Racial slurs such as the n-word are sometimes adopted by the group they were once meant to insult — a phenomenon known as reappropriation. But what happens when a reappropriated slur is used by a Black person towards a White person? New research published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology provides insight into the intragroup uses of reappropriated slurs.
Previous studies investigated the use of racial slurs by White individuals toward Black individuals and the reclaiming of disparaging words among racial minorities. But no research had yet examined the reappropriated use of racial slurs by Black individuals toward White targets.
“I am fascinated in understanding why people continue to exhibit extreme forms of prejudice despite society typically discouraging their use. Within this understanding, I am most interested in how to combat the negative effects of racial slurs, racial humor, and racially disparaging language more broadly,” said study author Conor O’Dea, a visiting assistant professor at Skidmore College.
“With regard to existing literature, some of the best methods of prejudice reduction involve confrontation. While I do believe that prejudice should be confronted, I have often wondered whether there are other ways we can reduce discrimination and whether we can harness the negative power of racial language and humor for good rather than evil.”
“One possible way this power has been harnessed is the reclamation of slurs by targeted groups. Instead of using the terms derogatively, groups can self identify, use the term affiliatively, and potentially subvert the derogative meaning of the slur. This subversion of prejudice is exciting and I am interested in further examining ways that we can fight against racial and other injustices.”
In the study, 324 White participants read a brief story about a Black person using a slur to refer to a White person during a basketball game. In one version of the story, the two people were described as friends. Another version described them as strangers. The slur used in the story varied from “nigger” to “nigga” to “cracker” to “asshole” to “buddy.”
The participants viewed the use of “nigger” and “nigga” as less derogatory than “cracker” and “asshole.” They also viewed Black racial slurs used by Black individuals toward White individuals as more affiliative. In other words, they were more likely to perceive the Black racial slurs as being used in a friendly way and to show a social bond compared to “cracker” and “asshole.”
The researchers also found that slurs used between friends were viewed as less offensive, less derogatory, and more affiliative than slurs used between strangers.
To examine how African Americans viewed Black individuals using Black racial slurs toward White individuals, the researchers conducted a similar experiment with 211 Black participants. Similar to their previous results, they found that a Black person using “nigga” to describe a White person was perceived as less derogatory and more affiliative than the use of both “asshole” and “cracker.”
Though there was some evidence that the use of reappropriated slurs was perceived positively, White participants still perceived the words as more derogatory and less affiliative than “buddy.”
“Above anything else, I think that people should realize the potential for racial slurs to be incredibly negative for people belonging to marginalized groups and to not take their use lightly,” O’Dea told PsyPost.
“While our research does suggest that the reclamation of slurs by minority groups can potentially help individuals gain power over derogative terms, bond with their ingroup, and potentially improve relations between people of different groups, it is important to realize that we cannot control how people interpret the things that we say. Slurs are dangerous and they should never be used thoughtlessly.”
“While many people belonging to marginalized groups seem to voice support for the reclamation of slurs that were once meant to disparage their group, not everyone is in favor of this reclamation. For example, the reclamation and use of the n-word among the Black community is heavily debated within the group and by people belonging to other groups,” O’Dea explained.
“It is also important to realize that this resistance by people belonging to other groups can even heighten racial tensions as some of our recent work has shown that, while White individuals on average react quite positively to a Black person referring to them using the n-word, many White individuals perceive this as a negative thing and may actually respond with more prejudice toward Black individuals in the future, again coming back to my point that we cannot control how people interpret the things that we say and the dangers of using racial or other group-based slurs.”
The study, “Perceptions of Racial Slurs Used by Black Individuals Toward White Individuals: Derogation or Affiliation?“, was authored by Conor J. O’Dea and Donald A. Saucier.