Sticks and stones may break my bones but words—words stick around forever and have the power to really hurt or help us. On this episode, we have four stories about reclaiming language… and the difference between turning a slur into an empowering identity and just hurling around an epithet.
The show begins with a look at the recent victories for the Change the Mascot campaign. Then, musician Simon Tam discusses his fight to trademark the name of his band, The Slants. Disabled writer, activist, and Criptiques editor Caitlin Wood joins us to discuss the word “crip” and its power. The show wraps up with comedian Jamie Kilstein of Citizen Radio, telling a story of how NOT to reclaim a word and his thoughts on atheism's bro culture.
SIMON TAM OF THE SLANTS
CAITLIN WOOD ON “CRIP”
JAMIE KILSTEIN INTERVIEW
A transcript of this podcast is below. Cheryl Green of Story Minders transcribed this episode. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people with auditory disabilities.
FULL SHOW TRANSCRIPT:
SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.
Sticks and stones may break your bones but words… words stick around forever and have the power to hurt or help you deeply. On this episode, we’re talking about the power of language. Specifically: nasty language. The kind that hurts.
I wind up talking the power of language a lot because…well, because I work at a place called Bitch. Even these days, when the word bitch is everywhere, our name still raises eyebrows—we get asked about it all the time. And that’s because the word bitch still has some scary and weird power. When “bitch” is being used as an insult, it’s hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don't shy away from expressing them, women who don’t smile when they’re catcalled or who pipe up when they’re offended. So if being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, well, we'll take that word as a compliment.
But there’s a big difference between reclaiming a word that’s used to demean you and simply using a word that’s demeaning to other people—and passing it off as a joke or tradition.
On today's show, we'll bring you several stories of words that hurt. One of the biggest current debates around language in our current pop culture is around Native American mascots and team names. Across the United States, mascots that are based on racial slurs are a stinging example of stereotyping. For decades now, Native Americans and their allies have been working to get rid team names and mascots that make cheering for racial slurs seem normal. Starting in the late 1960s, people campaigned against mascots like the “Red Raiders,” the “Brown Squaws” and the Savages—all actual team names that were changed in the 1970s. But despite ongoing campaigns, some team owners and schools have refused to budge. In recent years, a Native-led group called Change the Mascot has worked with lots of tribes, civil rights organizations, state governments, and local school districts around the country to get rid of racist team names and mascots that remain.
Here’s California youth leader Dahkota Brown speaking at the state legislature this June about the importance of a bill called the “California Racial Mascots Act”—it would ban public schools from have teams called the “Redskins”—a slur many people refer to as the “R-Word.” Right now, four public schools in California still use the slur for their teams.
DAHKOTA: It's absolutely time for a change in myself, in students across the nation. These mascots, they create, anxiety and fear of attending school events where we know that we'll be exposed to negative images of our race.
SARAH: The most flagrant example of this kind of use of a racial slur for a team name is, of course, is the Washington Redskins, a team owned by noted guy-who-doesn’t-give-a-shit Dan Snyder. You may have heard the powerful ad Change the Mascot ran about the team earlier this year:
MAN: Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don't….
SARAH: Just last week, in the first week of July, the Change the Mascot campaign scored a huge victory: a federal judge ordered that the government cancel the Redskins’ trademark. The federal judge rejected the team’s lawyers argument that “the vast majority of Native Americans had no objection to the name.” Instead, the judge read straight out of the dictionary, pointing out that Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defined the word as “often contemptuous” in 1898. That would be seventy years before the team was named. The team will likely try to appeal to the Supreme Court, but Native activists are certain that the courts—like the dictionary—are on their side. Navajo activist Amanda Blackhorse is one of the five people who filed the suit against the Redskins. She told the Washington Post that when it comes down to it, the debate is clear. She said: “This case is about humanizing the indigenous identity. I have asked this many times before and have never heard a reasonable answer — if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”
In my opinion, hopefully, they won’t have it for much longer.
This is Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today we’re talking about words that hurt. Most rock bands have to be worried about gigs and getting paid and putting out their next album. But one Portland rock band has spent a lot of time worrying about the US trademark office.
Simon Tam heads up the rock band called The Slants. The band is an all Asian-American group who and they describe their sound as “Chinatown dance rock”—they wanted to reclaim a word that’s been used disparagingly to describe their race. But the US trademark office hasn’t seen the value of the political point. Rocker Simon Tam tells the story.
SIMON: My first real lesson on the power of language was at the age of eleven.
In the basketball courts at school, I was tormented by other students. They’d throw balls, punches, rocks, and insults, while yelling “gook” and “jap.” One day, I had enough. I threw back: “I’m a chink, get it right.”
Stunned, they didn’t know what to do. Confused, they stopped.
The act of claiming an identity can be transformational. It can provide healing and empowerment. It can wield solidarity within a community. And, perhaps most importantly, it can diminish power from an oppressor, a dominant group.
The idea of reappropriation isn’t a new one. The process of turning negative words, symbols, or ideas into positive parts of our own identity can involve repurposing a racial epithet or taking on a stereotype for socio-political empowerment. But reappropriation can be confusing. Sometimes people can’t figure out the nuances on why something is or isn’t offensive.
Nearly a decade ago, I started what many have referred to as the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band.
In addition to our brand of 80s-inspired synth pop, we got involved with social justice: We toured the country fighting stereotypes about Asian Americans, led workshops, raised money for charities, and provided a bold portrayal of our culture through our music. It was an incredible time and letters of support from marginalized communities poured in.
During this time, our attorney recommended that we register the trademark on our band's name, something that’s commonly done for national acts. However, the US Trademark Office rejected it, claiming our name was disparaging to Asians.
I named the band The Slants.
The name that represented our perspective—or our slant if you will—on life as people of color. It was a deliberate act of claiming an identity as well as a nod to Asian American activists who had been using the term for decades. But the Trademark Office didn’t buy it: they used sources like UrbanDictionary.com, a photo of Miley Cyrus pulling her eyes back in a slant-eyed gesture, and anonymous posts on internet message boards to “prove” that it was offensive. In 2010, the Trademark Office denied my first application to trademark our band’s name.
So for the past five years, I’ve been fighting in numerous courts. I’ve supplied thousands of pages of evidence, including letters of support from prominent community leaders and organizations, independent national surveys, an expert report from a co-editor at the New American Oxford dictionary, and more. The Trademark Office was not swayed. They called our effort “laudable, but not influential.” And with just a few keystrokes, they wiped away the voices of thousands of Asian Americans and told me that I had no right to represent all Asian Americans.
Yet somehow, this white attorney in the Trademark Office had that same power.
Unlike many other disparaging trademarks, like the Washington Redskins, I’m a member of the actual community group in question. Plus, the name I'm trying to trademark is not an inherent racial slur. “Slant” is a common, everyday term—in fact, it has been trademarked hundreds of times. I’m the only person in all of US history to be denied a trademark registration for being offensive to Asian Americans. Why?
The Trademark Office wrote, “It is uncontested that the applicant is a founding member of a band… composed of members of Asian descent.” Then, they pointed out the obvious Asian imagery on our website including photographs of Asian people and an album cover with a “stylized dragon.” In essence, we were “too Asian” to trademark the name The Slants.
When we pointed out their racism, the Trademark Office backpedaled, claiming that anyone with that kind of imagery would be subject for denial. The problem is: We’re an Asian band. We can’t change our ethnic identities—those photographs are of us. That artwork is reflective of our respective cultural heritages. Under this absurd legal premise, “slant” is something that anyone could trademark, anyone except Asian Americans. This is also why you see white people trademarking terms like “jap” and “oriental” without even being questioned. But when a Chinese American applied to trademark “chink pride,” he was swiftly denied. He was also told that it was racist to Asians.
The law that the Trademark Office is using was written in 1942, decades before the Civil Rights Act. It’s been disproportionately affecting minorities for almost 70 years, abridging free speech rights from those groups. Almost a century of oppression in this area is now riding on the case of one Asian American rock band.
Social theorists say that our identity can both be influenced by, as well as influence, the world around us. Every scientific study confirms that the stigma of derogatory terms like “queer” and “bitch” are mediated by perceived power when the referenced group owns them. The role of the government shouldn’t include deciding how a group defines themselves. That right should belong to the community itself. You could see in example after example that the dominant group is not only inconsistent, but completely off-base when it comes to the sentiment of the people that have been marginalized for centuries. The Trademark Office does not have the resources, capacity, nor cultural competency to make those kinds of decisions.
In our case, a federal circuit judge confirmed this. Just last week, the judge presiding over our case called the actions of the Trademark Office “unconstitutional.” But because they were bound by precedent, the judge affirmed the denial of our trademark. So we press on, appealing again.
It is undeniable that a person’s quality of life, their opportunities, and their rights may hinge on their identity. When the Trademark Office refuses to register a form of my artistic identity but instead extends that same right to anyone outside of my community, it’s a big deal. It’s racism. It’s the suppression of free speech. The denial of reappropriation is refusing poetic linguistic justice.
It is my hope that my case brings meaningful discourse on identity in this country, that it can push people to look at the actual systems of privilege and underlying attitudes and assumptions that people have about culture. But it all begins with ability to make and protect that choice of language.
The choice of how you identify yourself is your right, but the protection of that right is our responsibility. Then again, my view is a little “slanted.”
That was Simon Tam, of the Slants who in October, will be heading back to the Federal Court of Appeals to try and trademark their band name. Until then, the group is busy makin’ music.
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Just a brief break here to let you know that this show is produced by the team here at Bitch Media, an independent, feminist nonprofit that’s reader and listener-supported. To help create this show and the important work we do, head over to Bitchmedia.org and donate. Every little bit really helps, I swear. If you like the show, share it with your friends—we all know that the best way to find out about podcasts is from people you know.
OK. Back to the show.
CAITLIN: Hi, this is Caitlin Wood. I am currently in Arkansas. I'm a disabled writer, activist, speaker, and a bunch of other things.
SARAH: So Caitlin, you've been writing for Bitch for a long time, often about issues relating to disability, representations of people with disabilities in pop culture.
CAITLIN: Yes, ma'am.
SARAH: [giggles] And I mean, I think my favorite thing that you've written for Bitch is the column in 2012 that you wrote–it was an excellent column–for Bitch's website called “Tales From the Crip.”
SARAH: Caitlin, who thought of that name? That name is so good: “Tale From the Crip.”
CAITLIN: Well, I thought of it, but I have seen it in other places. So I don't know how original I actually am. I didn't see it until after I'd used it, but apparently other people also had that idea.
SARAH: I just love it because it combines like bad TV puns with reclaiming language around disability.
SARAH: It's just brilliant.
CAITLIN: Well, thank you, thank you. I liked it too. It made me laugh.
SARAH: So on today's show, we're talking about reclaiming language and bad words. You edited an anthology of writing by people with disabilities called “Criptiques.”
SARAH: I believe you raised $7,200 on Kickstarter to publish that book.
CAITLIN: Something like that, yeah.
SARAH: Yeah. It's a collection of essays, right, from a bunch of different people writing about disability issues.
CAITLIN: Mmhmm. Correct.
SARAH: So I'm hoping you can tell us about the word “crip” and why you use it to describe yourself and your work.
CAITLIN: Well, that's a really good question. So actually, in my intro to “Criptiques,” I say that “crip” is my favorite four-letter word in that it's profane to some, but to me, I love it. And I think it's a good descriptor for me personally. So language in disability is still a very hotly debated issue. So some people want to be called disabled, some people want to be called people with disabilities. It has been going on for decades, this debate. And there's theoretical models behind why people want to be called what they want to be called and issues of identity wrapped up in that as well. And so then, when the word “crip” came along–I certainly did not come up with it–and I'm trying to remember when I first heard crip being used. It was when I got into disability studies and kind of learned about this whole other disability culture and these rebellious disabled people that were doing all these really rad things that I had never been taught in school and didn't know anything about. And I really loved this idea of reclaiming this word. So crip obviously comes from “crippled,” which is, I hear the word crippled in relation to disability or anything, and I just cringe. But when I hear the word crip, to me, it's such a signifier of identity and culture, and it is a bad word in a lot of ways, and it has an edge to it. But it's also a really cool word, I would say, in that when someone I meet who's disabled refers to themself as a crip, I kind of know that they're down. It's like a way of, to me, I just assume that we're probably gonna be on the same wavelength in terms of politics and identity and disability culture.
SARAH: What does the word signal to you, exactly? When you hear someone describe themselves as a “crip,” or when you say that yourself, what sort of identity do that project? Versus, I don't know if there are people who describe themselves as “crippled” or somebody using the word crippled to describe you. How are those two words so different?
CAITLIN: Well, I mean if anyone called me crippled, I'd be really pissed off. And I did have one person really angry with me over the title.
SARAH: Oh, over “Criptiques.” The word “criptiques.”
CAITLIN: Yes, over “Criptiques.” And it was a guy in Australia who found me on Twitter and said some really, really profane things, but it kind of made me laugh. But I also felt bad in a way because here was someone who is part of my culture and community but doesn't identity that way. And I think that's where within disability to me, crip signifies someone who is probably well-versed in disability politics and the stories about what's going on in the disability community, is probably well-read on topics of police brutality against disabled people and unemployment and just all of these issues that are so important and yet so ignored. And to me, it's just a signifier of community and culture and someone that I will probably enjoy talking with versus someone who sees their disability as shameful or something that needs to be overcome, which is so prevalent in the media. That's generally what you see within representations of disability. You're supposed to be inspirational and overcome your disabilities and all that versus a crip who is just we are what we are, and we're proud of what we are.
SARAH: Mmhmm. Not everybody who is disabled uses the word “crip,” and some people actually find it offensive or shocking.
CAITLIN: Right. Sure.
SARAH: So why take on that fight? What, to you, is the power of using the word crip even if you know it's gonna ruffle some feathers?
CAITLIN: I mean, no matter what you do [giggles] in the disability community, you will ruffle feathers just because it's such a huge community, and it's heterogeneous. It's full of very different opinions and backgrounds because disability affects everyone and anyone in any culture. So there's gonna be, of course, dissent and disagreement. But one of my goals within the book was to reach people who perhaps have not had some of the same privileges that I have had in terms of access to disability studies articles and these amazing people that I've had the chance to talk with. So I really wanted to reach out to people who may have not had the same opportunities and just show them, hey, here is this super cool culture that you should be really proud of being a part of. There's awesome stuff going on, amazing artists and activists and writers who don't necessarily get the same publicity. But it was one of my goals to reach people and hopefully, they would read this and feel validated and feel a sense of pride in their community.
SARAH: So for people who are listening right now who aren't familiar with a wide range of disability studies and have maybe never heard or used the word “crip” before, can you tell us a little bit more about its usage, how you use it, and in what ways it would be incorrect or ignorant or offensive to use the word crip?
CAITLIN: Sure. Well, it's not for non-disabled people to use, I would say. I'm always, I get in trouble for my language [giggles]. I get in trouble for saying the word “disabled” because there's still this [sighs] very intense argument that we should be using people-first language, you know “people with disabilities” versus “disabled people.” To me, that does not describe me, and that's fine. You know, I feel like people should call themselves whatever they want to. But when someone tells me what I can and cannot call myself, I get very angry. And so “crip” is obviously a bit, as you said, I think shocking for a lot of people. It is not for non-disabled people to throw around, at least not in my opinion. I don't think that would be appropriate in any way. But I also would probably not say it in a workplace setting around non-disabled people. I feel like it's kind of meant for my community, and it's a word that has been reclaimed for us for reasons, and it's part of our culture, and it's a cultural signifier.
SARAH: So clearly, there's your “Tales From the Crip,” which is a guest blog that was on Bitch Media, there's “Criptiques,” the anthology you edited. Where else have you seen the word crip show up?
CAITLIN: So I wrote about Leroy Moore, who started Krip-Hop Nation, and Leroy actually spells it with a “k.” So I always spell it c-r-i-p. He spells it k-r-i-p, and that was intentional on his part to differentiate it between the gang, right? Because you think crip, Bloods and Crips.
CAITLIN: So that's obviously something to consider, and he was using it way before I did. And Krip Hop has been around forever, and Leroy in particular has been a really important figure within the disability culture and has done incredible work on reporting on issues like police brutality and all kinds of things that other people just haven't looked at. I'm not sure when exactly it started. I would say my guess would probably be just somewhere along the disability rights movement, probably like the '80s or '90s when disability activists really were looking at language and looking at community. And I think it is very intentional that it's used as a signifier, like other communities who use reclaimed language do.
SARAH: Mmhmm. It's really interesting. And so when you get pushback for the language that you use, like you were saying, you often get in trouble for the language that you use around disability.
CAITLIN: [chuckles] I do!
SARAH: Yeah. How do you respond to that, and does any of the feedback you get make you rethink the way that you describe yourself?
SARAH: [laughs] I like that you're like, “And no!” [laughs]
CAITLIN: No. I've thought about this a lot, and I'm very comfortable in my opinions. I can appreciate other people not agreeing with me. That is fine, and I'm not here to tell anyone what they should call themselves. Call yourself whatever you want to. That is fine. But it does make me unbelievably angry when, especially when non-disabled people tell me what language I should be using. So especially because I'm like, have you read any of the articles about why people don't like people-first language? And they never have, and then it's infuriating because there are reasons for why I use the language that I do. I've thought about it a lot. I've read a lot about it. And at this point, it's like I'm kind of just even sick of talking about it and thinking about it. I got in trouble the other day with another disabled person who wanted to know why I didn't use people-first language. And it's just like, just the same stuff over and over when I think that language is important, and particularly stuff like this I find fascinating; however, it's like there's so many other pressing issues within the disability community that need to be addressed that I feel like this is a debate that's been going on forever. So I got in trouble for saying “disabled person” instead of “person with disabilities.” So if they knew that I say “crip,” like God forbid.
SARAH: That was writer Caitlin Wood talking about the word “crip.” If you want to read the anthology she edited, “Criptiques,” and get your own copy, check out Criptiques.com. That's criptiques.com. Criptiques: exploring the provocative side of disability.
And in closing, I have some exciting news, which is that Caitlin's friend and sometimes disability media project collaborator Cheryl Green is going to be transcribing this podcast for us and hopefully many of our future podcasts. Transcribing audio is super important for making it more accessible to people with hearing disabilities—we’ve been transcribing our podcasts off and on in past years, but it takes so long (or so much money to pay someone) that it just hasn’t been feasible for us to do for every show. But it’s really crucial for us to make everything we publish at Bitch as accessible as possible. So Caitlin hooked us up with Cheryl Green, who it turns out, runs a really affordable transcription service.
If you know somebody who hasn’t been able to listen to Popaganda, or if you sometimes have trouble hearing the show yourself, check out this show on our website BitchMedia.org, Just click on “podcasts,” and there will be a transcription of the whole show there for you to read as soon as Cheryl can type it up.
Thanks so much to Caitlin for hooking us up.
You're listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we're talking about nasty words and reclaiming language.
Comedian Jamie Kilstein talks about a lot of tricky topics in his act—his YouTube videos are rife with rants about male privilege, rape culture, and the dominance of bros in the atheist community. It seems like he’s on tour most of the time, but he still finds the hours to host the podcast Citizen Radio with Allison Kilkenny, with whom he also wrote the book #NEWSFAIL: Feminism, Climate Change, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will.
I talked with Jamie about his role as a white, straight, cisgender dude talking about feminist and progressive issues. We talked about the time he tried to reclaim a word for a joke that wasn’t his to reclaim and how it went horribly wrong.
SARAH: I was wondering if there's ever been a time when you've learned from your critics. I mean, your material deals with so many tricky issues and so much complicated stuff. Has there ever been a time when you've made jokes or talked about a subject, and then people have said, “Hey, you were wrong,” or “Here's a different perspective,” and you've been like, “Yes, exactly. You're right.”
JAMIE: Yep. Yeah, I start getting these breaks, and one of my jokes that does the best has the homophobic slur, the “f-word” in it, right? And it's not me going after gay people, it's not me calling a gay person that word, but I'm doing in the “ironic voice of the bigot,” right, that has a Southern accent. And I'm making fun of bigotry. I'm reclaiming the word! Like your podcast says. And I do it, and it kills. It was a funny joke, and the joke kills. And I use the word not because–What I tell myself is I'm making a political statement, but I use the word, in reality, because the word, joke-structure wise, the last syllable of that word has a big pop, and I knew people would respond to it. So the first horrifying thing that happened, followed by the second, followed by the worst, and then I'm done.
JAMIE: Like, I just kept thinking like this can't get worse, and it just gets so comically bad, Sarah, like it's–OK. I also want to say this is like eight years ago or maybe like six. I don't know, man [chuckles]. But it was at least five years ago. So I'm on stage in Chicago, which is where I taped my CD, this first CD. And sold out two shows. There were like 400 seats. Chicago's just one of those cities I do really well in. And I did the joke, and the joke crushes, as it always crushes. And this kid, who looks like a kid. He looks like he's like 17 years old, he comes up to me at the merch table, and in the least aggressive way possible–it's not Twitter. I'm face to face. He's a fucking sweetheart. He looks like a baby. He goes, “I really, really like your standup, and it means so much to me that you've talked about gay rights and stuff like that. But just so you know, and I may not be the only one, when I hear that word, no matter what the context is, it really triggers these emotions of when I was young and being bullied.” And so I'm very sweet to him, and I'm like, “Oh, I totally understand” and blah blah blah. And then he leaves, and in my comic brain, I go, “Well, that guy doesn't get how comedy work! Like, he doesn't understand being gay and listening to comedy! I get it.” And so I kept doing it.
SARAH: We should note that you're straight. You're not a gay guy.
JAMIE: No, yeah, I think I said that up to. Yeah, sorry. I'm very straight, I'm very cis, I'm very fuckin' that dude. And so yeah. So I go, so I keep doing it. And I'm doing it a little hesitantly, but I'm doing it. And so I'm doing this audition or something in New York, and the set's really conservative. There's literally a cowboy hat in the audience, which is like, oh my god, I didn't think those were real. But they are, and it was in my audience. And I'm bombing. I'm just like eating shit, and I'm talking about left-wing things, I'm talking about war, I'm talking about you know, blah blah blah. And in my head, I go–so this is thing two, the horror–in my head, I go, “I know what'll win them back. This joke!” But I don't say this joke in my head, and I don't say the LGBT joke. I say the “f-word” joke in my head, in my progressive, straight-ally head. And I'm temporarily horrified, and I say the joke. The joke crushes. Cowboy hat fucking loves it. I can still remember this. And I go–
SARAH: You can see that guy in the audience laughing, and you're like I got that guy, yeah.
JAMIE: Oh yeah, yup. Yup. And I'm like, they're not laughing at the joke; they're laughing and nudging each other and clapping because someone said that word into a microphone, right? And it doesn't even necessarily mean that they're like, “Yeah, we're gonna go hate crime some gays afterwards,” but it's enough that one, if there was a gay kid around that, that's horrifying if they were in the audience. And two, there's still applauding this terrible word that 95% is used in a painful way, right, like by straight people. So that was number two, and that was enough for me to be like, I'm not doing this joke anymore. No way. No way am I doing this joke anymore.
SARAH: If cowboy hat dude is laughing at it, it's off the books.
JAMIE: Then I am wrong. You know what I mean [chuckles]? Then I am just structurally incorrect about the meaning of this joke. Yeah, exactly. So I get my first or second TV show, and it's half standup, half panel. And the host loves that joke, and the host recommends that I do that joke. And I said, “Aw, no. No, I'm not. No, I'm not gonna do that joke.” And he goes, “Come on, man. Freedom of speech” blah blah blah. He's a friend of mine, so I won't say his name. And I tell him that story, expecting him to be sympathetic, you know? And he's like, “That's why you gotta do it!” You know, like artist talk, like “That's why you gotta do it. We're pushing the boundaries” and like blah blah blah. I don't care. He doesn't care. So I'm debating. This was still probably, this was like maybe four or five years ago, and I'm like do I do this joke? I don't want to do it, but what happens if he sets it up, and I just have nothing to say? So I'm debating it, very much leaning towards the side of not doing it, and somebody from the crew emails me. I guess they have my personal email or whatever. And she goes, “Hey, I'm so excited that you're doing this show. I've been a fan of yours forever. My kids are huge fans of yours.” And like get this, get how cool I am, “they're like 12 years old,” right? And they live in a very “liberal” part of the country, which means they vote Democrat, but they gentrify the shit out of everything and are rich and probably racist. So they were like, recently he had a birthday party, and we thought it would be fun if we showed you how much they like you, and we had all of the kids recite one of your jokes.
SARAH: Oh no.
JAMIE: And I attached it.
SARAH: Oh no [laughs] And you're like oh no.
JAMIE: Dude. The second. The second I saw the video, I almost threw up. I'm like, I know what it is. I know what it is. I want to 100% know what this fucking joke is. I know, and I'm horrified. And my partner, Allison's, next to me, and I plug in my headphones because I'm like, “Uh! She's gonna here what sounds like a march to a hate rally.” And I put on the screen, and it is just a line of Aryan children [chuckles], of just I mean fucking blond hair, blue eyes, like poster children for what they would have called the superior race. And in god damn like Broadway unison, they all chant the punch line, the “You better back the fuck up,” and then they hit it. And I like started like cry–Like, I'm just like destroyed. I'm destroyed. I email her back. I'm like, “You have to go have a fucking talk with these children about LGBT rights,” and blah blah blah. It's my fault. It's my joke. But I was like, “You have to talk to them, and you have to explain that I don't do that joke anymore because of this,” and I wrote like pages and pages of emails. Fun fact: I don't know what aired. I don't remember; I haven't watched it in a while. But the joke's about Texas, and there's one point–because I'm on the show with a Southern, pretty famous comedian, very famous comedian, much more famous than me–there's one point where the host goes to set up the joke and is like, “Jamie, you've been to Texas. You have a lot of thoughts on that, right?” And I go, “Yep!” And he goes, “Yeah. So like what are your thoughts?”
JAMIE: And I'm like, “You know, man, everyone was nice to me!”
JAMIE: And like that's it. The rest of the show was great. So they probably edited that out.
SARAH: So that sounds like the lesson you learned from that is that you should've listened to the sweet-faced kid who came up and told you at the very beginning, “That doesn't sit right with me.”
JAMIE: Right! And not wait till I'm on fucking television! And look. For every 99 complaints a comedian gets or you guys get or we get on Citizen Radio, there is going to be that person–usually, oddly enough, a white, straight, cis dude–who it's like they have made it their job to be more progressive than everyone else, where it's like, “Oh, you don't say this? Well, do you not say this and this?” You know, they're very, very, very rare that that happens. And you can usually tell with the tone, right, where they just want to throw their bona fides at you or whatever. But that's really rare, and my whole deal is if you're supposedly defending–Well, and you see this on Twitter too when a white dude or an ally is called out by the person they're supposedly defending, you just see the facade drop so fast, right? Where they're like, “Oh, you're a fucking humorless bitch” or whatever. And it's like, “Yo. You're arguing–You were calling yourself a feminist two seconds ago.” And the second they're called out, they freak out. But yeah, I mean it's a pretty simple rule, right? If you want to be an ally, or if you want to defend a certain group of people, then you fucking listen to that group of people and don't think you know better, or don't want till you go on television. Like, you listen to them, right? If I want to be a good ally to trans people, I'm not gonna wing it. I'm gonna listen to trans people. I'm gonna read what trans people said. If I say something problematic, and I get an email, I'm not gonna be like, “Oh, you're sensitive.” Because you know what I don't know about? Being fucking trans. I don't have to deal with that. I'm not that, you know?
SARAH: I want to talk to you about a word or an area where you can actually talk about the language, and you do feel like you're on steady ground, and you're representative of the group.
SARAH: And one thing I want to talk about with you is the label of “atheist,” since you identify as an atheist. And right now, there's a really big conversation about the problems with the atheist movement, or however you want to describe it, in the United States. Can you talk to me about identifying as an atheist and how you've tried to be an advocate for, let's see, a feminist atheism and how that's come into conflict with people who are sort of the most public figures of atheism right now?
JAMIE: I don't know. Atheists are so cocky, but it's like we all believed in something different when we were kids, right? Every once in a while you meet someone who's like, “Well, I was an atheist when I was nine.” And I'm like, “Oh, I bet you were fun to hang out with.”
JAMIE: “You sound terrible. You sound like the worst. I don't wanna know. I don't want a part of that.” So with me, again, super embarrassing, but when I met my wife, I was agnostic. At this point, I was railing on the church for homophobia and sexism onstage, and I think I was like 22 when I met Allison. I'm 33 now, and so yeah, we've been together for like 10 years. And so we're doing that sort of first-date dance where she's like, “I'm progressive,” and I'm like, “I'm progressive.” And she's like, “I'm vegan.” I'm like, “I'm vegan.” And then I swear to god this happened, I go, “I'm agnostic,” and she goes, “I'm an atheist.” And remember, I am onstage being like, “Fuck that! I'm Bill Hicks” blah blah blah. I go, “I'm agnostic,” and she goes, “I'm atheist.” And I go [chuckling], “But you're gonna go to hell!”
SARAH: No [laughs]!
JAMIE: And those words came out of my mouth, and I was like oh no! Because I'd never met–I'd just moved to New York. I'd never met someone who called themself an atheist. I had such this devil connotation with it, where yeah, I'm onstage like, “Dude! The church is blah blah blah!” And then I meet my future wife, and I'm like, “Don't say you're an atheist or else we can't hold hands in heaven.”
JAMIE: It was so ridiculous.
SARAH: Where did that come from? That's so funny.
JAMIE: Dude, I have no idea. I mean, again I didn't go to church or synagogue, but I really believed in God. I really did. I always, I mean, part of it's that I'm narcissistic to a point. I'm really self-hating but really narcissistic too, where I'm like it's all about me! God's watching me and wants me to overcome these things! You know what I mean? And I had a rough childhood; I had a lot of issues growing up and family stuff. And so you kinda want to hope that someone or something is gonna fix things when you feel like you can't fix things, right? And I don't think that's a bad thing, and when I first became atheists–like lots of you guys, probably, when you first became atheist–you just want to shove it in everyone's face. And I'm sorry, but to me now, and I can tell you how I've changed over the course, but to me now–before we even get into fucking Bill Maher and all those guys–you know, if I see someone being homophobic over religion or sexist over religion or racist or whatever or shaming poor people because of religion, then I can be like, “Fuck your religion! Fuck your God!” Right? But so many atheists, when we first become atheists, because we just want everyone to know we know all these things suddenly that we didn't know, and everyone who believes in God is stupid because we're making up for the years that we believed stuff, and we're pissed off about it. If I see someone praying over hurricane Katrina–I see memes like that from my liberal friends that are like, I saw one the other day. I got so mad. I think I'm gonna unfollow this person. It was like a meme where it was like woman thanks God for getting her a new house after her house burned down or something like that. And they were like, “Ha! Get it? Cuz that woman's house burned down, and God did that. So isn't she fucking stupid?” As opposed to being like, “Hey man, her house just burned down. Jesus Christ. That's terrible. That's so–why would you use this to rub it in this clearly still very poor woman's face,” right?
SARAH: Yeah, I think there's a reputation for atheists being condescending and self-righteous. That's kind of like the image of atheism in society, and that's defined a lot by the people who are in some ways the leaders, the most public face of atheism in the country.
JAMIE: Totally. And I mean, you guys obviously talk about a lot of feminism. I mean, you see this sometimes when feminists say racist stuff or when feminists say transphobic stuff, and the problem is–not even feminists or LGBT people. You know, the problem is who do we always look for as our media people? Well, good looking, rich, straight, or white people. Or if it's LGBT issues, white males a lot of times will be the majority. And so that's kind of what's gonna happen [chuckles] by default. It's gonna go to very loud, successful white dudes, right? But to me, what I saw was, this was during the Bush years, people using religion to wage wars, to oppress women, to oppress LGBT people. That's sort of what was in the news. And then everyone else, I just thought I was gonna be their savior, where I would show them that a life led for you is more rewarding than a life led for some entity, which I believe for me, for sure. But I was an adult. But you know when you're a teenager, and you discover a new band, and you're like time to rub this band in all my friends' faces like I've been listening to them for a decade. And you just all you want to do is talk about it. It was like that, but with atheism.
SARAH: Yeah, it's like the only band in the world is the Rolling Stones. I just discovered them.
JAMIE: I just discovered them.
SARAH: Maybe you've heard of them.
JAMIE: Yeah. They're gonna be big once I tell my lunch table about them. Yeah, exactly. And to me, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are liberal, because they still haven't really discovered what the word “privilege” means. But to me, it's like I went into atheism because I'm like, “I want to defend gay people! I want to defend women!” So I'm looking up Sam Harris on YouTube because I just want to see everything this guy's done, and I'm like aw man, he's on Fox News. Cool. He's on Bill O'Reilly, awesome. I bet he's debating him. I bet this YouTube clip's gonna be Sam Harris destroys Bill O'Reilly or whatever. And I click it, and they're agreeing because they're talking about Islam. It doesn't mention Christianity, it doesn't mention Catholicism, it doesn't mention any predominantly white religions. They are just going to town on how all terrorist attacks are Muslims, and Islam is a religion of hate, a religion of violence. And I'm super uncomfortable.
SARAH: Basically, I think the point we're at now is that these white, rich guys who are largely often sexist and racist have been allowed to define atheism's image for the country. They have been the figureheads for atheism, and they are the people that are looked to as the experts who write the books, who get the TV shows, who are looked to as the experts of atheism. And that's hurtful to other people who identify as atheist or even agnostic or non-religious because they're like, “I'm not like those dudes. Why does atheism have to have this bro culture?”
SARAH: So as somebody who's an atheist, I'm wondering what do you feel like we can do to help redefine what the word means or reclaim the word “atheist” from the bro contingent.
JAMIE: So speak up. I mean, that's the biggest thing. I think what atheists have to do, I think a lot of atheists, especially women because they're just shut out of the community, straight up, if you hear some of the sexist stuff that these guys say, or they're just not invited to conferences with some exceptions. You have to just speak up, especially if you have a platform. To me, atheists should be on the front line of every social justice march, of every pro-choice march, of every LGBT rights march. Obviously, separation of church and state, science in school, stuff like that. But to me, it was this really freeing thing where it's like, “No, I'm not gonna go to hell because I think LGBT people should have equal rights. And if there is a God, and he does believe that, that God's a dick, and I don't want a part of him either.” So yeah, I think it's the same. I think it's just like just be loud about it, and being like, “This isn't my atheism. This isn't my belief.” I mean, atheism's supposed to be a non-belief anyway. Why do we have these conferences that look like these bizarre, all-white, racist Klans meetings? It's terrible. I don't want that. I don't want to be a part of that. So yeah. That's my idea.
SARAH: That was comedian Jamie Kilstein. You can listen to him and Alison Kilkenny on the podcast Citizen Radio or catch him on tour, which he is on seemingly all of the time. Look him up.
What all these stories about bad words speak to is that language is worth fighting for—whether you’re legally fighting through the court system for the right to name your band or battling a millionaire NFL owner about the name of his team—words tie in deeply to our identity, to our ideas of ourselves and the way the world sees us. They're hard to just laugh off, and a lot of times there's no reason to. Choosing the wrong words can be like setting off a mental bomb, and choosing the right ones is a powerful way to instantly communicate who you are and how you’re thinking about history. Here at Bitch, we’re not changing our name any time soon. In 50 years though, I wonder, will the word still hold the same power?
Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent nonprofit feminist media organization. We're entirely funded by our beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today's episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at Bitchmedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.
That was comedian Jamie Kilstein. You can listen to him and Alison Kilkenny on the podcast Citizen Radio or catch him on tour, which he is on seemingly all of the time. Look him up.
What all these stories about bad words speak to is that language is worth fighting for—whether you’re legally fighting through the court system for the right to name your band or battling a millionaire NFL owner about the name of his team—words tie in deeply to our identity, to our ideas of ourselves and the way the world sees us. Choosing the wrong words can be like setting off a mental bomb and choosing the right one is a powerful way to instantly communicate who you are and how you’re thinking about history. Here at Bitch, we’re not changing our name any time soon. In 50 years, I wonder, will the word still hold the same power?
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