Re-Appropriation & Politics of Value


After having some discussions with some friends in regards to the re-appropriation of words I decided that a big component of that discussion should include looking at the basics of who/what controls meaning/value in a society.  I believe that this is a crucial point of the discussion because if the oppressed are the ones working to re-formulate the meaning/value of something then they will do so in vain (in many ways) because of one daunting truth: THE OPPRESSED DO NOT HAVE CONTROL OVER DICTATING VALUE/MEANING…they lack the social and political power & thus their attempts will be shot down & destroyed by the majority population.  Re-appropriation is about re-formulating or changing the meaning or value of a word or object.  Such change requires that the majority audience accepts the said re-appropriation or social backlash will ensue.


I am coming from the application of an economic/anthropological theoretical viewpoint to the institutional system of racism in America.  In this discussion I am applying some anthropological theories of value to the understanding of racism in America in regards to the relationship between peoples of African descent and the dominant White/Euro-American peoples.


What was agreed upon throughout the number of theories of value was that value is a process of comparison.  David Graeber refers to Evans-Pritchard when he mentioned that values, “are embodied in words through which they influence behavior” (2001:13).  So much of our language and how we understand it has to do with how it contrasts with its opposite.  For example, Graeber discussed that classic understanding of colors being defined based off of one another.  “Objects are defined by the meaningful distinctions one can make between them.  To understand the meaning (value) of an object, then, one must understand its place in a larger system” (Graeber, 2001:14).  While I understand what is being said here, this passage led to me thinking that understanding the meaning of an object requires tracking how society negotiates its context in response to innumerable sociocultural forces/variables.  So much of what we understand is within oppositional relationships.  “…two entities…involve evaluation…That is, they are meant to establish whether one entity is better, or more important, or more desirable, than the other.” (Graeber, 2001: 43).

In such a discussion we have to ask some theoretical questions: Are we looking at society as a sum of self-interested activity?  Could we not think of so many societal subsystems as the sum of self-interested activity also?  In considering this possibility; what self-interested activity has constructed the racial formations in American society today?  Who is defining the meaning or value of such activity?  These questions point to power and value construction (“politics of value”).  Hence, some forms of identity are agency in the bounds of culture, meaning that some individuals cannot reevaluate or negotiate their identity or value within society without that larger audience acknowledging/accepting their value demonstrated through accepted “media of value”.

Value is not simply meaning constructed on a social level.  Value, states Graeber, is “realized mainly in the public, communal space, in forms of concrete circulating media of value…” (2001:74).  It is important to understand that the forms of circulating media of value have to be agreed upon by those in power within society (not necessarily the larger audience).   This is important because the re-creation/re-evaluation of the value of something would have to be carefully presented in such a way that it fits the criteria for how those who dominate value already conceptualize “it”.

We cannot discuss value and the struggle over who controls its meaning without discussing power.  Graeber points out to two forms of social power: the power to act directly on others and the power to define oneself in such a way as to convince others how they should act toward you (2001:104).  Black/African Americans have been robbed of this latter form of social power, this power is instead in the hands of the political/economic/racial majority.

The problem lies in whether or not the larger (majority) society will accept the positive values of the Black being.  “The ultimate stakes of politics, according to Turner, is not even the struggle to appropriate value; it is the struggle to establish what value is. … Similarly, the ultimate freedom is not the freedom to create or accumulate value, but the freedom to decide (collectively or individually) what it is that makes life worth living” (Graeber, 2001:88).  Black/African Americans have never been awarded the freedom of value determinism within the larger American society.


Based on the above discussion, trying to re-formulate the meaning of words or even objects can just end up in the re-establishment of their original meaning or value.  Not only is it insanely difficult to wash away the bloody history of slurs such as “nigger/nigga” or even “bitch”, but you have to look at where the term fits linguistically and what was its original intention.  If the word was intended for harm when it was originally created and then that said intention was reinforced in its use; what positivity/growth/progression can you extract from that?  We have to ask ourselves: Is my new spin on this said “slur” going to in anyway add to my people or culture?  And if so; in what way?

If people of African descent in America aren’t even being allowed the freedom to define themselves in such a way as to convince others how they should act toward them then re-appropriation is going to be a fail.  Say some individuals out there do have some positive place in their mind when they use the term “nigga”.  Lets consider a scenario.  If I can not convince racially biased White/Euro-Americans of how they should act toward the new meaning of “nigga” (re-appropriated “nigger”) then no matter how friendly or warm my use of “nigga” is, it will be perceived and accepted as the dominantly negative value for what it truly is.

One of the core components of oppression is locking the oppressed out of being allowed to define themselves.  This creates your basic identity crisis.  Trying to re-appropriate “nigga” is the result of an identity crisis (thus the colonialized personhood/mindset).


Re-appropriation is a useful tool for those with the appropriate amount of power, politics of value, and media of value.  These are strict criteria that POCs do not meet within American society.  So instead of embracing and trying to treat this racist dog new tricks I encourage you to consider simply using positive language which was originally created/intended for the building people up NOT dominating them.

***Anyone with any questions or comments feel free to express yourself respectively.***


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