The Power of Slurs: Reclaiming the Past

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In a world where ‘free-speech’ is cited to justify actions against the oppressed, where do we start drawing lines?

In honesty, the answer may be a lot more straightforward than you think.

Slurs are most commonly defined as words used to harm someone’s reputation by criticizing them. It is used in purposeful verbal acts designed to damage another person, usually in terms of their reputation.

A reclaimed slur is the act of taking an oppressive pejorative, traditionally used derogatorily against a particular group of people, by the oppressed community in question and using it as a form of taking back some of the social power they have been denied.

Think of the word ‘b*tch’ being used as a monicker for women. Today women and femmes all over the world use it as an empowering term to talk about their own independence or sexual autonomy. However, it traditionally remains a pejorative used by (usually) men to verbally threaten vocal women into silence. That being said, this is an example of a word where we see near total reclamation; however, even then, when used by communities not as impacted by its implications against those that are (AKA men using it against women and femmes) there is definite backlash experienced.

Another good example of a word undergoing reclamation is the ‘f’ slur or f***ot. The word has a long and terrible history going back to the middle ages. This was when gay men were often burned at the same time as witch burnings happened. However, unlike witches, they were considered too ‘low’ for the stake and were just ‘thrown in’ with the kindling (otherwise known as f***ots). However, it is experiencing a renaissance of its own. Many gay men use this term to describe themselves and each other as a form of liberation. In his popular advice column “Savage Love,” Dan Savage, who went on to start the “It Gets Better” project originally asked readers to address him as “Hey f***ot.” However, for every gay man that finds the term freeing and empowering, there are many more who find it disgusting, derogatory and downright offensive.

This is where a debunking of the ‘free speech’ argument takes place. Even free speech has moral limits, and it is clear that people don’t actually care about expressing their ideas.

They’re trolls.

They just want to make life harder for the oppressed.

A third word- one that is becoming increasingly common in the English lexicon- is queer. Queer is used increasingly by members of the LGBTQ community as a self identifier and is used by those outside of it to as an umbrella term to designate the entire community. Despite its fraught history, this word has gained mainstream media recognition with shows like ‘Queer Eye’ achieving mainstream success.

These three words are at three very different stages in the reclamation process. Through this, there are a few points that must be kept in mind while talking about reclamation in order to fully understand it.

First, it is wholly up to the marginalized community in question to reclaim a word, as well as to decide whether they feel it is offensive or not. If you are a cishet person or a woman, you cannot say that the f-slur is no longer considered offensive. You do not belong to the community being disproportionately harmed by it, so you mustn’t try to speak on behalf of them

Second, no individual can speak on behalf of an entire community. It doesn’t matter if one black person told you (a non-black person) that they thought it was okay for you to use the n-word. If the rest of the community is telling you that they are offended by it, then you should absolutely not be using it.

Third, words are extremely subjective. Even if words like ‘bitch’ and ‘queer’ have widespread popularity, someone disenfranchised by one of them has the right to tell you they are uncomfortable with them. Pick up the slack from thereon-after and be the bigger person- don’t use that word.

Finally, as it should be with anything, it comes down to awareness and respect. It’s about understanding that while some people may find something offensive, others may not. Thus, an awareness should be built: words cause incredibly polarizing reactions based on a person’s history with them. At the same time, it is also about understanding that not belonging to the marginalized community in question means not being entitled to define their experiences to them. However, that does not prevent anyone from being better allies. After all, if there’s anything you have authority over, it’s your own discretion.

Be a good person. Lay the boundaries and know when to step in.