Recently, there have been discussions (both at school and in popular culture) about who gets to use “the n-word” – the Oklahoma SAE “chant”, LiLo’s tweet are among the conversation starters. I recently watched Pride, and there is a scene where some bystanders call the activists “queer” and the response is that there is a history in the LGBTQ community to “own” the word by using and thereby decreasing its power to hurt (remember the We’re Here, We’re Queer chants during the early days of AIDS?). Last week a F/friend gave a presentation about the “Disorderly [Quaker] Women” who led the abolition and suffrage movement and asked the question, “where did ‘Quaker’ come from?” (it was deragotory; the founders, and the followers, called themselves Friends but now both are acceptable).
There is – obviously – a long history of groups taking an insulting word or phrase and using it themselves. So why is this word different? Why haven’t other words been reclaimed (for a list of some of those words, see the Scrabble banned words list)? My theory is that it’s about the leadership of the group taking ownership, or not, of the word/phrase. Yes, some of these words are out in popular culture, leading to some confusion among non-members of the group (the “if [singer/actor/comedian name] uses it, why can’t I?” complaint). But are the leaders using it?
Aside: leaders is the wrong word, admittedly, but it’s standing in for “elders, respected members of the group, activists, etc.”
In the case of the word first mentioned, do we hear people like President Obama using it? Congressman John Lewis? Henry Louis Gates? Even Richard Pryor stopped following his trip to Kenya. Rabbis and Jewish leaders don’t use the words and phrases that denigrate them. Ditto Italians, Chinese, etc. leaders.
So, how do we have those uncomfortable conversations about words that are unacceptable, when for some, using that word is empowering, or reclaiming, the word? What is the role of the library, beyond ensuring that if the resources we have contain those words, they do so for defensible reasons?