Have you ever been confused about why certain people and groups can use certain words but other groups and people can’t use them? Maybe it’s frustrated you because you don’t understand, or made you feel left out when you hear other people using them. There’s a reason for certain people and groups using these words while still being offended or angry when other groups or people use a number of those words: reclamation.
What is reclamation? Simply put, reclamation is exactly what it sounds like: Reclaiming something—often a word—and using it for empowerment purposes. Words that certain oppressed demographics choose to reclaim aren’t any old words, they’re slurs that were once, or currently are, used against people in that group; they were meant to be pejorative. In “taking back” a word from a dominant culture, a person, group, or movement may find a sense of power.
For example, I’m a cat person (because I have cats for animal companions, not because I identify as a cat) but I cannot reclaim the term “cat person” because it was never used against me or the rest of the people in the world who prefer cats for animal companions. There’s no need to reclaim “cat person” as a term of empowerment because it was never taken away from cat people, it was never pushed on them in a malicious manner, or used to disempower them, or widely used to describe undesirability. Sure, lots of people don’t like cats, but the difference there is institutionalization. Oppression is institutionalized, systemic, and there is no complex, interlocking, all-encompassing hegemony working against those who are “cat people.”
There is this kind of institutionalization with anti-gay/LGBTQIA+ slurs such as “Fag” (among others); terms that are meant to sex-shame and tone-police people such “Slut” and “Bitch” (among others); anti-dis/ability slurs such as “freak” (among others) and the plethora of racial slurs still rampant today. For example, a woman who enjoys having casual sex may refer to herself as a slut, because “slut” is used in the context of dominant society to shame people who have a lot of casual sex, something that is considered bad or inappropriate behavior, behavior that is looked down upon when displayed by certain demographics (usually women, but not always), yet perfectly acceptable for or even expected from people not in that demographic (usually men, but not always). “Slut” embodies institutionalized concepts, and its commonality in the everyday lexicon is what is used to succinctly convey concepts and actions portrayed as undesirable: having casual sex. Since having casual sex is not a bad thing, it is only viewed by dominant culture as bad, reclaiming “slut,” re-appropriating it from the negativity it is supposed to encompass, is tossing that misogyny, and subsequently the wrongheaded, malicious, fictitious, oppressive ideas it embodies into the trash—right where it belongs.
“Queer” was once an anti-LGBTQIA+ slur that is now widely embraced as an LGBTQIA+ identity. That is reclamation. “Fag” was, and still is, an anti-LGBTQIA+ slur, yet within LGBTQIA+ circles you may hear people calling each other “fag” or even identifying as a “fag.” Slurs directed at certain ethno-racial identities may be used casually or affectionately within that demographic. All of these are examples of reclamation; considering facets of oppressive language originated outside of a given margin, it’s unacceptable in most cases for slurs to be used. It’s glaringly offensive for a heterosexual individual to refer to an LGBTQIA+ identified individual as a “fag” (in most cases), for white people to refer to People of Color using a reclaimed slur directed at them. If an able-bodied person breaks their leg and must use crutches, for example, their identifying as a “gimp” for the duration of recovery is still offensive to people who have to live their day-to-day lives with physical dis/abilities or legitimately “crippling” invisible illnesses in addition to living day-to-day under heavy societal stigma attached to dis/abilities conveyed through slurs like “cripple” or “gimp.”
The point of reclamation is to flip the script. To take back. To make our own.
It is, however, important to note empowerment for one person does not equal empowerment for everyone. Many people are uncomfortable reclaiming slurs (i.e. plenty of LGBTQIA+ individuals don’t use “Queer” as an identity indicator). Reclamation is a powerful concept and a subversive action, but like the marginalized demographics slurs were meant to oppress reclamation is not homogenized, not universal. If you don’t know, ask: chances are that it’s not because somebody wants to make you feel bad, to be mean to you, or to keep you out of allied spaces. Chances are, it has roots in reclamation.