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Inclusion Communiqué: Re-appropriating language

  • Exploring social terms: Re-appropriating language

The following blog post was written by Tahira Ebrahim, Centre Liaison Officer at the School of Global Access.

Inclusion Communiqué is a series of posts providing context to diversity and inclusion focused terminology. Content is drawn from academics and professionals in the field, with an emphasis on contextualizing terms and the narratives that surround them, rather than solely providing a limited definition. Inclusion Communiqué is meant to generate conversations on topics in the area of intercultural competence, encouraging critical analysis and thoughtful debate on the use of language and social constructs that guide our everyday lives.

As conversations about (but not on behalf of) various marginalized communities pervade within social spheres and media streams, debates on which identity terms are respectful and which are not, can yield heated responses.

Understanding the evolution of terms, and their place in society over time can feel confusing to some people. Select terms are entirely retired between generations, while others may continue to be used, but can change in the ways that they are used, and who uses them.

The process of re-appropriation can change the meaning of terms, and enables self-labelling ... beginning a process of repair through greater societal awareness 

When a marginalized community takes a previously derogatory term used against them and creates an affinity towards the word as a form of empowerment, the community has re-appropriated or reclaimed this previously negative reference. 

Why is re-appropriation important?

According to Tam (2017), the stigma and oppressive nature of terms like ‘queer’ are “mediated by perceived power when the referenced groups own them”. For a community to reclaim a term is to create an identifier with those “who share a history of oppression” (Fasehun, 2017).  

The process of re-appropriation can change the meaning of terms, and enables “elf-labelling” (Galinsky et al., 2003, p.244), which can improve self-perception, beginning a process of repair through greater societal awareness, rather than continuing the term’s use, and allowing associated biases to prevail. 

What does re-appropriation mean for the greater community?

The process of reclaiming a term means that it can no longer be used by mainstream society. In doing so, colonial and racist histories are observed and honoured as a means not to forget, and more importantly, not to repeat. As a consequence, the use of a reclaimed term outside of the community is to ignore the oppressive and dehumanizing history from which the term was derived, and the impacts of its continued use, outside of the community. In other words, use of these terms within mainstream society can place individuals and communities in danger and continue to both “other” and caricaturize communities, enabling continued discrimination, bias, and marginalization. 

When we all consider our own lives and identities, recall that at some point, each of our identities was problematic to someone in power. However, through a call to action, through protest and sacrifices made for change, and an advancement in societal thinking, human rights, labour rights, gender rights, and voting rights (to only name a few), exist today, as populations understood that their societies at the time were not sufficiently just. This process is not over, as true freedoms are yet to be achieved, and all derogatory terms are yet to be fully reclaimed.

Each fight for liberties though, began with a process of greater conscientiousness, which is exactly how we can continue progressing today.  

Fasehun, O. (2017). Reclaiming words: The struggle to find empowerment from pain – The Bowdoin Orient. Retrieved July 13, 2018, from

Galinsky, A. D., Hugenberg, K., Groom, C., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2003). The Reappropriation Of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications For Social Identity. Research on Managing Groups and Teams Identity Issues in Groups,5, 221-256. doi:10.1016/s1534-0856(02)05009-0

Tam, S. (2017). The Slants on the Power of Repurposing a Slur. Retrieved July 13, 2018, from