Saturday, June 04, 2011

Claims and Counter-claims [a guest post by Elvis Presley]

I have been thinking a lot about 'reclaiming' words. The only conclusion I have come to is that the 'reclaiming' of "nigger" and "queer" are totally different phenomena which were only linked afterwards. Now they are reinterpreted as having been consciously 'reclaimed' but this did not happen. There was also a change of meaning in both cases is not the case with other conscious attempts at 'reclaiming', where there is often no change in meaning. Which is maybe why they don't work.

I think that 'nigger' was first used by gangsta hiphop and others not to have a diferent meaning from its white racist meaning (which itself had followed its original, neutral meaning which simply meant 'black'/'slave' interchangeably). As used in gangsta hiphop, 'nigger' was a black person, but within a context that completely acknowledged a racist society. Hence why it could not be used by anyone white or with a stake in that racist society. Using the word means that the speaker is not in denial about the racist nature of society.
Why do I call myself a nigger they ask me/Cause everywhere I go police wanna harass me...Why do I call myself a nigger they ask me/Guess it's just the way shit has to be. NWA - Niggaz for life
You might as well call yourself 'nigger' since whether or not you do you will still be considered a 'nigger'. This is the 'reclaiming' step that other groups have sought to emulate. However what has often been ignored or misunderstood is this - this process did not attempt to use 'nigger' in a positive sense. The negative sense was used in a different context, but the meaning did not change.

There is some reaction to this. This includes the development of a new use of the word - one that separates those black people that will call themselves 'niggers' and those that won't. A use of the racist white word by black people - not to refer to themselves but to refer to other black people. This was of course made famous by the Chris Rock routine:
Who's more racist, black people or white people? It's black people! You know why? Because we hate black people too! Everything white people don't like about black people, black people really don't like about black people, and there's two sides, there's black people and there's niggas. The niggas have got to go.[...] When I go to the money machine tonight, alright, I ain't looking over my back for the media: I'm looking for niggas! Chris Rock, from "Bring The Pain"
The next development is actually the unexpected, radical one, and brings a new meaning to the work. 'Nigger' becomes normative. It is used by black people living in a racist apartheid society, but because of the nature of this society, it now means 'person'. A white person is a 'white man', 'white boy', 'white lady' etc, but any other person, including someone hypothetical, of indeterminate race etc, can be referred to as 'nigger'. Of course, this only applies to a limited number of speakers, those who really do live in a milieu where you can assume that someone whose race you don't know is black.
That's good. That's like a forty degree day. Ain't nobody got nuttin to say about a forty degree day. Fifty? Bring a smile to your face. Sixty? Shit, niggas are damn near barbecuing that mothafucka. Go down to twenty? Niggas get they bitch on. Get they blood complainin... but forty? Nobody give a FUCK about forty. Nobody remember forty, and ya'll niggas is giving me way too many forty degree days. Stringer Bell
(Note the first two usages.) The thing about the normative usage is that it totally reverses the classic form that racism/colonialism takes in language. One of the most important tools of the language of domination is the fact that being the oppressor is normative. There are lots of examples of this, I can't think of an other example of it being reversed like it is in this situation.

This is a very important step. As the new word comes to mean 'black', from a 'black perspective', it can be used much more universally by black people, to refer to each other, but simply to mean 'person' in a particular mode of speech. Of course, general 'reclaiming' attempts like 'crip' to mean disabled can not in general do what is done here. At least to me, it doesn't seem plausible. The only possible (but unlikely) analogous development might be normative terms for 'female' instead of for 'male'.

Now, 'queer' does not have the two steps of development. I think that from the outset, 'queer', rather than be reclaimed, was simply used with a new meaning, one for which there was no word previously. An obvious difference between the homophobic meaning and the new meaning is that the old meaning was a noun, used to refer to a person, sometimes used in an adjectival form. The new meaning is an adjective rarely used as a noun. The political implications of 'queer' do not, I think, correspond to either of the meanings of 'nigger' that I suggested above. It's actually much closer to 'black', since historically 'colored' was used in a context where the aims of anti-racism were to achieve 'color-blindness' where whether or not you were 'white' or 'colored' would, it was hoped, become of no consequence. 'Black' went hand in hand with 'black and proud' and 'black is beautiful', at a point where blackness was supposed to become a positive rather than something to be subtracted and ignored.

Importantly however, 'queerness' becomes something different from being 'gay', 'homosexual', 'lesbian', 'transsexual', etc. It's purpose is not to make the negative positive but to redefine the categories, something like 'person of color' (which of course isn't reclaimed).

Anyway, here I haven't said anything about whether or not it is possible to change the meaning and usage of a word deliberately by choosing to use it in a different way. I believe that for these two examples it was not done in that way. However my point is really that even if it were possible, attempts at 'reclaiming' misunderstand what exactly happened with these two words, missing some aspects, and inventing some similarities that are not real.

This whole argument is separate from what Woodscolt said about the actual nature and meaning of the word 'slut'. I was just trying to become clear about what the expression 'to reclaim' means, and these were my conclusions.

[Many thanks to Elvis Presley]

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