Tuesday Go Ponder (and why I refuse to “reclaim” derogatory words)

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Introduction

Last night, I got a little pissed off. Okay, a LOT pissed off.

I am so damn sick and tired of people in this world thinking that “reclaiming” derogatory terms will take away the insulting history, the poison that is in them. They don’t. These are INSULTS.  You don’t use negative terms and “take them back”. You use positive words.  You don’t stoop to the level of the cruel people who created these words to hurt.

So I want to talk about some of them a bit more and why I’d like people to start thinking before they use these words.  And I’m going to name names.  For once in my life, I’m calling these bastards out for who they are.

Part I – Nerd, Geek, Weird

Right now, terms like “nerd” and “geek” and “weird” are incredibly popular for just about anyone to use to say they are cool.  It’s horrendous.  One former friend even got upset with me for my intense dislike of the nauseatingly popular phrase, keep portland weird.  Fuck that term.

  • Dictionary (nerd): “a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.”
  • Dictionary (geek): “a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.”
  • Dictionary (weird): “strange, odd, supernatural.”

“The point is that ordinary folks consider you pathetic and uncool.” (from 5 Reasons Calling Someone a “Nerd” is Officially Meaningless).

See that picture at the top of this post?  That’s my 7th grade school photo, 1985.  Besides the plastic glasses, braces, and perm my sister gave me, I was also extraordinarily smart.  So much so that I had skipped the 5th grade and was still in classes several grades higher.  I was the only girl on the Math Team.  I placed 2nd in the State Spelling Championships.  I asked for extra reading over the summer.  I ran from my locker to class.  I sat in the front row of class and on the bus.  Kids wouldn’t let me sit next to them. I wore hand-me-downs.

I left the 4th grade happy and well-adjusted, with a gaggle of friends and tremendous confidence at age 10.  By the fall, I started 6th grade and was in classes with mostly 8th graders.  A ten year old in classes with fourteen year olds.  In childhood’s march towards adolescence, this is an extraordinary age range to slam together. In a world where smart equaled defective and unpopular, where the phrase “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” was still used, middle school for me left me in a place of self-hatred that scarred me for years.

In the 6th & 7th grade, I was brutally teased, verbally tortured, and outcast beyond believe. One girl in particular, Julie, used to constantly call me names, especially loving to tease me in the locker rooms for my lack of physical “development”. It was her mission to make me feel horrible.

In the 7th grade, I was humiliated on a regular basis by a boy, Andrew, who was one of the popular kids. He would push his desk right up against mine, get in my face, and pretend that he liked me.  All the girls and boys in class would laugh. I would turn beet red, and sometimes be driven to tears.  I was terrified and believed more and more that I was obviously unworthy of a boy ever really liking me.  For years after that, I never believed it when a boy genuinely liked who I was as a person. His cruelty – and the laughter of all the kids around him – nearly destroyed me.

I was a deathly shy girl who just wanted, like everyone else, to be liked for who I was.  Fortunately I found words, and music, and summer camp amongst sunshine and horses.  In the 8th grade, I started school with contact lenses, a  wardrobe that included more black than color, and new friends who moved to the area who shared my love of dancing.  They, by the way, saved me.  When the creeps in school called us “lesbians” because we hugged each other when we saw each other, we had each other to fall back on.  It helped me make it to high school.

But I was still scarred by what had been done to me.  I gave up math team.  I hid my academic accomplishments.  I channeled myself into my words, and my dancing, and figuring out how to get through high school without killing myself.

Yet, at age fifteen, I tried to commit suicide.

When people do things to you to tell you you’re not worthy of love, of respect, of being who you are?  It fucks you up.  When your formative years involve people using words like Nerd, Geek, Weird?  It’s not cool.  It’s not funny.  It’s MEAN.  It’s CRUEL.  It’s called bullying.

There’s no goddamn way I’m going to allow myself to be called a nerd or a geek or weird.  I am unique.  I have a mind of my own.  I walk to the beat of my own drum.  I even hire software engineers for a living.  

I am good.  I am smart.  I am funny.  I am kind.  I am imperfect.
But
I am not a Nerd, a Geek, or Weird.  I am not a collection of insults.

Part II – Bitch

Some years ago, it became trendy for women to use the term “Bitch” about each other – and try to reclaim it. It nauseats me.

  • Dictionary: “a malicious, unpleasant, selfish person, especially a woman.”

I am a strong woman.  I am a woman with a mind of her own.  I am a woman who isn’t afraid to express herself.  I am a woman who has been in the workforce for 23 years and have been treated differently from my male counterparts for as long as I can remember.  While they were described as “ballsy” and “ambitious” and “fearless”, when I tried to mimic their behaviors coming up in the professional world, I was termed “not a team player” and “difficult” and (in my last job, my favorite term) “disruptive”.  And of course – a bitch.

Watching what the incredible Hilary Clinton has gone through over her career, and hearing men – and women – call her a Bitch over and over.  One former friend of mine actually said “well I know someone who worked with her and they said she was a real bitch to her staff”.  When have we ever heard of a male politician being beaten down for being unpleasant?  They aren’t.

The fact is, if women aren’t constantly trying to “get along” and “collaborate”, we get punished.  If we challenge the status quo and question authority, we’re called Bitches.

Why the hell would I want to call myself a term that has been used to demean women for years?  Why the hell would an insult used for years and years to discredit the women who have fought for generations before me to give me what I have today be one I’d want to plaster on myself?

“How about teaching people respect instead? How about not demeaning your fellow women by using offensive terms “to empower them”? Embracing the label reinforces its use and makes it acceptable and that’s not okay. I don’t think there should be anything pejorative about speaking your mind, asserting yourself, or having an opinion.” (from KristenKing.com)

Oh – and don’t get me started by that ridiculous magazine that’s actually titled “Bitch”.  Just tell me, when is there going to be a male magazine called “Asshole”?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  Can you imagine a man “reclaiming” the term?

“Reclaiming words like “bitch” or “slut” doesn’t work because of the cultural meaning placed behind them…although some people may think of a word as empowering, others do not see it in the same context and therefore any word that is considered offensive should not be used at all.” (from A Word of Mouth Revolution).

Part III: Slut

“I don’t think sisters will be lining up to go on a symbolic “Ho Stroll” anytime soon.” (from CrunkFeministeCollective)

In recent years, there have been events called “Slut Walks” to champion a woman’s right to be safe no matter how she has dressed. Not cool in my mind to use that word.  Defend women’s rights to walk safely in the street no matter what she wears?  Yes. But to try to reclaim a word that has been used to demean women for years?  Absolutely not okay.

  • Dictionary: “an immoral or dissolute woman.”

I have been thinking a lot recently about the TGP post where I featured the words of Jeremy Meltzer, where he reminded the audience that men don’t have to worry about being sexually assaulted when they are walking alone at night, or assess if what they wear will drive the opposite sex to attack them.  I think of how when I’m working in my front yard I cannot bend over to pull weeds with my backside facing the street because there’s too much of a chance of men driving by who will (and they always do) catcall, whistle, or drive by really slow and terrifyingly creepy.  I’m not wearing a t-shirt calling myself a slut.

“A group of individuals may think writing “slut” on their body may be empowering, in terms of regaining control, but reshaping it doesn’t prevent the damages such a word causes in other situations.” (from Reclaiming Words).

I think about our sisters in this world who have been raped.  The women I know.  The women I don’t know.  I’m not going to call them sluts.  I don’t believe I’m empowering them by calling them what has created so much pain for then and so many others over the generations.  When I was ten years old, my then brother-in-law (his name: Brian) took advantage of me in my sleep.  I’ve had friends throughout life sexually assaulted by parents, siblings, relatives, friends, boyfriends, bosses, teachers, and more.  I know more who have been victims than who haven’t.  And most, including myself, who weren’t protected by the ones we trusted the most.  Where, twenty years later, when she gets back together with the man who molested you, you feel once again out in the cold.  Do I call myself a strong woman or do I call myself a slut?  It’s not a hard decision to make.

“It is a word that has been used to hurt, shame, and abuse women everywhere. In order to silence them, control them, punish them and, of course, blame them…And now a space has been created where it is not only acceptable, but progressive(!) for men to call women sluts; where it is perfectly acceptable for men to watch porn because, hey, women do it too! And where it is acceptable to objectify women because we’ve decided that objectification is actually empowering.” (from FeministCurrent)

Part IV: The N Word

And no matter how many in the media and entertainment use the “N” word, it is NOT empowering.  It’s horrendously disrespectful.

  • Dictionary (details): “The term is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War.”

Jennifer Jackson’s words say it all, echoing how I’ve tried to explain my thoughts on all of the other insults that people want to take back…

“If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today he would be so disappointed in the direction we have taken. Everything that he worked so hard for has been negated due to our own ignorance. Do you think he would ever refer to himself as a “Nigger”?” (from The UAM Voice)..

Epilogue

That’s it.  That’s all for now.  Go ponder.  And empower yourself with positive words. That’s worth living for.  That’s worth moving through then beyond what they’ve done.  Don’t take on words you know are so painful to so many, then tell those people they shouldn’t be offended, that they are good words when clearly they cause pain.  Find words that uplift every person.  Celebrate the good.

13 thoughts on “Tuesday Go Ponder (and why I refuse to “reclaim” derogatory words)

  1. i agree- and thank you so much for sharing your story!!! it’s SO important to speak out against bullying. I believe it was incredibly courageous of you to share this.

    I also agree with all your terms… except…. i personally don’t mind being called a nerd and geek (which I was bullied with that term growing up). but that said- it’s my own personal feelings and I can completely respect that there are those who don’t feel the same. So thank you for sharing.

    As a language person for her job, I agree that we can’t simply erase decades of hurtful connotations and social meaning by ‘reclaiming’ a word. It doesn’t work that way. How about, like you said, we choose kind and positive words instead?

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    1. A great quote I read the other day said something to the effect of, if a word is still seen as offensive to people, then people should not say it. They mentioned how the swastika was once a sign of peace, but no on is about to reclaim that. Hence again my suggestion of, instead of calling yourself a nerd or geek, how about “smart” or “unique” or just plain “wonderful” 🙂

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  2. Very thought provoking. I have mixed feelings about the idea of “reclaiming” derogatory words. My son had a difficult time in middle school, so we home schooled him for 3 years (No, he wasn’t socially isolated at that time as many people believe homeschooling does. He maintained regular contact with many friends.) When he returned to high school, he ended up with a great group of friends who got together at our house every Friday evening. They dubbed their group “Nerd Club.” Most of them are still very good friends and my son grew into a very self-confident, independent individual as a result of having this group. On the other hand, I suppose because I am a woman who is passionate about equal treatment of the sexes, I do have a hard time with words that have been used to demean women. Thanks for being so honest and sharing your painful memories. Much to think about…

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    1. First – no negative connotations for homeschooling – a lot of folks here do it for a wide variety of reasons and from what I’ve heard, there’s a pretty good support system out here for it 🙂

      Second – I wonder if your son and his friends knew that the word is still offensive to a large number of people that they might reconsider the term and think of something that’s rooted in positive connotations? I have no doubt that this group has helped him – I know my friends have saved me many a time – so I put out this food for thought…what if you had a daughter and her girlfriends called themselves the “Slut Club”?

      I always liked how Oprah and Maya and others have reminded us that when we know better, we do better. When I was in my first HR job 15 years ago, I took a diversity training that informed me for the first time of the origin of the slang term “gypped”. Because of that, I’ve never used the term again, no matter how commonplace it is. I can say ripped off, but I won’t say gypped. We have plenty of other words to choose from, you know?

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

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  3. Interesting read, my parents are both Chilean and I have definitely been stereotyped throughout my life, for not being dark enough, the list goes on….It is definitely good to know how many people are so ignorant when it comes to stereotypes and straight up labeling people.

    I have just blogged about stereotyping in the workplace and how it affects teamwork and relationships. I found it quite eyeopening to find out people really thought Asians with glasses are computer geeks!

    I would be grateful if you could check out my post and maybe comment about how you have been stereotyped in your life and how it has affected you.

    Thanks,

    Saby from http://www.thisisfuerza.wordpress.com

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your own experiences. The whole judgment on light/dark and “passing” always baffled me. Similar to how President Obama is primarily referred to as a Black President, rather than biracial, there is a lot of work for this world to do to accept that we are all from one human race and every single person is unique.

      It took me years to put on glasses in public as an adult after being stereotyped as a “nerd” in middle school. I was over 30 the first time I wore glasses in public post-7th grade, and it still takes a deep breath for me to do it these days.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your heart-wrenching story, how empowering! I would add the word “gay” to your list, (very pertinent current event with the supreme court cases etc.) Gay is still used as something lesser, not cool…it’s a word that I shudder at when used in this manner, people just aren’t thinking!

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    1. Hi Heather – Thanks for stopping by! I thought of that term too but was too tired to go on as I wrote so much as it is! I remember the term in school but haven’t heard it used as a derogatory term (i.e., “that’s so gay”) since I was a kid. Can’t imagine ever using it beyond the traditional synonym for same-sex.

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    1. Thank you for your words. I always remember the fact that my teacher was in the room when this was happening. So many teachers don’t protect kids at that age in school – so many do that “boys will be boys” or “that’s just how kids are” rather than interrupting bad behavior right then and there. I’d be interested in your perspective as a teacher as to what you and/or your peers have experienced and how it’s truly dealt with?

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  5. Wow, a powerful, heart wrenching post. I am sorry to read what you went through during your development years. I too was top of my class but hid behind my achievements because it was not cool to smart. The good grades could happen without having to advertise it. Nobody in college ever knew I was number one in my class (until graduation where it was announced I had a 4.0 average) as I was very popular. The only way to popularity was being a closet nerd and geek. I am not sure what you mean by reclaiming, since I never tried to be those things outwardly. I think you were cute in 7th grade.

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  6. You must have been on an amazing journey to get from where you describe to where you are now. Brilliant! As you say, friends can be a lifeline in bad situations, I totally empathise.

    On the word issue, I’m mostly in agreement. However, reclamation can be good….if you’re rescuing a word from it’s negative connotations. For instance, the old english word ‘cunt’ used in texts such as Chaucer, is the word for the female genitals. Here in the UK this is used regularly as an expletive, insult and an all round derogatory swear word. As ‘you cunt’ or ‘what a cunt that guy is/was’ . Now that’s a word that should be rescued. It’s such a good word! Germaine Greer did a whole programme about it, it was quite funny actually.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I hate how female genitalia has become a derogatory term, it’s bad for women in general. That being said, I still don’t like the “c” word because of the cultural connotation we have of it in America, and even if it is derived from something else, my point was that it’s about using positive words rather than using words that many still take offense at, and therefore showing sensitivity to all. (heard it used a lot in Oz recently, oy!)

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