I need us to get serious for a few minutes. Let’s take some time to cut the jokes for once and start to look at this issue with the seriousness it deserves. Because I’m quite sure if we did, we’d be able to agree on the sham that is “reclamation of words”.
“Reclamation of words” is what’s supposed to happen when “previously” persecuted people take the words that have been used by their oppressors to dehumanise them and seek to “redefine them” as a means of removing the sting from them. (Excuse me while I laugh at the ridiculousness of the thought.)
I don’t know why people take part in this game. I have never heard a good argument for why this practice has become so popular among certain circles of oppressed peoples. But it is popular — and not only that; the whole exercise has somehow tricked folks into regarding it with the seriousness with which one regards scientific discoveries. And it’s all a damn shame.
If it’s not feminists calling their friends “cunts” and smirking with delight at their own “wit”, it’s African-Americans calling their brothers “niggers” and giggling with the delight of a teenage boy that’s just wandered onto the set of a hip-hop video. Scroll through Twitter and you’ll find so many combinations of “bitch” and “nigger” you’ll start wondering if you’re reading the shoddily-put-together script of some underground interracial BDSM porn film.
And now the South Africans are debating the “acceptability” of using “kaffir” congenially? It’s all very funny; if the slow decay of cultures is something you find amusing. As it happens, I don’t. The trivialisation of the pain of a people’s ancestors can never be something to laugh about. And that’s exactly what’s happening when words that were shouted at people while they were being dehumanised are used “jokingly” between friends.
I, more than anyone, believe in the flexibility of language and its ability to grow beyond its origins. But if we think that we can sit here and try to actively squeeze the pain out of painful words, then we’re not as far along as we think we are. “Reclamation of words” is about creating a false reality in a world that has become difficult to manage.
“Reclaiming words” is about a group of disadvantaged people convincing themselves that the pain of their past is so far behind them that they now have the time to leisurely take their tools to the dictionary and (expletive) about with language.
“Reclaiming words” is about convincing yourself that you are beyond the oppression of your ancestors.
Picture this: a group of African-American boys calling each other “nigger” in a bus that’s taking them two hours out of their district to a school that is far better than the one in theirs. They laughingly call each other a word that was once shouted at their forefathers while they being were lynched for the offence of reading. They’ve been convinced that the word is now a term of endearment because they are “free” now. Are they? You tell me.
Picture this: a group of women sitting over lunch laughing as they punctuate their sentences with a delightful “bitch” here and funny “whore” there. They make sure to leave early because no-one wants to cross the dark parking lot to her car. They believe that the very word that is shouted at thousands of victims of domestic violence every day, in a country that seems to hate women, is a suitable word to call your “BFF”.
Finally, picture this: a group of teenagers at the park sharing a cigarette. One accidentally drops it and is jokingly called a “silly kaffir”. The conversation moves swiftly along. The park they’re in had a huge “no kaffirs” sign just 20 years ago. The neighbourhood they’re in was a “whites only” zone and may as well still be for how few Africans live there. And the homeless people frequenting the park are almost all Africans. But “kaffir” is okay, because they’re all so far removed from that pain, right?
Advocates of this practice say these words are supposed to be powerless when the reclamation process is complete. But recall each scenario and tell me how each group would react if a white person (in scenario one and three) or a man (in scenario two) walked past the scene and repeated these words at the players. How “drained of their power” are these words now?
I hope we can take a good, long sober look at this issue. Away from the hilarity of David Chapelle’s “nigger”-filled stand-up routines, away from the catchy-ness of modern hip-hop songs, away from the cuteness of American sitcoms littered with “affectionate” “bitches” and even further away from Trevor Noah’s attempt to “normalise” “kaffir” in his stand-up comedy. Let’s step away from these things for just five minutes and really look at the effect removing ourselves from our painful histories has on our own psyches. Histories whose injustices still affect us today.
Then we will see that the only people we are fooling with this charade is ourselves — and haven’t we had enough?