bullThe English language is filled with an ever-growing collection of nasty and insulting words to refer to maligned groups. Just think of all the slurs used over the years to refer to African-Americans, or to gays and lesbians, or to just about any group that has ever been stigmatized or marginalized. I don’t even want to list any of them.

Those labels can be horribly hurtful. They can also set off shouting matches over what should happen when people use those words. Sometimes, though, people who are the targets of those slurs adopt a bold and imaginative strategy for sapping them of their power: They embrace the words and make them their own.

A great example of that is the word “queer.” For a long time, it was a cruel and deliberately insulting label hurled at gays and lesbians. Then the people who were attacked with that slur began to use it to refer to themselves. Now there are actually university programs called Queer Studies – not as a nickname but as the official name. SlutWalk plays on the same idea. I’ve also noticed that the word spinster is increasingly being embraced, rather than resisted, by single women.

But is this strategy of appropriating stigmatizing labels – embracing them and making them your own – really an effective one? Until recently, there was no systematic research on that question. Then a group of social scientists published a series of 10 studies. The short answer to the question is yes, labeling yourself with a term meant to demean you can empower you and sap the sting from the term.

Here’s some of what the researchers learned about how the process works:

  • Making a nasty label your own seems to be an expression of power. When people in stigmatized groups regard their groups as more powerful, they are more likely to appropriate nasty labels and use them to describe themselves.
  • People who take over an insulting label and make it their own are more likely to feel powerful themselves.
  • Other people who hear members of stigmatized groups using the nasty labels to describe themselves see those group members as more powerful.
  • The personal power a stigmatized individual gets from appropriating a nasty label rubs off on that person’s group – the group comes to be seen as more powerful, too.
  • People who embrace a label meant to derogate begin to see the label as less negative than they did before.
  • Other people also start to see the label as less negative.
  • People who appropriate negative labels are more likely to care about the empowerment of their group.

The whole process becomes self-perpetuating in a positive way. Labels that start out as hurtful and derogatory are robbed of at least some of their sting, and the people who are targeted with the vitriol end up more powerful when they embrace the slur and use it to refer to themselves. The people who used the words in the demeaning ways in the first place find their own group losing power relative to the derogated group.

There is no guarantee that the process will work in this satisfying way every time. We will need to wait for future research to learn about the limiting conditions. In the meantime, though, we can savor the success of this creative way of resisting stigma.

Man yelling at woman image available from Shutterstock.