Words matter: How everyday language discriminates against Black people

Words matter: How everyday language discriminates against Black people

A linguist and language professor discusses the intersection between words and racism.
Discrimination against Black people has seeped into English and Spanish languages. / Design: Musab Abdullah Güngör

By Roxana Sobrino Triana

Black and white—opposite tones. White, a reflection of light, sum of all colours of the spectrum. Black—total absence of light and colour.

What we recognise as black and white is nothing more than a phenomenon of perception, given that our brain interprets electromagnetic waves as colours. Once perceived, we not only interpret and assign them names, but we establish countless associations for each.

Red is associated with love, intensity, energy, strength, and vividness. Green symbolises hope, good luck, and nature.

White is associated with peace, innocence, faith, cleanliness, brightness, and purity, and we act accordingly with these associations, since peace is represented with a white flag or dove, and women often get married dressed in white. On the other hand, black is linked to fear, death, darkness, and bitterness.

If we look up white and black in a dictionary, their first meanings refer to the colours they denote, but also to races that, like colours, are opposing constructs.

The opposition between white and black races has transferred from the colours and added ancient stigmas that continue to condition our evaluations of races and, to a large extent, our conception of the world.

All these meanings are perpetuated through language. Both in English and Spanish, discrimination towards Blacks has been perpetuated through meanings and values ​​added to black as an adjective.

Symbolism of colour

Such discrimination not only activates the symbolism of colour but also determines which discriminatory nuances are added around a racial stigma that associates the Black race with misfortune, marginalisation, illegality, political incorrectness, forced labour, slavery, dirtiness, and criminality.

Making a list of units that activate all these meanings is a daunting task, but some examples will suffice to identify the discriminatory sense that we have unconsciously attributed to black as an adjective.

We use black sheep (generally, a family member who feels different or excluded), black market (illegal market), blacklist (list of people or institutions considered dangerous or enemies), black humour (having something macabre, of low morals, offending sensitivities), black magic (as opposed to white magic), black mass (a ceremony in which the Devil is worshipped instead of the Christian God).

In Spanish, turn black (“ponerse negro”) means to get dirty or angry, in addition, there are terms like black water (wastewater), black well (cesspool, cesspit), black novel (thriller), black hand (dead hand).

Expressions such as “trabajar en negro” (working off the books), “trabajar como un negro” (working like a slave), and “trabajo de negro” (slave labour) are directly associated with the subjection of Black slaves during the colonial period.

While it seems we've forgotten what triggers all these expressions, the issue becomes more sensitive when it comes to race, specifically, raza negra in Spanish or Black people in English.

People and colour

As a result, euphemisms are activated to mitigate the discrimination that the adjective negro or black may bring about. Unfortunately, these are not always successful solutions.

For example, the expression ‘people of colour’ seems to divide the world into whites vs. people of colour, lumping together a wide variety of ethnicities and races as if this implied a more dignified treatment of these individuals while safeguarding whites.

The vague and ambiguous nature of people of colour has given rise to other language forms with the prefix afro as in Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-descendant. These terms are more commonly used today and focus more on the origin of people and less on the colour of the skin.

However, the major problem doesn't lie in how we refer to the Black race in general, but in how we address individuality, i.e., in this way we refer to the subject of the Black race.

It is there, above all, when our racial positioning comes into play, and therefore, it is in those contexts where the word used is prone to be charged with greater negativity.

In English, the stigma carried by the the N-word, always used as an insult and associated with violence, discrimination, and segregation, has escalated to such an extent that it has become a taboo word, or rather, the taboo word.

Stigma and colour

Such is the case that it has become unpronounceable and is referred to as the N-word, one of the most offensive, abusive, and volatile of all words in the English language.

English has the equivalent black, which does not currently have a negative connotation, but did in other times. However, in a more or less subtle way, it carries the negative stigma perpetuated in the creation of all the examples mentioned here.

In Spanish, we only have the word negro, although there are other names, such as the term mulato or moreno. Negro it can be used in a pejorative, neutral or affective way.

In its diminutive form, we have negrito, negrita, as a term of endearment, even between members of a couple –mi negro, mi negra–, regardless of the skin colour of the person speaking or who they are referring to.

As an example of this, we have the case of Mercedes Sosa, an iconic Argentine singer and activist who everyone knew as “La Negra”, although she was not black.

On the other hand, in certain contexts, negro is equivalent to the N-word, but they are far from being equivalent on a scale of values.

Race and colour

In Spanish, discriminatory use depends on the context, the interlocutors and the speaker's intention. Meanwhile, in English, the stigma attached to the N-word is not activated by context because the word itself has negative connotations.

Has the prohibition of the N-word led Americans, or English speakers in general, to eliminate social racism? It doesn't take much knowledge to answer this question: clearly not.

Are English speakers therefore less racist than Spanish speakers? I don't believe it's even a question worth answering, among other things, because it depends on how discrimination is thought and conceived, and it is not the same in all realities.

Can one be more or less racist? Can one be more or less honest? The unpronounceability of the N-word is the clearest evidence that simply eliminating, that is, symbolically burying a word, does not make the stigma disappear.

Considering a word as a euphemism (e.g., coloured) or as a dysphemism or taboo (N-word) is a social convention, and in the vast majority of cases, subject to change, i.e., it tends to be cyclical.

The right awareness

It is very common for a word that begins to be used with a very strong negative connotation, if it has a high frequency of use, to end up partially or completely losing such nuance, and the same happens in reverse, that is, a euphemism can become a taboo.

In my opinion, the battle should not be against a single word or expression. Censoring and prohibiting language issues does not solve discrimination problems: neither racial, gender-based or any other kind.

Prohibitions in language are of no use if there is a discriminatory intention since the community of speakers will seek other ways to express themselves and discriminate.

The battle should be focused on raising awareness of all types of inequalities, as social beings that we are. This will naturally lead us to rid our way of speaking of stigmas and discriminations.

What happens with these and many other terms is that we load them with our prejudices. Words are our mirror. And the solution does not lie in destroying the image that mirror reflects back to us as a society, but in making the necessary transformations so that the glass projects something better.

At the end of the 19th century, José Martí, the greatest of all Cuban intellectuals, wrote in his essay “My Race”: “Man is more than White, more than Mulatto, more than Black”.

And he added: “Everything that divides men, everything that specifies, sets them apart, or corners them, is a sin against humanity”.

If the day comes when, as humanity, we are all aware of this assertion, it will be irrelevant what word we use to name each other. Until then, let's make it clear: words matter.

The author, Roxana Sobrino Triana holds a PhD in Linguistics and is a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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