Tuesday, 14 July 2009

reclaim/reframe

i've been thinking about this practice of "reclaiming" words, and i've decided that i just don't get it. what got me thinking about this is the upcoming "rising dragons, soaring bananas" conference this weekend. banana, just in case you haven't yet heard, was the term used by chinese to describe other chinese who had become westernised ie yellow on the outside but white on the inside. mostly used for first generation chinese kids growing up in western countries, who weren't deemed to be chinese enough.

this term has now been reclaimed by those described as banana's, who are celebrating the western culture they've adopted while also celebrating their chinese heritage. hence these banana-themed conferences they've been organising over the last few years, which are becoming increasingly successful.

the only other "reclaimed" word i'm aware of is queer. i'm sure there are plenty of other such words out there, but i remain ignorant of them.

i get the bit where you want to own and celebrate the aspect of the pejorative that you actually don't think is a negative. what i don't get is why you would want to adopt the language of those who are basically abusing you. surely, you'd want to bring another word into the culture which celebrates the essence of your identity, one that brings out positive associations for you rather than negative ones.

reclaiming words feels to me a bit like giving up, a bit like saying "there's no way we're going to stop people using that word, so we may as well just take it on board". but we know that changes in language do happen if there is sufficient pressure, the word "nigger" being the most obvious example. i know that such change takes a lot of effort, and is a burden on a minority group that is already under strain. but even so, it just doesn't sit well with me.

which is not to say that i don't love what they've done with the whole banana theme over the years, it's totally clever and is serving an extremely useful purpose in bringing two cultures together to celebrate some wonderful achievements. but it's just the theory behind reclaiming of words like this that bothers me.

maybe i'm just understanding it all wrong, and would be interested in hearing other views on this.

19 comments:

Boganette said...

Hmmm I just wrote a long reply to this talking about how I've reclaimed the word bogan/boganette but I sounded like an idiot. So I deleted it.

So great post. I wanted to reply but my words won't work!

Bri said...

The Fat Acceptance movement has reclaimed the word "fat" as being simply a descriptive word rather than a put down.

Many pagans have reclaimed the word "witch" from its use as a derogative term regarding women to its more esoteric meaning.

There are others, I am trying to think of them...

There is a lot of power in reclaiming a term that has been used against you in a negative way.

Mikaere Curtis said...

reclaiming words feels to me a bit like giving up, a bit like saying "there's no way we're going to stop people using that word, so we may as well just take it on board"

I think reclaiming necessitates a redefinition as well, otherwise you are simply being colonised in the head, as you say - giving up.

I asked an Australian Greek work colleague what he thought about the Australian habit of referring to Mediterranean Europeans as "Wogs".

"But I am a wog !", he replied.

Banana and queer now have different meanings in the context in which they are used. Banana's are proud of the Chinese heritage, and that's not what the word meant when used in pejorative context.

Many pagans have reclaimed the word "witch" from its use as a derogative term regarding women to its more esoteric meaning.

The big difference is that witch has been reclaimed back to it's original meaning. It means "wise". So it's not so much a reclamation and more of a disregarding of the newer pejorative meaning.

stargazer said...

oh, boganette, i really wanted to read your thoughts cos i'm really interested in what the word boganette now means for you! but never mind, whenever you find the right words and the time...

mikaere, i think that one issue arising from the redefinition is the risk that some people (well, the bigots) using the "reclaimed" word haven't redefined the meaning in their head. so then you have this whole confusion of whether a person is using the word in its original meaning or with the redefined & reclaimed meaning. or whether you have just "given in" and defined yourself within the paradigm your abuser has set for you, instead of developing another paradigm altogether.

not sure if i'm still making sense at this point...

M-H said...

Dyke is another word that has been reclaimed, along with poof and pansy.

shop girl said...

I think generally with reclaimed words that it's okay for people within the group to use them, but often inappropriate for people outside the group to use them for exactly this reasons. Thus, you might have gay men referring affectionately to themselves and each other as "fags", but it would be wildly inappropriate for a stranger to call them that.

Reclaiming is partly about claiming -- saying, "It's our word now, and you may try to twist it, but it'll never have the same power to hurt anymore, because it's ours." At least, that's my take on it.

ideologicallyimpure said...

For me reclaiming (in the context of words like bitch, slut, fat) words acts primarily to take the power away from the abuser. So many words - especially ones disparaging of minority/oppressed groups - are used derogatorily, when the actual *attack* is against being the thing described - an uppity woman, a woman who enjoys sex, or a fat person, to use my above examples.

It all boils down to someone turning around and saying, "You should shut up, you're a [whatever]", and being able to reply, "Yeah, I am, and I'm not gonna, so screw you."

And it works, because a lot of the abusers are just stunned by the fact that anyone would accept those horrible, innately-bad names and be proud to call themselves those things. And it also starts to wear away at the underlying assumptions, because if someone's proudly saying "Yep, I'm fat, what's your problem?" then maybe being fat (or whatever) isn't as universally horrifying as some people would like it to be.

Hugh said...

True Shopgirl, but I think the ultimate goal of reclaiming is that eventually the word will be available for everybody to use because it's non-threatening. Although the only example I can think of where this has actually happened is 'queer'.

Anita said...

Hugh,

Maybe also "cunt" for describing that particular part of the body.

katy said...

The "N" word is an interesting example in that while it is now used by a certain group of people toward whom it would have been directed as an insult previously, I don't agree that it has been reclaimed as such; it remains a very dangerous word, I think.

I think it is powerful to take words and set the terms of their use, I am all for this.

C.C. said...

Definetly Cunt, definetly slut and definetly the 'n' word too.

Random Lurker said...

It's disarming. If you wanted to insult an Australian by calling him a convict, and he considers it a badge of honour, you suddenly find yourself without your weapon.

Boganette said...

Stargazer - I'll try - I'm sure this won't come out right! :) Well for years I've been called a bogan (or occasionally a boganette - female bogan) and it's generally been in a derogatory way.

At first I ignored it and then I started asking 'Why am I a bogan?'. Usually the person calling me a bogan wouldn't answer. But the ones who did would say either 'Well because you listen to shit music' (I'd be wearing an Iron Maiden or Motorhead tee or something) or 'you dress like a bogan' (band tee, black jeans, boots etc).

And these were all pretty polite answers because bogan essentially means white trash stupid metal head male. I'm not white trash, I don't think I'm stupid and I'm not male. I do listen to metal though.

So I thought if I'm only one of those things what about the polite stuff? Well there's nothing wrong with liking proper music - metal and rock (so-called Bogan music) is far superior to any other genre of music out there. There's nothing wrong with watching wrestling - being a wrestling fan is no different to being a a fan of any other TV show. There's nothing wrong with dressing the way I do - band tee-shirts go with everything and boots are practical. There's nothing wrong with drinking bourbon - hey it's better than scrumpy! So I don't see anything wrong with being a bogan. I don't think you should be ashamed of any part of the so-called bogan lifestyle.

So I started saying 'I'm a bogan' in response to questions about what music I like, or as an explanation for why I'm going to Auckland to watch some wrestling etc. And I just found it was an easier way to say 'this is who I am' because the music I listen to, the things I do on weekends etc are pretty important to me.

I bought a tee-shirt that said "Proud Bogan" and wore it to a pretty bogan event and I had all these people coming up to me and saying 'Hey I'm a bogan too, wicked!' and I thought that was quite nice. I kind of like the idea of a bogan-community.

Bogans need to stick together so I find calling myself a bogan attracts other bogans and then I get to chat with and become friends with like-minded people.

But bogan is nothing like the n word. Or any other really awful term that some people consider reclaimed. I'm not saying that. Hence why I was nervous about posting this in the first place.

But I mean I have had people yell out of car windows 'bogan scum' and shit like that. The media always uses bogan as a derogatory term. I mean Rock2Wgtn was one of the best bogan events ever in NZ and a reviewer in the Dom implied bogans stole his wallet. Other photos of the events focused on the people there and just openly made fun of them. I was upset about that. I also tend to get a huge amount of shit from young women if I go out to a club that's full of them. So I tend to stick to my own kind where we can all be happy bogans together. And the music is always better.

Boganette said...

Sorry that was really long!

C.C. said...

This is an awesome interview with krs-one talking about the 'n' word and reclamation and such. Its awesome check it out.

ideologicallyimpure said...

@Boganette - BOGANS REPRESENT! Not that I'm that bogan anymore, besides the death metal and the wrestling ...

stargazer said...

thanx for that explanation boganette, really useful for someone like me who didn't really know what "bogan" meant!

KimV said...

stargazer, what other words do you suggest bringing into their cultures? Do you mean inventing completely new words? Because that's incredibly difficult to do - Ms is one of the very few that were successful.

stargazer said...

ok, that's a difficult question kimv, i hadn't given it too much thought. the best example i can think of is the disability sector, where the words handicapped, lame, retarded etc have pretty much disappeared out of common language. and the change in language has definitely changed the way many of us think about people with disabilities.

another issue i have with reclaiming after reading the comments is the problem that some people in the group might not want to reclaim particular words. eg i'm not particularly interested in reclaiming c*nt or slut. if a sufficient number of people feel that way, then the reclaiming doesn't really work, does it?