotation with respect to trans women, when it becomes an expression of transmisogyny. Because trans women bear the brunt of transphobia in society and culture, with the highest risk of being raped, physically assaulted, profiled, and discriminated against because of their gender, many argue (and I agree) that the word belongs to them, and that they should decide when and how it should be used in a reclamatory fashion. Others don’t share that belief — RuPaul, for example, put up an impassioned defense of her right to use the word when the trans community challenged its presence on RuPaul’s Drag Race. 

Who is right and who is wrong here? It’s not a question with a simple, neat answer — for older drag queens, for example, the T-word was absolutely used as a slur and was absolutely used in threatening, dangerous situations. It’s a word with very real and intense connotations for them — but should they respect the wishes of trans women who are concerned about the dilution of the word’s power? And within the community of trans women, what about those who don’t want to see the word used at all, period, not even in a reclamatory way?

Part of the problem with reclamatory language is that it can mislead outsiders into thinking that this language is okay to use, or to employ in solidarity campaigns — thus, people jump to adopt and echo language that isn’t theirs to use. This could be framed as a failure of communication, but it’s better treated as a failure of understanding and respect. The knowledge that a word is a slur should be enough for people who aren’t personally affected by that slur to stop short before using it, considering whether it’s really appropriate for them to employ in their language when they’re talking about another group of people or expressing solidarity with a community.

Some communities that advocate for the use of reclamatory language argue that it should only be used in safer spaces within the community, rather than in the world at large. This serves as both a way to create community and solidarity, and also a method for avoiding the normalisation of such words, discouraging their use by outsiders by ensuring outsiders don’t hear them. Others feel this defeats the point, because the best way to push back on a slur is to use it, is to be loud, out, and proud about owning it and flipping it on its head. There’s a reason that the N-word is employed so heavily in rap, for example; it’s not being used for shock value or to offend, but to make a comment.

Some seem to fear that reclamatory language is othering, that the use of coded language and creation of in-group solidarity makes outsiders feel isolated or unwanted. This suggests, though, that minorities are responsible for creating space for dominant cultures, rather than the other way around. If hearing reclamatory language makes people feel uncomfortable or like they’re not part of the club, perhaps it should — the whole point is that minority communities have been isolated, discriminated against, and treated like garbage for generations, and now they’re forming their own communities, with their own strengths, including the power to take language back.

Ultimately, the decision to use reclamatory language lies with the individual, but it should be done in a state of cultural awareness. People who employ it as outsiders might want to reflect on whether that’s advisable, while members of minority groups might think carefully about the larger debates in their communities over the use of reclamatory language and how it applies to them — as a queer person, should I be using ‘fag,’ because it applies to a similar minority? I’d argue not, just as I don’t use the T-word, because I’m not a trans woman, although I share some aspects of the trans experience. And while I freely use ‘crip’ and ‘crazy,’ I wouldn’t use them around fellow disabled and mentally ill people who felt uncomfortable, alienated, or upset by the use of those words, because I owe my own community a duty of care that runs deeper than my personal politics.

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Image credit: Trashy Bitch, Jes, Flickr.