What if words matter? Thoughts on “pussy” and “slut” and word baggage

Having just returned from a visit to the Pacific Northwest where I lugged suitcases across Oregon and Washington, I have baggage on my mind. Currently, my unpacked suitcase is swollen with my finds from the Portland Saturday Market and Pike Place Market. And dirty laundry. Ah, if only it were filled with Voodoo Doughnuts, but those don’t travel so well. Alas, my suitcase will be far easier to unpack than the baggage that comes along with words. While away, a lively debate ensued among some feminist friends of mine about the word “Slut” and its usage in the many SlutWalks taking place around the world. As I missed this glorious and erudite debate, I am posting this carry-on- size food for thought about words and baggage.  (For some posts on  Slutwalk, see  here, here, here, here, here, and here)

Before my holiday, I posted on what I saw as the unnecessary (and sexist) use of the term pussy in Super 8 (Super 8 and The Monstrous Pussy” at Womanist Musings and “Super 8’s ‘Super Pussy’” at Ms. Blog). Reading through the comments, especially those at the Womanist Musings thread, which include many claims that the use of the word is “historically accurate,” got me thinking – can words ever truly  be “reclaimed” or, to stick with the baggage metaphor, unpacked? Granted, Super 8 is not trying to unpack the word “pussy” – rather, the film uses it in its common sexist meaning – i.e. pussy=coward=being like a woman.

But, could “pussy” be put in a pleasant new bag, one with nice polka-dots or a furry peace sign? Some think so. Some also think “cunt” could be repackaged into a term of feminist empowerment.

As for myself, I think it is difficult to entirely reclaim words as they cannot be drained of their historical baggage.

Words matter.

In fact, they matter so much that they almost have a material weight to them – a baggage that cannot simply be ignored or erased.

Words are like suitcases, carrying with them all manner of meanings and socio-historical links.

I don’t think we can easily “reclaim” words any more readily than we can “reclaim” lost baggage at the world’s most disorganized airport.

(And, as for Speilberg and Abrams, well, they likely travel first class and don’t have to think about the “baggage” some of us on the other side of the privilege matrix must lug around. And their baggage, is of course, filled with BALLS, not pussy – which, are, I might add, far more vulnerable than the mighty pussy!  Thus, isn’t “Don’t be such a testicle” more apt? I would love to hear that in a summer blockbuster sometime!)

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What if analogous to the term ‘person of color,’ we used ‘person of white privilege’?

It seems the more disenfranchised a group is or the more s/he differs from ‘normative identities,’ the bigger a mouthful that person will have to use to describe her/himself. When we unpack what I like to call the ‘suitcase of our identity,’ if our suitcases contain all the social positions favored by society (i.e. white, male, wealthy, heterosexual, Christian, patriotic, etc) then we get to call ourselves simple things like ‘man,’ ‘guy,’ or ‘male.’ However, the more our identity diverges from these normative categories, the more words we must string together, as in ‘bi-racial queer working-class undocumented transwoman.’

With one word descriptors like ‘male,’ all sorts of assumptions come in to play. For example, when you describe someone as a ‘woman,’ many people will assume you are referring to a white woman as white is the ‘normative category’ in our racist society. This is especially true in the mainstream media where you only here racial/ethnic descriptors when the person is not white (and especially if that person is living up to the pervasive, socially sanctioned stereotype of being a ‘criminal’ – hence the phrase ‘driving while black’).

Now, in terms of linguistic equality, it doesn’t seem fair that some identities are (assumed to be) summed up in one word, while others require a whole string of complex descriptions. Let’s call it being ‘linguistically oppressed.’ In order to counter this oppression, I suggest a first move would be to begin calling ‘white people’ ‘people of white privilege’ instead. Just as the phrase ‘people of color’ nods to the system of racism that works against all of those without white privilege, the term ‘people of white privilege’ (or POWP), would own up to the fact that white skin, to borrow a phrase from the famous “Got Milk” add campaign, ‘does a body good.’ White privilege, as Peggy McIntosh and many others have so thoroughly elucidated, bestows one with all sorts of perks. The closing points of her widely anthologized piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” are well worth considering more closely:

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

Her linkage of obliviousness to white privilege as being analogous to obliviousness to male privilege is worth unpacking further. (For a full article examining male privilege, see here.) These two modes of obliviousness seem particularly resistant to dying. In my women’s studies classes, one of the units each semester that seems to put people on the defensive most is the unit in which we examine racism and white privilege. The people of color, due to systemic racism, are generally hip to all the injustices having skin that is not white confers upon them. However, white students are most often not correspondingly aware of the privileges their skin color affords. In fact, many become highly offended at the suggestion they are privileged and attempt to list out a whole host of ways they are not privileged via reference to their class, belief system, appearance, sexuality, etc. Here, they miss the point that just because one has white skin privilege does not mean one cannot lack privilege in many other areas (it’s called intersectionality, people!). Rather, white privilege refers to the doors having white skin opens – that door might be slammed again when, say, your easy ride securing a rental lease becomes more bumpy when your landlord discovers you are a lesbian.

People also seem reticent to own up to white privilege as they seem to think doing so is akin to admitting they are racist. What many fail to realize is that NOT owning up to white privilege is in itself a racist act. By ignoring or silencing the many societal perks that white skin brings, one is participating in what McIntosh terms “unearned privilege” – a privilege which has its base in institutionalized and internalized racism.

Some POWPs will also claim they too are discriminated against, that there is ‘reverse racism.’ Not fans of being picked on for their ‘whiteness,’ they take offense when cites like Stuff White People Like try to humorously dismantle the erroneous attitude that ‘race’ refers to people of color, not to their own white selves. Yeah, cuz its funny when you make racist jokes about other racial groups, just not when they are aimed at your own white ass.

Another common reaction to an analysis of white privilege includes ‘white guilt’ – or feeling guilty because you are white. When I was lucky enough to see Peggy McIntosh speak at USD in 2006, she made some great points about this, noting that feeling guilty about racism does nothing to solve the problem. What is required to stop racism and eradicate white privilege is action, not guilt. Liza at Anti Racist Parent discussed this today in her great post “Is Privilege Offensive”:

Having privilege does not equal feeling guilty. However, owning the fact that I experience privilege forces me to open my eyes to the ways in which systems of oppression and institutionalized -isms keep others from achieving.

As McIntosh and Liza both point out, feeling guilty doesn’t achieve anything. We need to open our eyes (as Liza suggests) and then begin to take actions in our everyday lives to dismantle white privilege and call it out when we see it.

One small step I suggest is to think about how it would change our perceptions if, instead of using the term white (or caucasian), we used ‘person of white privilege.’ Now, I know this won’t catch on – can you imagine Chris Matthews or Anne Coulter describing themselves as POWPs?!? But, even thinking about this linguistic possibility is edifying. If society were forcibly reminded each day that whiteness equals privilege maybe, just maybe, this might begin to crack the fortress of racism that poisons our world.

Owning up to white privilege and working to dismantle that privilege must be a priority – not just for people of color who know all to well about having the burden of dismantling racism put at their doorstep, but for people of white privilege too. The onus to dismantle this crazy-ass ‘master’s house’ needs to be taken on by people of white privilege. So, all of you POWPs out there, pick up your activist tools, grab your social justice hammer, and own up to your white privilege if you have not done so already. There is still lots of work to be done…

*For a list of links to various other privilege lists, see this page at Alas, A Blog. Thanks also to this blog for linking me to Liza’s “Is Privilege Offensive” with this post.

What if we called it “America’s war against Iraqi civilians”?

I was alerted via Tomdispatch.com about the publication of new book by Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian: Collateral Damage, America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians. According to the post, the book is:

“Based on hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans of the Iraq war and occupation, it lays out graphically indeed and in their own words the American system of patrols, convoys, home raids, detentions, and military checkpoints that became a living nightmare for civilians in Iraq. Think of their book as a two-person version of the Vietnam-era Winter Soldier Investigation, this time for a war in which Americans have seemed especially uneager to know much about what their troops, many thousands of miles from home, are really doing to the “hajis.”

Another good read in this vein is Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War. Language, this book argues, is, as George Orwell documented, one damn powerful force.

Think about it: what if poli-ticks (according to Jon Stewart: poli meaning many, ticks meaning blood sucking insects) said it like it is rather than relying on trumped up jargon and doublespeak?

For example, what if we used…

  • “war on Iraqi civilians” INSTEAD OF “war on terror”
  • “US imperialism” INSTEAD OF “spreading freedom and democracy”
  • “dead and injured civilians” INSTEAD OF “collateral damage”
  • “the ass who stole power” INSTEAD OF “the president”
  • “global militarism” INSTEAD OF “globalization”
  • “corporatism” INSTEAD OF “free market capitalism”
  • “xenophobic flag waiver” INSTEAD OF “patriot”
  • “bribe to keep you quiet” INSTEAD OF “tax reimbursement”

Do you think people would be as likely to say, “Yes, I support the war on Iraqi civilians”? Do you think they could stomach U.S. imperialism quite as easily if we focused on the deaths, starvation, displacement, genocide, etc it is causing? Do you think they would be able to see the atrocities US policies are bringing about as a “necessary evil” if we called torture what it is? Do you think people would be so happy about paying blood at the pump with their “tax reimbursement” if they knew who really controls the economy/global agenda (Bilderberg, anyone?) I certainly hope not.

By hiding the reality of things with feel good phrases, those in power pull the wool over the eyes of many. Let’s not allow this to happen – go out and re-read 1984 people, become an expert in the evil machinations of doublespeak, and call people (or leaders) out when they use it. Hitler was a huge fan of propaganda – see his Mein Kampf and ask yourself if those in power are not masters at this devious craft. Then, ignore the propaganda machine and say it like it is – it ain’t democracy baby, it’s neo-fascism, it ain’t ‘the greatest country on earth,’ it’s the heart of empire, it ain’t a war on terror, it’s a war against civilians and civil liberties…

What if the ‘neo’ in neo-conservative stands for ‘new evil omnipotence’?

While the neo prefix literally stands for new, it most definitely stands for a whole host of other things in the moniker “neo-conservative.” So, in Sesame Street fashion, let’s consider what the ‘n’ ‘e’ and ‘o’ in neo seem to stand for…

N is for nihilistic (as in moral principles and social obligations – what are those?), nepotistic (yeah, just a little bit of playing favorites is going on – like when you put all your PNAC buddies in charge of the government), and nitwits (standard definition applies – i.e. really stupid people). N also stands for just plain nasty.

E is for evil (as in squinty-eyed lying, soulless power-mongers who will do anything it takes to rule the world), enduring (as in the unfortunately enduring nature of this hellacious ideology), end-of-times (as in the crazies who believe US sovereignty is ordained and saving the environment doesn’t really matter because Armageddon is on its way – re, George W.), executioners (as in executions-are-us – and torture too), and empire (as in good old U.S.of A. not-so super plans to control the world).

O is for omnipotence (as in having way too much damn power), onanism (as in ruled by major jerk-offs), oppressive (as in, “hey, our theory is let’s oppress the whole damn world and get crazy drunk off our own power”), omnivorous (as in devouring everything, planet and all) obstinate (as in “Change? No way! Let’s conserve all the crap about our unequal world and spread the inequality around a bit more!”), omnipresent (as everywhere in the news and controlling the spin), and obstreperous (as in noisy, unruly children who keep shouting “The world is mine! It’s mine! It’s mine! I will kill you if you even think about touching it!”)

Despite these not so under-currents of the neo-con flavor, the term is waved around as just another ideological flag, just another political persuasion. Do the people that claim the neo-con’s are not that powerful have blinders on? Seems to me that all their hopes and dreams are coming true tenfold. We have a mega-wattage and ultra aggressive approach to our foreign policy right now and we are so damn big on defense that we drive our own private tanks (you know, Hummers). Our media, our government, and lots of the populace has an unwavering support for the Straussian Likud Party of Israel. We are so pro-business that we might as well be called United States of Corporations (or the United Corporations of America). And, in case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t really seem all that keen on resisting a U.S. empire in order to “keep the peace” and bring “democracy” to “threatening regimes” (things neo-con’s claim they want to do). Sounds like we are living a neo-con wet dream if you ask me.

Ah, if only the neo in neo-conservative stood for a “never ending obituary” for this disturbingly nasty, evil, omnipresent dogma…

What if “woman” was not used as a synonym for “white woman”?

Certain words, most words, in fact, carry along all sorts of baggage with them. Words are like overstuffed suitcases. When we bandy about the hefty word ‘woman,’ most people see a Costco-variety suitcase, a ubiquitous ‘everywoman’ that, like the dark green Costco luggage at airport baggage claim, is indistinguishable from all other women. Yet, this pervasive use of ‘woman’ to represent a very particular type of woman – a white, heterosexual, middle class, manicured, polished, feminine women – is harmful to ALL women.

When a media mouthpiece says “woman” they usually mean ‘white middle class hetero woman.’ When they mean a female who is not part of this limiting normalization, they add adjectives and stir – such as Chicana, Black, Queer, Homeless, etc.

So, what should the word ‘woman’ mean? Well, channeling Freud, it seems the word should mean what the individual woman wants it to mean. It could mean “I have a vagina,” it could mean “I identify as female,” heck, it could mean “I don’t identify in any gender category but need to use the damn bathroom.” But, from a societal level, it is imperative that we who have our social justice awareness caps on use this term woman more carefully. As a case in point, why is Obama referred to as a black man while Hillary is most often referred to merely as a woman?

“Woman” should not be used to make whiteness or other categories of social privilege invisible. It should not be used as a synonym for white woman, for a heterosexual female, or for any other supposedly (ugh) ‘normal’ category. Rather, the word must carry all the heavy connotations stuffed into the very large, overstuffed suitcase of all those social positions, identities, and intersectionalities that are socially constructed as well as embodied by those who identify or are identified as women.