Can racial and sexual slurs be reclaimed to empower the groups they were created to harm?
By Annie Rockson
By looking at those in power; albeit business or politics, women and ethnic minorities are not at levels within these spheres which are representative of their contribution and numbers in society. With the ‘isms’ (racism and sexism) come a whole way of life which includes language as a key component in helping keeping those with power where they are and those without, firmly at the bottom with little or no access to climbing above their rung on the ladder. Language is said to be a direct reflection of those who hold power in society. A quick demo of this is to count how many words in the English language you have for a sexually promiscuous woman against the number of words you have for a sexually promiscuous man. You done the maths? Yep, it’s unbalanced in favour of showing that women can only be promiscuous with the amount of words dedicated to women and their sexual behaviour and we know that’s not the reality.
So what’s really funny is how we’re now in a time when discriminated groups use these words in an attempt to emancipate themselves from their offence – reclaiming words which were created to oppress them. Is this really emancipation or simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. It appears that women are now used to using the word ‘bitch’ to refer to each other affectionately; cue Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in their career defining reality TV show; ‘The Simple Life‘. It was the norm for the both of them to refer to each other (lovingly) as ‘bitch’…do you feel cared about when someone refers to you as a ‘bitch’? It seems Paris and Nicole are comfortable with this, should we all become so? It’s not only women calling other women female dogs; the N word has grown in use more worryingly by the Black community.
The appropriation of the N word in Hip Hop and its surrounding culture often has people confused as to whether its use is OK especially as those using it, are the ones it was created to demoralise. You can’t help but wonder whether
Racial slurs seem to be de rigeur amongst the celebrity circuit; celebrity crimper James Brown (who ironically shares the same name as the Godfather of soul who created the race affirming Black pride anthem; ‘Black and Proud’) called Ben Douglas, founder of performing arts company, Fusion a ‘n*****’ 8 times, Chris Evans throws a Bernard Manning style ‘joke’ at esteemed space scientist; Maggie Pocock-Aderin while she explains about the recent lunar eclipse; Evans snorts: ‘I can hardly see you in here…’ Really Chris, you can hardly see a Black lady in a fully lit TV studio – SMDH. And MTV’s most popular show; Jersey Shore received a lot of criticism in 2009 over the word ‘Guido’ an ethnic slur for Italian Americans. It was used loosely used by the Italian American cast to refer to a specific type of Italian American male. Is this relaxation around language that was solely created to wound and oppress an indication of how far we have come? How equal we all are…? I hasten to think not, it can be argued however, that it’s rather an indication on how racism and sexism has been appropriated by those it’s meant to harm. It’s now so advanced; it’s been internalised by the oppressed and the oppressor so this behaviour appears the norm or ‘safe’ to joke with.
The question now, is the new challenge for society mental enslavement and how do we combat it? How do we keep people enlightened when it creates better and more loyal consumers to be ‘under one groove’? As Harriet Tubman laments; “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
It appears long gone are the days where popular culture questioned its use; refer to Queen Latifah‘s lyric; (pre-Hollywood career) ‘Who you calling a bitch?’ on her track ‘Unity’ we now see Female MC’s referring to themselves as such. Now we have female rappers like Lola Monroe who has coined the term ‘boss bitch’ which she says signifies female empowerment and the likes of Rihanna who highlighted the use of the word on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man TV show how she used it as a loving term given to her closest of friends.
The slut walker’s have now set out to reclaim the word ‘slut’ as a definition of someone who is in control of their own sexuality. Historically the word ‘slut’ actually meant messy; now it has taken on an entirely different meaning; a negative one implying sexual immorality more commonly applied when describing women’s sexual behaviour. The creation of slut walk was born out of aToronto policeman’s comment when he told a girl that she could avoid being raped by not dressing like a ‘slut.’ Consequently the walks were created to protest against appropriating all blame for rape on the victim and their way of dress.
Even if women can reclaim the word slut; society will swiftly find another word to replace it. One has to ask whether reclaiming racial and sexual slurs by purposefully using them to dehabilitate the negativity – is the wisest thing. Particularly when these groups lack power on the same level of those who created this type of language. Perhaps these words can be reclaimed when these groups are truly treated as equals. Language is a direct reflection of the power structures in a society; if the groups these slurs damage really want to change their meaning, then they’ll need real power in society to make it stick. Otherwise, they’re simply adding to a problem that was never set up for them to solve – alone or easily. Using other people’s behaviour to justify your own, is always a false economy based in irresponsibility and cowardly traits. Just because others refer to themselves and others who are like them with a derogatory word doesn’t mean you should nor does it mean it’s OK or equality has been achieved.