originally published June 23, 2014
There is a scene in the Kevin Smith film Clerks 2 in which a character (a very white character) decides he wants to “take back” the term ‘porch-monkey’ so that it can shed its racist connotation and act as a slur against lazy people of all tints and hues. The joke, of course, is that he is far too pink to spearhead any reappropriation effort. That sort of collective shift in perspective has to take place within the group who had been thwacked and battered by the word to begin with.
This is why I get physically jolted by a mighty douche-chill whenever I hear two white guys refer to one another as “nigga”. That not only betrays the linguistic rules, it comes across as patronizing and – as much as the intent may not be there – at least mildly racist. Oh, and put your damn hat on straight. The brim has a functional purpose, squank-bag.
The unholy n-word is probably the most famous case of a word being reclaimed by its one-time victims and re-introduced into their lexicon – albeit only into theirs. But all across the cultural spectrum there are reappropriation missions underway, consciously or unconsciously shaping the way our language will taste and smell for the next few decades.
For a minority to capture a word that had once been used as a pejorative slur against them, to tame it, then to re-release it into the wild as a neutral or even a positive thing, that’s an act of true empowerment. A perfect example is the word ‘gay’ – once fired as a derisive snip toward homosexuals, the word was forcefully taken back with the advent of the Gay Pride parade in 1970. So much so that the word is now commonplace among gays and non-gays alike. Unlike the n-word, those outside the box are allowed to use it.
Words are the easiest things to reclaim, which is interesting because they have historically been among the most powerful tools of oppression and bigoted assholery. But, as anyone who has toiled over a vicious homework assignment (or tried to twist a thousand words of haiku from their brain) will know, words are malleable. They can be reclaimed because they can bend to our will, and while cultural norms can take a little prodding before they fold, they aren’t permanent. These words might be provocative, but in the right hands the object they provoke can be reimagined.
If you’re up on your Jesuit trivia, you probably know them as an all-dude congregation of Catholics, and members of the Society of Jesus. But not too long ago the word was nothing more than a derogatory expression for someone who invoked Jesus too soon and too often in their politics. The term ‘jesuitical’ is still (albeit rarely) used to mean someone is manipulative, suspicious, and able to justify any position using a twisted and stretched form of reasoning. It’s a slur, despite the fact that ‘Jesuit’ itself has been fully appropriated by the men in the Society of Jesus as the proper term with which they identify.
There was a time when Italian-Americans would be called ‘guidos’ as an insult. That was before Snooki and her deplorable gang of disposable celebutants on the Jersey Shore gave the word a more accepted meaning. Actually no – I don’t want to accidentally give those dead-weight soul-suckers any more credit than they deserve for the cultural reappropriation of a one-time slur. I found a Washington Post article that talks about a group of New Jersey guidos in 2003, and I’ve been told the term’s reclamation began back in the late 1970’s. So no, that show has still not contributed anything of value to the world.
Jews have sought to squash the ethnic slur ‘hebe’, and Columbia University graduate Jennifer Bleyer (backed by Steven Spielberg’s money) found a way to do so with Heeb, the magazine geared for America’s hip, young Jewish population. The magazine shut down in 2010, but its intent deserves some applause. Today the word still smacks of insult, though I wonder if there are young Jews who refer to one another with the term. Maybe the next time I see my grandmother I’ll hit her with a “Yo, hebe! ‘Sup?” and see how that lands.
Taiwanese-American multi-instrumentalist Leehom Wang created his own genre of music, infusing traditional aboriginal Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian music with R&B and hip hop. He referred to the sound as ‘chinked-out’, hoping that by doing so he could help to reappropriate the word ‘chink’ and “make it cool”. Similar attempts have been made to culturally neutralize the terms ‘Paki’, ‘Flip’ and ‘Polack’, but outside of those groups, the words are still offensive. Actually, inside those groups they still are too, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way.
I’m going to tread lightly on this one, as I am willing to bet there are at minimum ten ‘Proud Redneck’ bumper stickers within a three-block radius of my house. Here’s a word which is generally used to refer to someone who is unsophisticated, uneducated, and espousing traditional, conservative politics. Among us heathen liberals, the word ‘redneck’ is a go-to slam for someone who hates gay marriage because “the Bible don’t say Adam and Steve”, who loves themselves some guns, and who drinks crappy beer while listening only to country music. In more specific cases, people use the term to refer to Southern-American racists or prairie-province Canadian yokels.
Conservatives who fit most of those characteristics (though I’m sure some prefer good beer and classic rock) did the smartest thing they could – they owned the word and ascribed a sense of personal pride in the label. The truth is, all conservatives are not rednecks, any more than all liberals are homosexual intellectuals (though a lot of the really fun ones are). Right or wrong, ‘redneck pride’ is simply another attempt at cultural reappropriation – and a mighty successful one too.
Other terms on the list of the reappropriated include ‘brat’ to refer to children of U.S. Military folks, ‘crip’ or ‘cripple’ to refer to the handicapped (I had no idea this was a thing), ‘dyke’ or ‘butch’ as another word for a lesbian, ‘pimp’ to mean something that fancy or decorated rather than someone who manhandles prostitutes (not that pimps were ever seen as an oppressed minority), and ‘tranny’ to refer to transgender people – though that one is up for debate among the transgender community. Even ‘slut’, a label that few specifically identify with, has been reappropriated by women seeking to dismantle the twisted thinking that leads some to blame the victims of sexual assault for their behavior or attire.
Material objects can also be reappropriated, though that’s a steeper climb to conquer. A Holocaust museum might display an anti-Semitic propaganda poster, though I don’t think that you’ll see a lot of Jews walking around with swastika belt-buckles any time soon. There is an increasing number of African-Americans who own what most of us would consider to be rather racist lawn jockeys like the one pictured above, and that seems to me a more legitimate act of reappropriation.
Those are isolated decisions though – they won’t carry the cultural punch of language. The optimist in me would like to think there’ll come a day when all ethnic slurs have been reclaimed and packed into cages, more docile and harmless than ever. But the change has to come from the inside; there are some words we non-oppressed white folks can’t “take back”.