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    Tomorrow I will change, and today won’t mean a thing

    2012 - 03.14

    Yesterday on Twitter some friends and I were discussing reappropriation of offensive terms – you know, the idea that reclaiming a derogatory term will make it lose its power to offend.

    It started with a tweet from Jon Crowley:

    Jon may have been talking about the feminist attempts to reclaim “Slut.” (see: Slutwalk). He may have been referencing rap music’s casual dropping of N-bombs. That’s not really the point; he sparked an insightful discussion on the power of words.

    The only clear example I could find was “Queer,” which has been reclaimed to such an extent that it currently is the banner term for the entire LGBTQQetc. community. Actually, practically all of the words that have lost most of their negative connotations have to do with sexuality – “homo” and “dyke” have more or less become acceptable within the community.

    Now, this may not be the same everywhere. Different words carry different power depending where they’re used – a certain commonplace word used in Australia makes me flinch, and I’m sure that “queer” still has strong ties to discrimination and bigotry in many societies that haven’t yet embraced (or accepted, or legalized) non-hetero partnerships.

    There’s also the matter of intent. There are a lot of names I’ve been called in my life – some hurt, and some didn’t. A huge factor in that, personally, is whether the person intended to offend me – the difference between a woman proudly walking in the Dyke March during Pride week and a group of men shouting “Dyke!” at a lady for having a short haircut.

    It was Emma Woolley, whom I invariably can depend on to raise points I hadn’t considered, who hit the nail on its head:

    This is the crux, isn’t it? Words affect people differently based on past experiences and present state of mind. A whole culture can’t possibly reclaim a word, because its use is so innately personal. Emma even pointed out that attempts to reappropriate a word can cause damage by alienating individuals over whom the word still has power.

    The choice to take the power away from a word is intensely personal; we can’t take the harm out of a word on behalf of everyone, but if we do we must also acknowledge that it likely still affects people the way it used to affect us.

    I’ve taken the power away from a lot of words in my life. Slut, bitch, and other gendered insults don’t really hit me the way they once did. Bitches get shit done (thanks for that adage, Tina). Sluts are in control of their own sexuality – see my friend CK’s blog, To Be A Slut, for an elaboration.

    Even my online moniker, Cap’n Allegra, was an appropriation of an insult hurled at me constantly in high school. Let me take you back in time…

    I was not always the World’s Spokeswoman for Awesome Glasses that I am today.

    Shocking, I know.
    Picture thirteen year old Allegra: bad posture, dirty hair, huge teeth, a fair few pounds heavier than now, in the most awkward throes of puberty. My wonderful mother had instilled in me some (undeserved) SERIOUS self-importance and overconfidence, which meant that I had no real friends because no one wanted to hear me talk about how great I was at everything. I’d come home and hear how wonderful I am, and go to school and hear exactly the opposite.
    That’s really no one’s fault – I love my mother for believing in me, and I can’t blame my classmates for calling me on my shit, but the dichotomy screwed me up for a while.

    Anyway, after a few years of wearing (in retrospect) the worst glasses of all time, I decided that high school would be different – I was going to get contact lenses! Contact lenses would solve all my problems.*

    *Spoiler alert: they did not.

    Halfway through grade nine, this one girl decided that her mission was to make me feel worthless. She would spread rumours about me (they were pretty much entirely sexual – I think her bullying was based on a boy liking me more), fling paper wasps at me from the other side of the room (my back and shoulders were covered with fresh welts every day) and make mutual friends choose between us. She would tell the cool boys (who also had no time for her – socially we were on the same low rung) that I wouldn’t fight her because I knew I’d lose.

    I handled this well, in retrospect. I never asked our mutual friends to take my side; I never revealed secrets I’d learned during the two (?) months we were friendly; I didn’t take cheap shots at her weight, teeth, mental illness or hereditary alcoholism, even though she had no hesitations exploiting my weaknesses. I didn’t fight her, or retaliate. I asked her what I’d done to deserve such ire, once, and she spat in my face.

    In grade 10, one of contacts rolled to the back of my eye. In trying to extract it myself, I scratched my cornea. When I went to the hospital, I found that the contacts had been slowly burning my retina as well. I was ordered to wear an eyepatch for a while. Life was pretty much the worst.

    Walking down the hallways in an eyepatch did not, as you can imagine, endear me to my peers. The girl who bullied me took advantage of my lack of depth perception to knock me over as often as she could, and invented a new nickname that spread like wildfire – “Captain Assbeard,” for my “butt-shaped” chin. I don’t think a nickname ever hurt more than that one did. People I’d never spoken to would refer to me as such when I’d play a solo in band class, or write it on my locker with a grotesquely exaggerated caricature of my face. “Walking the plank” jokes were commonplace, especially in conjunction with the hypersexual image she’d created through rumours. Even after my eye had healed and I started wearing glasses again, I still heard them.

    I don’t know where I learned the idea of reclaiming words, but I decided I’d give it a try. It was 2003, so everyone had a LiveJournal. When I joined, I signed up for the username “CapnAllegra,” and it has been my online moniker ever since.

    I don’t know when this girl found out about it, but she came up to me and said, “You can’t call yourself Cap’n Allegra, you dumb bitch. Don’t you know it’s an insult?”

    I shrugged, and said “Obviously it doesn’t bug me that much.”

    The jokes petered out pretty quickly after that. The girl still made every effort to make me miserable, but she was really never able to get her power back after that. Whenever I get pirate or nautical jokes made these days, they are good-natured. I embrace them. I’m proud of my fifteen-year-old self for re-appropriating a term that once hurt me so much.

    I am a strong believer in personally reclaiming words as your own. My name IS my power, and no insult or word has really been able to touch me since then. I also know that not everyone has quite reached that stage where they are ready to hear a hurtful word tossed around casually.