[Content note: I use a lot of uncensored slurs in this piece. Might want to skip it if you’re at work and your job would frown on you reading something with racist slurs in, or if you don’t want to read uncensored slurs.]
Slurs are weird.
Think about “tranny.” From a certain perspective, it’s odd that trans people consider “tranny” insulting. It’s literally just a diminutive of “trans.” People use “tranny” to refer to transistors all the time.
The rest of the slurs are also… really incompetent insults. Near as I can tell, slurs fall into two categories: either they’re a variation on the name of the group or a former name of the group (“retard,” the famous “nigger”) or they’re an essentially random collection of letters complete with unsourced etymological explanations that explain why these letters insult that group (“spic,” “kike,” “fag”). When slur-makers do attempt to be creative, we wind up with slurs like “sand nigger.” See, they’re bad like black people, but they live in the desert, so sand!
I think that’s where the “it’s just a word, why do you let it hurt you?” brigade is coming from. It seems absurd that I am insulted by an essentially random collection of letters– what’s more, that I feel threatened, attacked, scared because someone used a diminutive for a label I own proudly.
But… it does make sense. Because those words are meaningless. The only thing “tranny” means is “you’re trans, and I hate you for being trans. You being trans is despicable and wrong. I don’t even have to bother to come up with an insult; the mere fact of your existence is insult enough.”
The very meaninglessness of the words make it worse.
And that’s why only the people a slur is used against can reclaim a slur. Because we’re saying “fuck you, our existence is not an insult.” We’re saying “I know you hate me, and I don’t care. I know you think I should be ashamed, but I refuse to be ashamed. This is who I am.”
[Tyrion Lannister, from Game of Thrones: “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”]
It is, of course, somewhat less effective to wear who someone else is like armor, and that is why white people are not allowed to call themselves “niggers.”