The word “reclamation,” as it pertains to words, typically refers to taking a term with a specific meaning, often a derogatory one, and assigning it a new definition that suits the reclaimer’s needs. The N-word can be seen as a prominent example, as, despite existing for a long time as a slur against black people, it has become a popular way of addressing each other among African Americans. In doing so, they acknowledge their history of oppression and express pride in their struggle, showing that the word no longer hurts them. However, the word also serves as an excellent example of the issues with the practice. The author believes that the problems balance out the advantages of the practice.
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On the surface, the practice of reclamation is a reminder of the successes in humanity’s history. Oppressed groups that have achieved equality remind themselves of their victory every time they use the former slur. They remember the strength and perseverance of their community that has overcome the difficulties of oppression, similar to the memory of a military triumph. In the same vein, the process will often happen naturally and be impossible to control or stop. The community would likely react extremely negatively to any attempts at perceived erasure of the memory through the elimination of the word. As such, the practice of reclamation is rooted in a positive context and should not be stopped, but its consequences should be considered.
The N-word serves as an excellent example of the problems that can eventually emerge when reclamation is involved. While black people can use it without issue or any offensive subtext, the same is not true for other races. For those, the word’s usage is still deemed offensive and generally only considered in a strongly negative context regardless of the intention. Even if neither the speaker nor the person that they are addressing has perpetrated or been targeted by discrimination, offense is still typically assumed. As Jones describes, this practice contributes to further division and hostility between the community and all others (35). Ultimately, instead of creating an equal and open society, reclamation reinforces segregation and reminds people of past problems.
The practice is inseparable from this division by its nature, as it relies on the memory of the word in its original meaning. It is used to distinguish members of one group from everyone else, and, if it loses the definition that enables this distinction, the word is no longer usable. Moreover, reclamation attempts often do not succeed, as Titjen’s discussion of various pejoratives often applied to females highlights (35). To succeed, it needs widespread momentum in the community, which requires the existence of a broadly recognized oppression system. Instead, the practice is often misapplied nowadays to relatively minor matters, creating small societal divisions without achieving significant positive effects. The meanings of the words “bitch” or “slut” largely remain the same regardless of one’s gender.
Overall, reclamation is a practice that sometimes emerges naturally as a result of a long-term struggle between two unevenly matched sides. No one is authorized to perform it, per se, as no one can claim to represent their entire community, and the movement has to begin from the bottom. With that said, complete reclamation from the historical context is impossible by definition, as it requires retaining the memory of that context. Moreover, it creates divisions between the two groups and will likely be forgotten as they learn to work together for mutual benefit. As such, while reclamation may be unavoidable in some contexts and should not be impeded when it takes place, attempts by individuals or groups to force it to happen or prolong it unnaturally are actively harmful and should be prevented.
Jones, Joseph R. My Second First Year: Leaving Academia for a High School Classroom. Information Age Publishing, Incorporated, 2019.
Titjen, Felicity. Language and Gender. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
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