Reclaiming Language and Who 'Gets' to Say What

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

Besides polyester, disco, and hideous hairdos, the late ’70s and early ’80s were also somehow ripe years in the U.S. for the “Pollock” joke. The jokes were never funny, and you could substitute any ethnicity and they would turn out the same, but for some reason, Poles were the popular targets of the era, and the jokes were intended to make them appear stupid.

My boyfriend at the time was first-generation Polish-American. His parents had come to the U.S. from Poland after World War II, and they both had the tattooed forearms of concentration camp survivors. My boyfriend was born in the States and spoke fluent Polish and English. He also told a lot of “Pollock” jokes.

At the time, I thought it was a defense mechanism – an “I’ll make fun of myself before you can make fun of me” kind of thing. I also thought that it might have stemmed from some internalized shame at being a member of a group that was so disparaged in the United States then.

But my boyfriend was proud to be Polish. Although he had a Polish first and last name that were difficult for native English speakers to spell and pronounce, his parents had allowed him the option of Americanization by giving him the middle name of Jim (not James – just Jim). That way, if he chose not to go by his Polish first name, he had an out – but he never took it.

He told everyone he was Polish and he insisted on the correct usage of his name. He was patient with people who took their time to learn the spelling and pronunciation, but he expected that everyone eventually would. And although he told “Pollock” jokes himself, the only other person who could do so without offending him was his very best friend, who was not Polish.

I later understood that his “Pollock” jokes were his attempt at reclamation of the language that had been used against him and the “humor” that was used at his expense. He knew the jokes weren’t funny. He wasn’t telling them to entertain, but to point out their absurdity and to neutralize their sting. And this was what those who were not familiar with the reclamation of language didn’t understand.

They thought it was “cool” that a Polish guy would tell “Pollock” jokes. They wanted to be cool, too. They wanted to tell the same jokes. And they didn’t think it was “fair” that they didn’t “get” to tell those jokes without offending.

It’s just an older version of a current story – people griping about the “unfairness” of people within a community “getting” to use certain terms when those outside of the community cannot. “Why do you ‘get’ to use that word when I can’t?” Oh, the horrible inequity of it all!

People of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, people with certain sexual orientations, people in certain gender communities “get” to use words that would be considered slurs if anyone else said them. How can that possibly be fair?

In my community, the word “tranny” comes under fire often – but there are plenty of people who have reclaimed it and use it to refer to themselves. I sometimes use it to refer to myself – in private, with my closest friends, and often in a sarcastic way (“Of course, they’re not going to call a tranny in for an interview”). There are other people who are far more public in their usage of the word and in their identification with it. I think that’s fine. I have no problem with anyone reclaiming a word that has been used against him or her. In many cases, it can make us stronger.

But I do have a problem with those outside of any given community who whine that they can’t use certain words themselves without offending, as if they are being denied a huge, life-affirming privilege – as if they are being discriminated against for their non-membership in said marginalized community.

For those who complain and feel left out because certain reclaimed language is not available to you, here’s what I can promise you – if you never “get” to use a particular racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender slur in your entire life, you will survive. If you never “get” to say certain words that those in a particular marginalized group use among themselves, you will not suffer undue hardship. Your life will be whole, complete, and quite satisfactory without ever using any reclaimed words that are not yours to adopt. You are not missing out on anything.

If you don’t believe me, then just accept this – life isn’t “fair.” If it were, then there would be no harmful, damaging words to reclaim in the first place.

Posted in Topics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *