Language is hard, not gonna lie. Words are more than just definitions spewed out by Merriam-Webster. There’s nuance to consider. There’s origin. There’s history that can change and redefine a word’s impact. But before I get into all this, first I want to talk about the swastika. Why? It’s relevant, I promise.
The swastika was originally a Hindu symbol developed in ancient India, and by ancient I mean 3300 – 1300 BC, so a minimum of three thousand years ago. If it faced left, it represented the terrifying goddess Kali, night, and magic. If it faced right, it represented the gods Vishnu and Surya. The symbol was used to empower. It was used for good luck. It was, by its original design, a lovely, healthy thing people would sew onto garments, paint onto temple walls, and venerate. But we all know what happened to the swastika, folks. A madman came in, adopted it for his own, and now the connotation in the forefront of everyone’s mind is Nazi assholes instead of Vishnu. Because of one man “claiming” it, a symbol that was a thing of beauty in the Hindu religion for THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF YEARS was forever polluted by genocide.
THIS is a perfect example of the nuance in language, guys. Something can be both GOOD and BAD at the same time depending on your origin. If you are a Hindu and you use the swastika, you’re probably in the clear. If you’re a blue-eyed white person, no, it’s not okay, and you can thank Adolf for that.
I keep hearing this outcry about “Why can the black community use THE N WORD but Paula Deen can’t.” Substitute ANY WHITE PERSON EVER for Paula Deen and you have the jist of the complaint. The answer is both complex and simple, but it boils down to because history happened. And you can’t dismiss that with, “well that was a long time ago.” So was Hitler’s bullshit, but it’s not like there’s a shelf-life on atrocity. THE N WORD’s origins are white people enslaving black people. Yeah, this generation isn’t guilty of it, but our Super Grand Pappies sure were. And our grandparents were part of the generation that embraced segregation, so it’s not like active racism in America is SUCH AN OLD THING.
So then why is it okay that black people use the word? Because in our society right now, there’s a cultural allowance in their community. They “took it back.” Just like some feminists took back bitch. Just like members of the LGBT community took back queer. As members of an oppressed group, they took what used to be THE WORST OF THE WORST and they turned it on its head. I don’t know that I’d say they used it to empower themselves, but there’s probably a level of that there. And you can go ahead and argue that these folks are no longer oppressed minorities so it should just be off-limits period (and I’ll laugh because, uhh, wake up and smell the racism), but by that argument, the swastika should either fully embraced or fully outlawed depending on which side of the coin you allow. But considering the history outlined above, there’s no right answer there, right?
So do you tell someone who’s taken a word back and uses it to empower themselves that they’re wrong? I don’t. Because I understand how language works. I understand nuance, history, and fluidity. I also understand that I am never, ever going to be allowed to get a swastika tattoo and I’m okay with that. Why aren’t you?