From their inception, derogatory slurs have been used to terrorize and abuse the groups of people they are hurled at. Words and phrases have been created or adapted to single out a certain community and thus label it as somehow uniquely second-class or subhuman. Slurs have been used to denigrate race, gender, sexuality, religion, size, ability level, nationality and any other identity that deviates from what has been deemed socially acceptable. These terms are intended to dehumanize the people who are subjected to them and make them feel like they deserve the substandard treatment they receive.
Certain people have taken it upon themselves to reclaim these slurs in an attempt to remove the toxic and violent connotations they were created to have. They have reappropriated words and phrases, simultaneously infusing them with positive connotations while rejecting the damaging ones. Using slurs as self-identifiers and as terms of endearment to other members of a community can give the feeling that power is being shifted from the oppressors in the direction of the marginalized.
“These words and the rhetoric behind them have been used to try to socially, culturally and ethnically cleanse those who came before me and the communities I come from,” writes activist Nik Moreno. “To be able to love myself and reclaim these words … is everything for me.”
However, it is important to never forget the historical weight that these words carry. Words that have been reclaimed by some still continue to trigger memories of painful experiences in others. Cliff, 25, was quoted in a Refinery29 article that being taunted with homophobic slurs in high school made it impossible to personally reclaim them, but it is important to empower and support others who make the decision to.
It also must be said that reclamation of specific slurs should be left to members of that specific community. Individuals or groups inside of a community consciously deciding to reclaim language that has been used to belittle them does not mean that people outside of the community get a free pass to use the same language without consequence. For example, as a cisgender woman, I have no business using historically transphobic slurs even if some transgender people have chosen to use them. Using slurs that do not target a group we are a part of cannot be reclamation because we have nothing to reclaim.
When British rapper Dappy came under fire for using the n-word in a freestyle, he responded by maintaining that whoever automatically equated the word with blackness was racist. He added, “We took that word and made it our own,” referring to the black friends he had growing up. Dappy, who is of Greek-Cypriot descent, failed to understand the specific history of the slur he casually used and refused to accept that he has no claim to it as a non-black person, no matter how many black friends he has.
Reclamation will always be a deeply personal process. When coming to a conclusion about whether or not to reappropriate language that has historically been used to oppress your community, all decisions are valid.
Annick Tabb is a junior double-majoring in English and political science.