That is not your word: Reclamatory language and who gets to use it

I was in conversation with someone recently then this person casually used a slur in reference to a group of people to which this person does not belong. I was surprised — this person tends to be socially conscious, thinks about issues of language and culture, and is aware of systems of power and oppression. I felt my stomach clench with surprise in the recordscratch moment, and this person didn’t seem to realise that I was hung up on that word, not following anything that might have been said afterwards.

‘Do not use that word in my presence ever again,’ I said, coldly, at that point not really caring that I was being That Person.

‘But I know people who self identify that way.’

‘Do not,’ I said, through clenched teeth, ‘use that word around me ever again. That is a slur. You do not belong to that group. If people self identify that way to reclaim autonomy and take language back, that is their right. It is not your right.’

The rest of our interaction was awkward, stiff, and I found a reason to leave shortly thereafter, still reeling. The experience troubled me for days, as it spoke to a larger issue: More and more marginalised groups are using reclamatory language. Consequently, more and more people in positions of power and privilege are hearing those words, and they are mistakenly thinking that those words are for them — because they hear them, because their ‘friends’ identify that way. This isn’t a hipster -ism, but a belief that it’s somehow okay, and sometimes actively contributing to social justice, because this is taking the sting out of these words.

No. The way people take the sting out of these words is by reclaiming them for themselves, not by having other people use them. I have Black friends who use the n-word. I do not. Because that is not my word. Some of the trans women I know use the t-word. I do not, because it is not my word, and while some people might say it applies to ‘all’ trans people, it is transparently aimed at trans women and it is an outgrowth of transmisogyny. It is not my word. I know and interact with lots of people from marginalised groups to which I do not belong who either self identify with or use words that have historically been used as slurs, and I don’t use those words unless by explicit invitation, and usually only in very specific situations.

Honestly, some words I would have a hard time using at all. Because they are not my words.

I am not in the business of policing self-identification — some people self-identify with words I view as slurs, and in some cases those words speak to issues that makes me think about internalised -isms and social structures of power and oppression. I think here of terms like ‘differently abled’ and ‘special needs.’ But I also identify with words some people view as slurs, including members of my own community — I am proudly crazy, I am queer, I belong to #cripthevote. When other crazy people call me crazy, it is solidarity, it is pride, it is community. When sane people call me that, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. When they claim that it’s justified because it’s how I self identify, or because I use the word, I question whether they are actually my friends. I self identify as crazy within my own community, but I self identify as mentally ill when we are talking about larger cultural structures.

I self identify as crazy because I am using reclamatory language and I want to slap society in the face. When society calls me crazy, it is punching down. When members of the queer community call me queer, it is similarly an act of defiance. When straight people call me that, it feels very different to me. It feels uncomfortable and wrong, because it comes with a sting.

Everyone feels differently about reclamatory language and word use. Some people do actively encourage their friends and society in general to use reclamatory words, but it unsettles me because I cannot immediately tell the difference between consent and carelessness, between explicit invitation and a lack of understanding. Not all words are for all places, and even in cases where people have invited those in power to use words that carry loaded implications, those in power should think very carefully about whether, and how, they should use them. And should consider the fact that just because one person says it’s okay doesn’t mean all members of a group feel the same way.

Because we live in a culture where those words do have loaded implications, and where ignoring that is dangerous. So a trans woman uses the t-word and wants you to call her that and describe her that way. When you talk in a mixed group, what kind of message are you sending? Are you affirming her identity, or signaling that it is okay to use the t-word to refer to trans women? Are you reiterating that transphobia is an acceptable part of culture? Because I think you know the answer to these questions, and if you don’t, perhaps you should do some serious thinking about what you are reinforcing with your language.

Image: Words, Pierre Metivier, Flickr