Reclamation is when a marginalised/oppressed group takes a slur or other negative thing used to refer to them, and reclaims it for their own use.
For instance, if a woman wears a tshirt saying, "Bitch", she is reclaiming a term usually used as an insult against women. The same applies to slurs and negative terms and symbols used in relation to sexuality and gender identity/expression, race/ethnicity, etc.
Note that only members of the group can reclaim a slur/negative for themselves. A man cannot claim to be reclaiming "bitch", as the term is inherently gendered (meaning female dog) and its supposed power to insult comes from this.
Intersectionality is important to consider when reclaiming a slur. For example, SlutWalk is an event that centers around reclaiming the slur "slut". While "slut" is used against all women, many Black women and other women of color have pointed out that reclaiming "slut" is a privilege mainly reserved for white women: for example, in an open letter from Black Women's Blueprint. In part, the letter explains:
- Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later.
-- (letter signed by Farah Tanis, co-founder and executive director of Black Women's Blueprint)
Safety, triggers and comfort
Not everyone referred to by a slur will be comfortable or feel safe reclaiming it; it may be too painful or upsetting, or they may simply prefer terms that the group has created themselves.
Using a word widely understood as a slur or marginalising term to refer to yourself or your group may simply be confusing to people who don't know you well; it may not be apparent that you mean to reclaim it rather than endorsing or embracing its mainstream connotations. At the extreme, you can accidentally appear anti-feminist.
Defending the boundary that marginalised people may use the term but others may not can be difficult, especially in geek communities which enjoy "debates" over semantics.