Chicks, Sluts, 'Hos and Niggas--A Response to Those That Mistakenly Believe These Words Empower Them

[The following is written by Cathy Cooper]

Now, my husband is Black, and is also a philosopher, and has argued against using the word “nigga” as a tactic in the manner that it has been used up to this date. We have both presented material on this subject in the past, and due to the recent barrage of those who claim they are “taking back” these types of words, this post was written to clarify what using these types of words as tactics really means. Also, since this is DC, as you read this post, you will see a connection between Christianity and why we ought not use this as a tactic.

This post is in reference to a reply to my comment on John's post, "Quote of the Day, by Thunderf00t *Sigh*"  My comment is below:
As a woman, I agree with you John--it's insane. I wrote a post last year in reference to the Rebecca Watson debacle, and how Dawkins reacted--illustrating that there is still a long way to go--for both sides--in recognizing what sexism and harassment is, and how to counter it. http://aisforatheist5760.blogs...
That the "skepchicks" call themselves "chicks" in the first place just reinforces the stereotype that women are "flighty fluffy birds without a brain"--and I personally sent an email to Miss Watson to inform her of this. In her reply, she told me that they use that term because they are "taking it back"--but that makes no sense. It makes no sense because you can only take back a word if it had a positive connotation to it--but "chick" does not. The connotation is entirely negative, and this is how "chicks" are viewed--as brainless flighty, fluffy birds. I felt the same way about the "slut walk" in Toronto. I also find it interesting that men are not flocking to organize a "prick walk"--you know, so they can "take back" that word too! Why not just use BETTER terminology without any sexist, sexual, or negative connotations attached. It's all just so ludicrous......
Followed by this comment by Aurvura:
You are wrong when you say that "taking it back" can only be done if a word had a positive connotation to it.
'Taking it back' is the act of neutralizing a pejorative term, frequently a racial or gender-based slur, by applying it to oneself voluntarily, for example the use of the term nigga or dyke within the African-American and lesbian communities, respectively. The same goes for queer and fag. None of these words began with a positive connotation.
The words "slut" and "nigger" have always had negative connotations. Perhaps I can persuade readers with examples of other words which did not always have negative connotations, and have been “taken back.” Let's take the case of a woman who makes reference to herself as being a "witch" for example.  Now, the origin of the term comes from those who practised magic, and they did not originate with a negative connotation. Let me use Wikipedia to illustrate:
Witchcraft, in historical, anthropological, religious, and mythological contexts, is the use of alleged supernatural or magical powers or spells. A witch (from Old English wicca, masculine; wicce feminine) is a practitioner of witchcraft.
Historically, it was widely believed in EARLY MODERN CHRISTIAN EUROPE that witches were in league with the Devil and used their powers to harm people and property. Particularly, since the mid-20th century, "bad" and "good" witchcraft are sometimes distinguished, the latter often involving healing. The concept of witchcraft as harmful is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community.
Add to this, that women who were scientists and doctors--in particular, midwives--who were referred to as "witches" during the Christian Inquisitions, and "demonized" for their healing arts which was referred to as "witchcraft" by the church.  The "spinsters" (i.e., spinners of wool) were also persecuted, as they were autonomous, and did not require men to support them.  Now, as a woman, I can take back the word “witch" because it began with a positive connotation, and was demonized later on by the church. The same can be said for the spinner who became the "spinster." She too was demonized by the church because she was a strong independent woman who did not need a man to support her. Yeah, I'm a "spinster" and proud of it--meaning like the spinners of old, I make my own living independent of men (although my husband I do work together) thereby, taking back the words "spinster" and "witch."

Sadly, some women have adopted the Christian miss-conceived and demonized version of what it means to be a witch. By doing so, they reinforce the negative misconception of witches.

Now, the term “nigger” has never had a positive connotation associated with the word. 

In almost all societies (including those in Africa) black had a negative connotation. In Africa for instance, black was associated with night—the time when the tigers and snakes came out. They also avoided going into the “black forest.” In Egypt however, black had a positive connotation, and black was viewed as being “powerful" (for example Black capstones were often placed on Egyptian pyramids
and obelisks because of the powers inherent in the color black)

However, what the “sluts” and “niggas” are doing in our society by their so-called “taking back" of the words “slut” and “nigga” is reinforcing and embracing the negative.  So as not to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and to provide you with some historical background on the subject, and to show how the opposing view would argue for using “nigga” and “slut” as a positive tactic, I will cite from the article, “What It Means to Appropriate a Slur” and then I will give my opposing view. Now, as Andrew Jacobs states:
One strategy for resisting hostile slurs like 'queer' or 'nigger' is for the oppressed group to appropriate the name and transform it into a rallying cry or "reverse discourse". An understanding of how 'nigga' operates as a reverse discourse requires a culturally rooted rhetorical analysis of the term.

Gates, in The Signifyin(g) Monkey, provides background for such an analysis. Because his project is ultimately to derive an African-American theory of literary criticism, he touches on the appropriation of 'nigger' only briefly, asserting that a "political offensive" was mounted against the term by African-Americans through a black rhetorical strategy called Signifyin(g) (47). Gates, however, does not explain precisely how Signifyin(g) works in this case, except to suggest that it involves agnominatio (46). Thus 'nigger' becomes 'nigga', a word that differs from the racial slur but originates from and recalls it.2 Although Gates's commentary on the appropriation of 'nigger' amounts to little more than a sentence, much of his explication of the term Signifyin(g) implicitly applies to the co-optation of 'nigger'. The rhetorical analysis presented in this paper is a logical extension of Gates's initial linkage of the appropriation of 'nigger' with the rhetorical practice of Signifyin(g).

The social baggage attached to 'nigga' assures that every use of the term is double-voiced in the Bakhtinian sense. More precisely, 'nigga' is a Bakhtinian parody of 'nigger'; the new connotation parodies or comments on the original because the new term carries with it the history of its pejorative use as well as the refashioned connotation of defiant group pride.3 This kind of rhetorical turn or critique is an example of the African-American rhetorical practice Gates identifies as Signifyin(g). Pinning down exactly what constitutes Signifyin(g) is difficult. Numerous black language scholars have commented on the expansiveness of the term.4 Gates argues that in its broadest sense, to Signify means to be "figurative," further noting that "to define it in practice is to define it through any number of its embedded tropes" (81).5 For our purposes it can be described as a rhetorical action that indirectly critiques another term or sign by revising it. Gates explains that, fundamentally, this revision and critique involve "repetition, with a signal difference" (51).

Gates distinguishes the African-American term, 'Signifyin(g)', from the word 'signifying' by capitalizing the 'S' and bracketing the 'g' (46). It is helpful to think of the former term as 'Signifyin(g) on' (or critiquing) something whereas the latter word 'signifies' (or means) something but does not inherently involve a critique. Thus, to parody the motions of a police officer behind his or her back 'Signifies on' the officer and 'signifies' one's disrespect.6

Signifyin(g) is inherently a counter-puncher's strategy, an act of resistance against an oppressive force. Gates even goes so far as to call it the "slave's trope" (52). In Signifyin(g), the revised term, through its parodic double-voicedness, enters into a semantic loop with the original term; recollection of past oppressive usage must occur to fuel the term's new meaning.

Figure 1 - Semantic Loop of Semantic Inversion and Agnominatio

This semantic loop recalls what W.E. B. Dubois termed African-American double consciousness, a consciousness that yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. (16-17)

While 'nigga' recalls how blacks have been measured by the tape of the world, it also defies this estimation through ironic revision of the name. Although Dubois would criticize this pathway through the white term as a road to false consciousness, others might insist that since revision of the white term occurs through distinctly African-American rhetorical strategies, the revision is emblematic of an authentically African-American consciousness—which is a double consciousness. In this view the revision does not attempt to reconcile what DuBois calls the "two unreconciled strivings" of the black person as "an American and a Negro" but instead involves them in an endless interplay (17).”

Many of the readers of this post may not know this, but DuBois was originally a philosopher before  his focus became sociology and history. He studied under the great pragmatic philosopher, William James. Prior to graduating, James explained to him that our society was not ready to accept black philosophers, and he would do better in the fields of sociology and history—sort of a trick, because for a pragmatic philosopher, everything is philosophy. I have mentioned many times that I too, am a practising pragmatist. I mention it here again, because DuBois' conclusion relies on the pragmatic method. As DuBois argued, using the words “nigger,” “nigga” etc., as a tactic in this case, leads to a false sense of consciousness. We can see this even more today as we look at the results. Let us look at how “nigga” has been used in the rap music world today.

“Nigga” is not used to mean something associated with royal power, or any of the other positive connotations from Egypt or Africa. Instead, it makes reference to being a “bad ass gangsta” which is reflected in the actions of those who consider themselves “gangsta,” and propagates Black on Black crime. I won't bother to cite the number of deaths and crimes that have resulted in Blacks in America buying into into this false dichotomy--false sense of consciousness. Instead of combating capitalist oppression and racism, it has brought strife to Black America. As Malcom X would say, “If one enslaves a person's mind, it is far more enslaving than merely physically enslaving a person in chains.” The tactic of using “nigga” reinforces the negative!

Likewise, the use of the terms “chick” and “slut” as a tactic by women, has led to a similar result. This can be witnessed by the "slut walk” that occurred in Toronto last year, that has now spread globally. It began as a protest march in which many women dressed provocatively to protest against those that believe women are “asking for it” when they dress like sluts. I agree with the message that no woman should be raped for how they look or behave. On the other hand, like DuBois argued above with reference to “nigga,” I now make the same claim for the words “slut” and “chick,” in that for a woman, this double consciousness is a consciousness that yields her no true self-consciousness, but only lets her see herself through the revelation of the other world (i.e., how men define the word). As Dubois noted, "It is a peculiar sensation this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." Now, as we can see at the marches, women dress up like prostitutes and hookers and portray themselves as sluts and whores. They believe they are “free” to “think” for themselves—but this is a “double-think.” They believe that they are arguing to be equal to men, and in this case, being equal to men also means being free to be as promiscuous as men are. But this is just the negative view of women that men have in a capitalist society—women are sexual commodities. As Marx made note of—women prostitute themselves in all kinds of ways. Women in our society are becoming more and more “slut like” than ever before i.e., they are still sexual commodities. The kicker being that they give it away now—thereby enslaving themselves in the manner that Malcolm X made note of. What is even worse, is the the “boys club” view of women has only changed for the worse. Most men and women would never greet their grandmothers by calling her a “slut” or a “ho” or a "chick"--this would be disrespectful.  But so many modern women today see no problem with labeling themselves as sluts and 'hos and chicks. How pathetically sad.

Note, that in music today, and all forms of media, women to a greater extent than ever before, are made reference to as chicks, sluts, whores, boobs, and so on. In rap music in particular, we see the result of being a “bad nigga” who has his 'hos. We see the negative result this has had on Black America. Likewise, we can see what is happening to young women as well throughout the Americas in the increases in unwanted pregnancies, abuse, disease, etc.

Therefore, while one can take back the positive connotation of the words “witch” and “spinster”--the results show that using the words “sluts,” “chicks,” “whores,” and “niggas” has resulted in a false sense of consciousness, and has reinforced and propagated the negative connotation that they sought to fight against in the first place.   

Addendum:  To further illustrate how we can take back a word that originally had a positive connotation, or was at least neutral, such as the word "witch," see the paragraph below (I strongly suggest that you read the entire article) from an article titled "The Derivation of the Word Witch" written by Doreen Valiente:
A witch was a seer, a knower, an averter of evil. The word only took on a negative meaning with the coming of Christianity, which taught that all the gods of the heathen were devils. So anyone who clung o the old ways and the Old Religion was a devil worshipper. And annually, around Halloween, we still see the same old charges being made in the same old spirit of bigotry. Isn't it sad that these good folk haven't learnt anything since the Dark Ages?
The spinsters and witches were demonized and persecuted by the Christians because of their wisdom.  They were seen as a threat to the dominance of the patriarchal Christian/capitalist system, and were, therefore, eliminated.  Finally, this persecution, although attributed to Christianity as a religious issue, was primarily driven by economic issues; for two reasons.  Firstly, men wanted to take over science and medicine, and the church did not like the fact that these independent women were not giving their money to the church and were undermining the patriarchal system--which is the backbone of Christianity--god the father/son/holy ghost.  When men took over science and medicine, they did not use the same cleanliness and birthing techniques that were routinely used by the witches.  For them, it was all about profit.  They did not wash their hands, and also developed forceps so they could yank out babies faster, and move on to the next--causing millions of children to be disabled/die as a result.  The witches on the other hand, invented birthing chairs, washed their hands, used eons of knowledge passed down to them in herbal medicines--and took their time.  They were respected and admired for what they did--and the church hated them for it.  It was claimed that they were so good at what they did, that it had to be the work of "Satan."  This is why feminists like Mary Daly, were able to "take back"and reclaim the words "witch and "spinster" and restore their original positive connotations.