On ‘reclaiming’ slurs

The first I heard of ‘reclaiming’ slurs was when young women, who wanted to dress as they chose and not be subject to harassment for it, ‘reclaimed’ the word ‘slut.’ And so we have ‘slut walks’ and ‘slut shaming’ but the use of the term ‘slut’ really retains its original meaning. The attempt at ‘reclaiming’ merely casts it ironically, intending to shame those who continue to use the word as a slur for their outdated and misogynist attitudes.

It doesn’t really work with the n-word or the b-word or the w/h-word (“whore”/”ho”) either. When I presented the reclaiming argument to one passenger he strongly disapproved, saying that the concept assumed that anyone can ‘own’ a word. Which in essence is what is said when Blacks use the n-word and say whites should not. Whites abused the word horribly and have forfeited the right to use it; Blacks ‘own’ it now.

But of course white supremacists continue to use the n-word. Just like misogynists (often the same people) continue to use the b-word and the w/h word. And all of them say, well, that’s what “they,” meaning Blacks and women, call themselves.

Which is to say that, no matter what anyone pretends, the words really have lost none of their earlier, despicable meanings. And language is not a thing that can be owned; it is a cultural construct, common to entire societies.

If we say that Blacks can own a word or that women can own a word, then we are arguing for a segregated society with people of color separate from whites, women separate from men. And given how especially wealthy white men have often behaved, who can blame people of color or women for this fantasy? But the reality is that we share a society. Segregation is a fantasy, no matter who you are, even if you are a white supremacist, even if you are a Black nationalist, even if you are a misogynist, even if you hate men. We are all here, together.

And the question really is whether we will respect each other and ourselves as human beings. In part by choosing not to use slurs.

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