There is no reappropriating vulgarity to be used as a counter narrative; you cannot turn cruelty against itself. You cannot make sublime use of any lever originally intended for the diminution of others. Human beings are, before all else, sentient and words linger on; their meanings play out long into the twilight. Our sentience is interconnected and words have powerful effect. Through the power of words, the bastion of language we can be relinquished to structural and institutional –isms, whether racism, sexism, genderisms, ageism, ableism, classism.
‘Wog’ is one of the divisive –ism words I grew up at odds with. Its purpose was to reduce the assailed to a negative self, to lesser than.
Words live in us, and even if words are said to be reappropriated into a counter narrative to mean something else, for many these words continue to carry the burdens of the original meaning. We are cognitive and dialectic beings and our sentience can be widened or narrowed. Negative words can bring about cognitive and dialectic narrowing, reducing us to the muddle minded, to disordered thinking, to negative selves.
The worst of negative language are derogatory words. These words can hit hard the psychosocial self even when it is claimed that these words have lost their power to wound and even when we believe we are using these words against the oppressor. Derogatory language can last much longer in the thinking of people than inspiring words.
‘Wog’ and ‘dago’ have long lingered in the haunts and recesses of my mind, decades after their once near daily usage. The reappropriation of these terms does not reduce them, nor do I see them as the contemporaneous bedrocks of an authentic counter narrative of resistance; they remind me only of the original sins.
We are all people, no more and no less, despite the sum of our individual experiences. Because humanity has racialised itself with deep wounding in order to fathom mires of shameful selfishness, to defend inequalities and the litany of wrong doings and of their perpetuation we have learned to deal in the bog of promises of incremental change. I am repulsed by the incremental because it accepts the diminution of peoples and justifies unhappiness, miserableness, pain and suffering, intergenerational traumas.
I often write of the White, Brown and Black, but I do so with a capital letter – as not to objectify and perpetuate the reductionist.
I capitalise so as to not diminish while accepting that for now we are racialised and this will remain so while an intersection with poverty and inequality oppresses people, contrived by other people – the oppressors.
‘Nigger’ and ‘wog’ are vulgar words borne out of the worst of muddleheadedness. They deny the kindred spirit. The late civil rights campaigner Dr Maya Angelou described words with a capacity to “stick”. Dr Angelou argued that words become part of us, they carry a heavy weight and can inspire us or burden us. “Someday, we’ll be able to know and measure – as mad as it sounds – we’ll be able to measure the hostility or the kindness that emanates from certain words that people exude when they say certain things.”
With the naive reappropriation of derogatory and vulgar words and language we are entrenching in our vernacular the slurs that we needed to get away from. Our carry of language is becoming a bastion of –isms, dividing peoples, hurting peoples, reducing people to difference and lesser.
The positive psychosocial self is founded in positive belief systems, positive language, inspiring words, powerful words, love and the kindred. The LGBQTI community have reappropriated slurs such as ‘dyke’. There cannot be oppression without slur and there cannot continue institutional and structural –isms without the reductionist, with the slur. The slur is a powerful tool for the purpose to exploit to an unjust, unfair outcome.
In the unfolding pursuit of social justice and human rights, in the coming together of us as people, we must lay down as much of that which burdens us.
I am of Greek heritage, the first-born of Greek migrant parents, working class. In my blood there is Palestinian, Jewish, and northern African. My daughter has all this and more in her blood and in the prospect of our common humanity are the dawns and the mornings, afternoons and evenings of our hopes.
In the inner west of Sydney during the 60s and 70s the colour of my skin made me vividly different. I was the wog. I had no White to make me kindred. I was at best “you people”. The low blows were founded in justifications that only the perpetrators understood. I was a child in a sliver of time in a nation yet to transition to the most rudimentary understandings of how to live alongside those argued as language diverse and also as culture diverse. My childhood was trapped in a corridor of time. Thankfully my youngest siblings over a decade younger than I would be less burdened.
The injurious infliction of racism on my parents and of others overseas born, who could be so matter-of-fact lampooned, ridiculed, discriminated, dismissed burned deeply. The oppressor always won. We were a polycultural society, certainly not multicultural. Many assimilated rather than perish. They journeyed to the edges of where the privileged allowed them to.
When my bones are finally at rest, soaked into the earth, so too will be reduced memory of the –isms and of the burdens of –isms that I lived. My daughter will carry less burden than I did. I carried less than did my parents. They were wogs and dagos, lampooned because of a weak command of the English language, because they were distinguished as having different morays and norms. They were reduced to caricature and maltreated as such. In their mother tongue they were fluent, they were intellectual, and they were not caricatures.
Race theories matter despite the argument that identity politics are turning people against each other, fragmenting us. It is true that identity politics has a nasty turn and like all else is exploited, where carpetbaggers ply their wiles. It is a place of lies but also of truths.
However the distinguishing of identity is real because we have made it so and continue to make it so, tragically.
Stigmatisation and other associative identity issues that prosper discrimination are fact, the norm. To resist understanding the origins of a problem culminates in the perpetual languishing of the problem – in the mires of its unfairnesses.
The outrage is reduced and filtered through narrow lenses, dished to audiences but not to revolution. Stampedes may be had but not revolution. We are limited to the narrowest corridors of discourse, to the littlest agency – for instance through comedy, satire, theatre, books, activism, and rallies. These are one-sided conversations and compartmentalised even if they are on the mark in what they are trying to relay.
However any agency that can lead to startling change, to reform and transformation, to revolution is stopped.
Today’s abomination is that we only shout and rage but we do not confront one another and that we are not allowed or do not strive for the platforms that will pit us together in conversation. We are reduced to public spectacles instead of the public interest.
In returning where I began, the derivation of ‘wog’ is not clear but its original and contemporary meanings are clear and aggressively divisive, with the express intention to be cruel and inhumane, determined to separate people, to discriminate. ‘Wog’ cannot be diffused from its original meaning and use.
It is not true as some argue that wog has devolved to a contemporary slang that suggests wog is equivalent in meaning to ‘mate’. A ‘wog’ is not a mate. A ‘wog’ is someone different. It is a derogatory term and will always remain so.
The argument that it’s okay for ‘wogs’ to call each other ‘wog’ and similarly so with ‘niggers’, and others damages the positive self, psychosocially is a hit, reducing people to a less-than inheritance in reference to a view of oneself.
A wog remains someone who White privilege frowns and looks down upon. Keeping this derogation alive keeps the worst of White privilege furiously burning. ‘Wog’ is a derogation that accommodates institutionally structured assimilation.
Mockery can mock itself but to what common good? In mocking oneself it is often argued as self-deprecating, intending mockery as a vehicle to diffuse tensions between parties. In dissing oneself or of the heritage-laden identity, the affected are reduced to accommodating the dominant culture, to allowing the dominant culture to continue peddling itself.
The assimilated perpetuate the power of the oppressor and in fact they number up within the armies of the oppressor. They lived with a sense of the inescapable and surrendered to calling it ‘reality’ and as they became victims instead of the resistance, they left behind those who could not compromise integrity, they left them to rot.
Calling oneself a ‘wog’ or a ‘nigger’ is a self-affirming negative stereotype and imagining contrary to our inalienable common humanity.
Wrongs must be railed against, called out, yes to being mediated but certainly not affirmed. Wog and nigger and all other derogations must be dissociated in all their forms and uses.
Any association to such derogation diminishes the positive self, the psychosocial self, dampens human worth and shrinks self-esteem and the damage can be irrecoverable.
A ‘nigger’ above all is someone who is not White. A ‘wog’ is someone who was not White. In the strict definition of what being White meant, a wog continues to be someone who is not White.
Being called a wog is about hideous prejudices. Assuming oneself as a wog asserts White privilege and validates White privilege as superior.
No nation that peddles a dominant culture is free from the ugliest forms of –isms.
Derogations have only one calling, to subordinate.
We can discuss critical race theories and frameworks, liberalism’s individualised based remedies, collective civil rights scholarship, anti-discrimination efforts, the intersection of this and that, and other critical pedagogy but in the end racism and other –isms are racism, are –isms despite however the morphing.
Today, reappropriation of derogatory terms as ‘endearing’ terms is in fact misappropriation. There is nothing endearing about these terms.
There is nothing positive, nothing good in calling oneself or another ‘wog’ and ‘nigger’. They are flouted as mocking, at worst, but are doomed to fail the person whose teeth they grind through.
The nuances intended by present day users of ‘wog’ and ‘nigger’, that the derogation has only found a new host to retain their venom.
Society has become too complex once again for now to ban derogations such as wog and nigger but our calling out these words, all derogations, can educate understandings as to the power of words.
Apparently, ‘nigger’ is used on Twitter more than half a million times a day, ‘wog’ is used thousands of times a week.
Dr Angelou ordered from her home anyone who uttered derogation, anyone who called the White, ‘honky’. Derogations are never euphemisms, they endure toxically.
I will never support a ban on any word however I support and urge for education.
*Gerry Georgatos is a prolific writer on suicide prevention; he is a suicide prevention and prison reform researcher and advocate with the non-tertiary Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of national projects to further develop suicide prevention, and wellbeing and education programs in prisons. Gerry’s research has a focus on trauma recovery and restorative approaches. He works firsthand with the critically vulnerable.
Gerry has championed the work, to which he has contributed, of the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation. Gerry is the National Coordinator Support Advocate for the National Indigenous Critical Response Service (NICRS) through Healthcare Management Advisors (HMA), a management consulting firm specialising in the health, human services and biotechnology sectors, funded under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy as part of an Australian Government initiative to assist families and communities affected by suicide and other trauma.