What more can I say?
Disclaimer: This post deals with a number of words whose use can be a very sensitive issue in the communities the words refer to. There’s no way to honestly examine, understand, and address this sensitivity, without using the words themselves. I’m not a member of all of these communities, and even for the ones I feel I represent, not everyone else who does will agree on how these words can be used. I hope you’ll find that for the sake of discussion, I’ve used them respectfully and to a useful end.
Let’s talk about talking. More specifically, let’s talk about using certain words.
Today the UNO Women’s Resource Center hosted Teresa Prince, a photographer who’s done a series of photos titled BITCH. She’s taken photos of all sorts of women each holding up a sign — “adventurous bitch,” “confident bitch” — and even men: “I love bitches” standing next to “We love you too!”
Are these women (and men) demeaning themselves, bringing themselves down to the level of bitchdom? They wouldn’t say so; they’ve embraced bitch and used it to describe themselves as they want to be described. An often-demeaning word is converted to an empowering one.
Are these women likely to respond positively when any random person calls them bitches? No; lots of people still use the word to hurt and marginalize, and two strangers or acquaintances just won’t know each other’s opinions about this. These women might be quite okay with their friends using the word bitch in a positive, even endearing way. And there are women who don’t want anyone to call them bitches, nor will they call themselves bitches; that’s okay, too.
There are some words, especially words with a negative history, that it’s best to assume you shouldn’t use to refer to the groups they’re associated with. Examples:
- Calling women bitches.
- Calling black people niggas.
- Calling Irish people micks.
- Calling homosexuals faggots, gays, dykes, and queers.
- Calling transgender people trannies.
You’ll quickly notice that hey, people do use these terms to refer to themselves and their friends. Look at the term “gay rights!” What’s the deal? Welcome to the concepts of word reclamation and privileged language. Cultures have found countless epithets to sling against marginalized communities — and using these words reinforces the marginalization. They’re emotionally loaded, yet they don’t at all describe their subjects.
These communities, over years and years, have often found a comfort and even a delicious irony in embracing these epithets. By using these words to describe themselves, even when the words are used to abuse them, the words no longer hurt, or hurt as much. Furthermore, these disempowering words become tools of empowerment, affirming instead of demeaning communities’ identities. This is how word reclamation works.
This isn’t to say that every old epithet can now be tossed about without worry. The homosexual community — the majority of it — feels that the epithet gay has become a good self-identifier, and that others can refer to them as the gay community and their cause as gay rights. I stress that this is the majority opinion, because one person or a whole bunch of people don’t represent everyone. Many gay people don’t like using the word queer because it’s also been used as an insult, and only lately have young gays in particular started to reclaim it for themselves. And the type of usage is important, too — compare the phrases “a bunch of gays,” and “the queer community.” Even reclaimed words are still, to differing extents, privileged language that should be used with thought for how the community or the particular member being addressed will feel about their use.
Further examples: most black people would only be okay with calling each other niggas (and many don’t even like that); Irish comedians can crack jokes about micks more freely than I should; and there are transfolk who will call themselves proud trannies but will be uncomfortable if their friends say things like “you’re my favorite tranny.”
Some people totally don’t care about using epithets that involve them; some think they should not be used at all by anyone; and most people are their own particular shades of gray. You may not be able to or want to ask members of marginalized communities, “When do you feel it’s okay to use this word?” The best way to show your respect for everyone is to simply avoid using that word to describe people. Do this even for other members of those communities, whose own feelings you don’t yet know, and just do this for everyone you meet, so they don’t get the impression it’s okay to throw the word around.
Lastly, if people tell you how they prefer to be referenced, take them at their word! Who knows you better than yourself? Who knows them better than they know themselves? And for goodness’ sake, if people tell you that calling them a certain word offends them, respect how those particular people feel even if it’s not the majority opinion. Neither you nor they got to choose the connotations the word has for them, but you can all choose how to handle it in a way that conveys your mutual respect.
Remember, actions speak louder than words, but speech is an action, too!