I grew up in a town, and a time, with a great deal of racial and ethnic tension, and I heard hateful slurs constantly at school. African-Americans, then politely called Negroes, were disparaged as niggers, and Italian-Americans, as wops or guineas. The Puerto Ricans in the neighboring communities were spics.
Perhaps because of this, I was taught early and forcefully never to use these cruel labels. And that included any stigmatizing label—queer, bitch, kike—all of which I heard a lot. This rule was an absolute in my family, no exceptions, and it worked. I don’t even like writing these words right now.
So I was definitely among those who were surprised and puzzled when Dick Gregory, the popular African-American comedian and activist, published an autobiography in the ‘60s called Nigger. Why would this progressive thinker disparage his own race, and himself personally, in that way? I was further confused when black hip-hop musicians later appropriated the same derogatory epithet to label themselves, and when gay activists started referring to themselves as queer. What was this all about?
Well, now we have a psychological explanation for this counterintuitive phenomenon of self-labeling. Columbia University psychological scientist Adam Galinsky and his colleagues have come up with an elaborate model to illuminate self-disparagement—its origins, intentions, and consequences. The scientists ran ten experiments to begin documenting this novel theory.
It all has to do with power, and perceptions of power, in society. If social power is control over valuable resources, Galinsky argues, then self-labeling is the act of controlling words and their meaning. When black individuals use the derogatory group label nigger, or gay men and women adopt the stigmatizing term queer, it’s a defiant action, an attempt to “capture” the label and deny it to others. The end result is to weaken the stigmatizing potency of the slurs.
At least that’s the theory, but how does it get started? What inspired Dick Gregory to take ownership of the hateful epithet nigger? Or the activist group Queer Nation, many years later, to own the cruelest slur imaginable? Galinsky turns to American history for an explanation: In 1964—the same year Gregory published his autobiography—the Civil Rights Act formally gave African-Americans more power—crowning years of small, incremental gains. Similarly, the repeal of many states’ anti-sodomy laws led up to the formation of Queer Nation. Both of these legal and social changes granted the stigmatized groups a degree of power.
This small measure of power is a crucial precursor of self-labeling, Galinksy believes, and his first experiment was basically a lab simulation of those civil rights advances of the past. He wanted to see if feelings of power do indeed boost the willingness to self-label, so he asked volunteers to come up with a slur used against their own social group—honky for whites, gook for Asians, and so forth. Then half the volunteers recalled a time when their group had power, or felt powerful, while the others recalled an experience of powerlessness. Then they all said how willing they were to use the derogatory label they had come up with to refer to themselves. In other words, the experiment measured the effect of power—or lack of it—on self-labeling.
And the model accurately predicted the results. Those with some power (at least in their thoughts) were much more likely to call themselves a honky or gook or nerd or whatever. A similar experiment showed, importantly, that it is group power, not individual power, that leads to self-derogatory labeling.
It’s not necessary to detail each of the ten experiments, which will be described in full in a future issue of the journal Psychological Science. Taken together, they offer substantial support for Galinsky’s self-labeling theory. Some explore the consequences of self-labeling, for example, showing that self-labelers actually feel more powerful after insulting themselves, and what’s more, that outside observers also see them—and their group—as more powerful.
Perhaps most important, Galinsky found that the act of self-labeling changed the perception of the slurs themselves. These formerly hateful words were seen as less negative after they were used in this surprising, self-derogatory way, suggesting that appropriating slurs like nigger and queer weakens their stigmatizing power.
Wray Herbert’s blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post.