“Why can’t I say it, but you can?”
Marginalized people are asked this question all the time — especially when people overhear us reclaiming words that were made to oppress us.
Oppressive words have made their way into almost every language across the globe. It demonstrates how often oppression and violence shows up in language.
Throughout history, folks who were being culturally cleansed and/or forced to assimilate have faced slurs. For many communities, there is still very real, valid and often times raw generational trauma behind racial slurs. Slurs are extremely subversive and they continue to marginalize and oppress countless communities. They can affect more than just individuals; they contribute to the atmosphere around specific communities and sculpt how their culture and customs are viewed.
When we reclaim slurs and hurtful language, it’s a protest. It is resistance. We are reclaiming terms that have been used to oppress and destroy our ancestors. Taking back words that our oppressors thought would extinguish us is a radical act.
Of course, there are many types of slurs. Racial slurs, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-Latinx, anti-Indigenous, anti-Asian — the list goes on and on.
It’s important to know when it’s okay to reclaim slurs and when it’s not. It’s not as easy as, “I was called that word as an insult, so I can reclaim it. ” It is very easy to appropriate slurs that belong to communities you’re not a part of.
For example: I’ve been called a tr*nny before as a means of oppression. This doesn’t give me permission to reclaim this word, because it’s traditionally used to actively oppress transgender women, especially trans women of color. As a non-binary trans guy, it’s not right for me to adopt this word, just like not all people of color are allowed to reclaim all racial slurs.
When it comes to reclaiming slurs, it’s imperative to stay aware, and to recognize and acknowledge the privileges and social capital we hold over other marginalized communities.
As a person of many intersecting identities, reclaiming the slurs that have been used against me and my communities has brought me a great deal of healing.
I am Mexican, disabled, queer, transgender and mentally ill. I’m a crip. I’m a spic. I’m crazy. I’m a faggot. All these things are a part of my identity. I have found solace, self-love and empowerment in these terms. It goes beyond the “sticks and stones” cliché. 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. To be able to love myself and reclaim these words and basically say “That’s right, I’m a faggot, I’m crazy, I’m crippled, and I have no desire to assimilate or give a damn about your white/cis/able-bodied/hetero comfort!” is everything for me.
I’m not alone. Here are some other, very rad examples of slur reclamation from some friends of mine:
“There’s a lot of words that I have reclaimed but the two main ones happen to be ‘crip’ and ‘crazy.’ To be honest, I didn’t know they were slurs for a while. I just knew that when a boy in fifth grade kicked my leg and called me a ‘fucking crippled bitch,’ it didn’t feel nice. I knew when my ex, who was also mentally ill, would call me crazy, it wouldn’t feel nice either. To me, reclaiming those terms gives me the autonomy I never had in the past. It is a giant ‘fuck you’ to the people that have used those terms to hurt me before. It’s liberating as hell.” —Mickey Thomas
“When I use the word ‘junkie,’ I feel fucking powerful. As a heroin addict, I was shamed by everyone, even other drug addicts and users. It’s bullshit. I love the word ‘junkie’ because I feel unashamed; I’m letting everyone know I do not fucking care about their opinion of my addiction or drug use. I’m sober now, but I talk a lot about my ‘junkie whore days’ because I want to de-stigmatize and normalize the experiences of heroin addicts and users and those of us who also do sex work. I want us to feel empowered instead of like the whole world is shitting on us. I want people to know I love myself; that I’m proud of who I am, even though I suffered through and survived a serious addiction. I think that just makes me stronger.” —Karina
Slur reclamation isn’t for everyone, and that’s completely okay. But for those of us who find comfort and even empowerment — it can be a huge act of vulnerability and resistance.