Reclaiming derogatory terms: empowering or harmful?

Content Warning: offensive language

Slurs, profanity and derogatory terms. Should they have a place in our day to day discourse? Frequently there is an argument that reclaiming terms that were once used to oppress as a means to empower is today a necessity, in both an acknowledgement of history and a demonstration of change. But can anything truly be reclaimed?

It is essential that the history of oppressed groups is not forgotten. Allowing this would be a categorical injustice to identity, and the reclaiming of previously derogatory terms is arguably becoming a critical part of that, and of the formation of identity. Plights such as those of the suffragettes, women who weren’t allowed education or told they couldn’t write, cannot be allowed to slip through the cracks of history. But does this necessity to remember the abhorrence of minority groups in an earlier time warrant the reclaiming of derogatory expressions?

As a society we have come leaps and bounds from the oppression that was foisted onto minority groups, however, things are far from perfect. Racism and sexism is still undeniably prevalent, if less outright. Hearing certain terms in common discourse may allow for the continuation of an oppressive narrative. When you hear terms such as ‘bitch’, or ‘queer’, it would be understandable if the instinctive connotation was more akin to sustaining oppression, rather than a fight for a cohesive understanding of the treatment of minority groups.

The offensive nature of certain words in this way also warrants consideration. Whether it be overhearing somebody else using a slur, or a child repeating a word they hear without fully comprehending the meaning, it would be ignorant to pretend that these words are no longer capable of wounding.

Colloquial uses of derogatory terms inarguably have roots in Hip-Hop. One of the most famous examples of this was in the 2016 Kanye West/Taylor Swift debacle where West referred to Swift as ‘that bitch’ while claiming it as a term of endearment which Swift expressed vehement distaste about.

The ubiquity of these terms in this genre has brought the debate surrounding reclaiming to centre stage. For example, last year, Kendrick Lamar brought a white fan on stage during his performance, during which, while rapping alongside Lamar, she used the ‘n’ word. This sparked debate surrounding re-appropriating terms, specifically the ‘n’ word. Both sides of these parties were criticised – both the woman for saying the word and Lamar for his response, along the lines of “if you can say it why can’t she?”. Each instance evidences the tensions surrounding reclaiming. What is indisputably the priority here is that nobody’s oppression gets appropriated as some kind of statement.

There is a multitude of benefits that come with minority groups integrating such terms into their common discourse. It evidences that they no longer wield the same power against them. In the 2016 Presidential debates, Donald Trump referred to fellow presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, as a “nasty woman”. This is a timeless example of a slur, in its very design, intended to oppress.

The term ‘Nasty Woman’ was later reclaimed by a teenage poet Nina Mariah, and was later performed by Ashley Judd at the 2017 women’s march. This term is now synonymous with resistance. It invokes power and crushes the stereotype of powerful women as mean, bossy or nasty. Poems and literature, and even the popular fashion brand ‘Nasty Gal’, now wear this term as an emblem of empowerment.

Can anything truly be reclaimed? There are tensions both with reclaiming and rejecting, and it is vital that all history be remembered. It is also critical to acknowledge that these terms are no longer being used as weapons, but to construct freeing, rallying cries, rather than forcing silence. Perhaps the empowerment derived from reclaiming is an absolute necessity.

Image: Jonathan Eyler-Werve

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