Wednesday, November 29, 2006

On racism, sexism, and reclamation

Okay, so pretty much everyone has heard, or at least heard about, Michael Richards's racist rant at the Laugh Factory (video here, but consider it NentirelySFW), and he's made his apologies. A lot of debate has surrounded the incident, particularly over whether a person who uses racist language in such circumstances is necesssarily a racist him/herself. Allow me to weigh in on that particular point: Yes. No matter what triggered his rant, he wouldn't have used the language he did had it not been top-of-mind already. He went on a tirade because he was angry, and it was a racist tirade because he's racist.

Jesse Jackson, backed by other black leaders, has called on the entertainment industry to stop using the word that got Richards in so much trouble, saying that its casual use by black entertainers makes it seem more acceptable to everyone else. And he's got a point; just about every apologist who tried to excuse Richard's racist tirade chose to go with, "Hey, nig - uh, black people use that word all the time!"

Also in the "Sticks and Stones" category, although in a somewhat less publicized way, is a recent stir at liberal blog Firedoglake, where blogger Pachacutec compared Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher to a prostitute in graphic, specific, and painfully verbose detail and blogger TRex used the word "cunt" to insult a commenter who disagreed with his use of, well, that word. And again, same argument. "Women use that word all the time! Gay men use that word all the time!"

Over at Feministe, piny gives a much better and more concise explanation of the situation than I ever could. It center around the concept of reclamation, the idea that a word, so embedded in our cultural psyche as a painful epithet, can be taken back and redefined by those against whom it has been used. He gives the example of Dykes on Bikes, who have reclaimed an insult implying that lesbians are wrong and unnatural and turned it into a word for a fearless, strong woman; and of Bitch magazine, which has taken a similar slur against women implying pettiness, sluttiness, shrewishness, and a host of other negative qualities, and using it to show strength and solidarity and demand respect. Margaret Cho, similarly, talks about reclaiming the term "fag hag," taking two really unpleasant words and using them to describe what is frequently a really beautiful platonic relationship.

But the trick about reclamation is that it's more than just pounding a culture with a word until it's no longer shocking. That's not blunting the knife as much as it is numbing the skin. Michael Richards using the n-word over and over and over again didn't make it any less of a slur; the intent behind it was to wound, and it worked. Using "cunt" in casual conversation doesn't make it any less powerful when it's directed at you with the force of rage behind it.

As piny says:
When you reclaim an epithet, you take it and use it against its meaning in order to deflate its meaning. You are practicing verbal civil disobedience. You are refusing to maintain the original, hateful sense of the word and attempting to force the word to carry a new meaning, your meaning. Reclamation is the name given to this strategy because it is so frequently practiced by the original targets of the hatred. In fact, they are in the best possible position to practice this kind of reverse engineering, because they often have difficulty taking the place of the original users without destabilizing the hater/hated dichotomy that makes epithets valid in the first place. They are also in a better position to recognize the difference–which can be fine in a society where hatred is transparent–between ironic and earnest use.

And that's the difference. A woman who proudly self-identifies as a bitch is reclaiming the word and making it into a good thing; a woman who calls another woman a bitch for stealing her boyfriend is not reclaiming it, because she's giving it the same hurtful meaning it's always had. A member of Dykes on Bikes is reclaiming; the man who calls her a dyke because she's a butch lesbian, and obviously that's disgusting and wrong, is giving it the same hurtful meaning it's always had.

Which is where words like Michael Richards's favorite come in. As piny points out in his post, it has been used to mean every horrible thing that could be said to imply that black people are sub-human. And he even provides examples of how that word has been used - reclaimed - to indicate exactly the opposite. But here's the thing: When Chris Rock stands on stage and talks about the difference between "black people" and (that word)s? That's not reclamation. When a rapper talks about (that word)s selling drugs, pimping, and shooting people? That's not reclamation. That's using a word in its traditional sense to mean what it's always meant, and it does nothing to defuse it or prevent it from being used as a weapon in the future.

I'm against censorship. I think that people should be allowed to say what they think. I also think, however, that when we wander into fragile territory like race and gender, we have to be conscious of the impact our words might have. Michael Richards had every right to stand up on stage and say horrible things; the result he must accept is that he's been (rightly) branded a racist and may never work again. Chris Rock has every right to stand up on stage and call black people (that word)s; the result he must accept is that he's working counter to the idea of reclamation by reinforcing the traditional meaning of that word.

Reclamation works (if it works, which is debatable) by turning something into the opposite of what it is; it takes a sharp knife and turns it into a pillow. Done properly, it takes the power out of an insult by making it something that anyone would be proud to be. Done improperly, it turns a sharp knife into a submachine gun, and hurts more people than it ever intended.

I consider myself both a bitch and a fag hag, and I think they're wonderful things to be. I feel bad for women who aren't. Maybe someday, I'll be proud to call myself a cunt, too. But right now, when Dave Attell David Cross uses it to refer to worthless airheads like Paris Hilton and TRex uses it to call people hypersensitive wimps and whiners, I don't want it. And if you throw it at me, that doesn't make you a comedian or a rebel, it makes you a misogynist asshole.

Unless you want to start reclaiming "misogynist asshole." I guess that's up to you.

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