In an increasingly progressive society, marginalized groups are more and more being empowered to fight prejudice and hatred wherever it appears. This kind of protest can take many forms; reappropriation is one form of protest in which groups fight disparaging words, symbols, and narratives by adopting them for their own use. This type of protest is powerful because it allows us to disarm the bigoted people who would do us harm. Instead of falling victim to their disparaging narratives, we can change their meaning—rendering them powerless. I’ve put together a few examples of reappropriation protest that I’ve found, but there are sure to be others.
Slurs and symbols
Degrading language and symbols are some of the most common tools used to marginalize people, and this makes them prime candidates for reappropriation. Nearly every marginalized group has slurs associated with it—disparaging words used to exclude, belittle, or express contempt. Some groups have reclaimed these slurs—adopting them for use within the community. Within the group, the term becomes a source of pride and a part of their collective identity rather than a slur. A notable example of this is the way “queer” was reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. As a result of this reappropriation, its use as a slur has fallen. Members of a group may disagree about whether or to what extent a slur has been reclaimed, who is allowed to use it, and under what circumstances its use is appropriate. Many believe it’s better to let a term die out than try to reclaim it. Still, reclaiming a slur is a powerful method of disarming people who would otherwise use it against others.
Symbols can be reappropriated in much the same way slurs can. During the Holocaust, a system of badges was used to to mark prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, with different shapes and colors identifying why prisoners had been placed there. There were symbols for Jewish people and people of other religious minorities, Romani people, neurodivergent and disabled people, political prisoners, homosexual and bisexual men and women, and other groups. After the war, many of these symbols came to be used on memorials and monuments honoring victims of of the Holocaust. Rather than acting as a mark of shame, they came to represent the memory of those who had been lost. Later, in the 1970s, the pink triangle—the symbol used to distinguish gay men—became a symbol of protest against homophobia and a symbol of pride for the LGBTQ+ movement.
Witches and witchcraft are a feature of many cultures worldwide. While cultural attitudes toward witchcraft and the specific practices and beliefs involved vary culture to culture, witchcraft and similar practices are condemned by all the major Abrahamic religions. During the witch trials of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, an estimated 50,000 people were burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. Of these victims, 80% were women.
The persecution of witches is rooted in sexism as much as religion. Women were accused of witchcraft for being childless, financially independent, assertive, sexually progressive, and unmarried, among other reasons. In some cultures, women were considered to have dangerous powers stemming from their ability to give birth. Witch trials were a method by which men controlled women who threatened the patriarchy. Independent, autonomous women challenged the status quo, and that scared people.
In recent years, witchery has seen a resurgence in popular culture, with many people self-identifying as witches. For some people, it’s about spirituality and neo-paganism; for others, it’s about the witchy aesthetic and lifestyle. Regardless of what being a witch means to them, many feminists have adopted witch culture as a means of reappropriating the sexist narratives that have historically been associated with it. “Witch” was once a label used to oppress women. Now, many people have reclaimed the term as a symbol of female power.
Cyborgs, aliens, and robots
People often dehumanize those they don’t like, don’t understand, or don’t want to understand. Sometimes this is a defense mechanism used to justify discrimination against others; enslavers in eighteenth and nineteenth century America justified their actions on the premise that the people they enslaved were sub-human. Sometimes we dehumanize others to separate ourselves from them—to renounce any possible association. Whatever the reason for it, dehumanization is a prevalent form of discrimination.
Neurodivergent people have been dehumanized through much of human history, and continue to be today. People with neurological differences are often portrayed as ill, broken, incomplete, and, yes, subhuman. Aromantic people are another group that is often dehumanized, although, at least in the US, they haven’t really seen recognition as a group until recent decades. People tell them that romantic attraction is a fundamental human emotion and a universal part of the human experience, implying that people who don’t experience it aren’t human. Non-binary people are a third group that has to deal with dehumanization, with many people in contemporary western culture categorizing anyone who doesn’t fit the gender binary as other. These are some common examples, but they are absolutely not the only groups that have to deal with dehumanizing narratives.
In 2018, a Tumblr user started a subculture called Voidpunk, based on the idea of renouncing one’s humanity. Different from Otherkin, Voidpunk isn’t about actually identifying as non-human or believing oneself to be non-human, but about rejecting traditional ideas of what it means to be human. Voidpunkers take on many personas, ranging from robots to cyborgs to aliens to transhumans. The original creator has made it clear, however, that there’s no one way to be Voidpunk. Voidpunk is a form of reappropriation protest because it’s about reclaiming the narrative that being different means being non-human. When an autistic person is called a robot or a trans person is called a freak, many of them choose to wear that label as a badge of honor. They take toxic insults and roll with them. As a result, the dehumanizing narratives which are used against them lose their power.
Through much of the history of Christianity, Satanism has been used by Christian groups as an accusation against ideological opponents. Groups accused of worshiping Satan ranged from heretical Christian sects persecuted by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church to pagan groups who were considered to be venerating demons unknowingly. In fact, much of the iconography adopted for Satan and demons come from figures in Classical mythology such as fauns, satyrs, and the god Pan. During the Protestant Reformation, both Catholics and Protestants accused one another of worshiping Satan. The public fear of Satanism came to a head during the witch trials of the 16th to the 18th centuries.
More than anything, Satanism is a label used to demonize (literally) people and groups who threaten the status quo. The moral panic surrounding Satanism isn’t just a relic of the medieval or early modern period, however. During the 1980s in the US, the Parents Music Resource Center was formed to protect children from music containing themes considered unsuitable. This is the group responsible for the “Parental Advisory” stickers found on music albums. In addition to drug use, violence, sex, and language, this group flagged music containing references to the “occult”.
In the 20th century, Satanism started to become an ideology in its own right. A modern example of a Satanist group is The Satanic Temple. The Temple is a nontheistic group, meaning they don’t actually believe in Satan as a supernatural entity. Rather, they use Satanic imagery to promote egalitarianism, social justice, and separation of church and state. Since Satan has long been a symbol associated with ideological dissidents, The Temple has reclaimed that symbol to represent rebellion against arbitrary authority and social norms. The group uses Satan as a metaphor to promote personal autonomy, rationality, and pragmatic skepticism. They use satire and humor in addition to legal action and activism to achieve their mission—performing hilarious and theatrical Satanic rituals to promote religious freedom and prompt people to reevaluate their baseless fears. By reappropriating a symbol of otherness and nonconformity, The Satanic Temple tries to promote civil rights.
Reappropriation protest is a powerful tool for stopping the spread of hatred. However, that doesn’t make it appropriate for all situations. When people have been marginalized and oppressed by a word or narrative, sometimes they don’t want to see it reclaimed; they want to see it gone. Words hurt, and reclaiming those words can just be a reminder of the pain they have suffered. Reappropriation can also cause tension between people inside and outside the group, especially when etiquette dictates that only those inside the group are allowed to participate. This is a common problem with the reclamation of slurs, in which it’s often considered distasteful or rude for someone to use a reclaimed slur who isn’t part of the group affected by it. Regardless, this type of protest is a cool phenomenon that has seen use by a diverse range of groups to great effect.