What’s in a word? Quite a lot, sometimes, and not a helluva lot other times. But who’s to say?
Several years ago, one of my dearest of friends, AGRB, was accused of being a spy for the apartheid state. I knew that the accusation was baseless, so did most of our colleagues in the media. The rumour persisted, notwithstanding everything AGRB said and did to try and convince people that he was not a police spy. The fact is, once one is accused of being a spy there is, quite often, very little you can do to change people’s minds. Denial is precisely what spies are meant to do; they are meant to deny or dismiss all accusations. Once you have been tagged as a spy, it is very difficult to shake the charge. Charges of racism are similarly toxic.
Unless you’re a self-declared Nazi or a white supremacist, most people will deny that they are racist. Denial tends to be the first response in the discourse on racism. For instance, typical remarks about black people or Jews (or of gay people and women), are often prefaced with statements like, “I am not a racist, but … ” Alternatively, people would couch their hatred for dark-skinned people in discourse on crime or social breakdown. Anyway, once one is accused of being a racist it becomes difficult or impossible to alter perceptions.
When I first met the family of a former lover, her 80-year-old grandfather told me to come indoors because it was freezing outside – I was busy shoveling snow from his driveway. “Get in here, boy, he said. You’re working out there like a nigger,” he said. I turned, raised the shovel (I was really going to moer him – I had just spent two hours shoveling at least a tonne of snow from his driveway) and asked what he said, my former lover intervened hastily. Calm down, she said. He’s an old man. Her mother would later defend the old man and said, “Nigger is just a word.” The relationship was never the same again. It ended.
There is something quite valuable in this little story. You see, “nigger” is actually “just a word”. Much like “bitch” or “spick” or “yid” or “kaffir” or “boesman”. But words are not neutral nor are they without power -as deployed. There are important differences between the way they are deployed; sometimes these are subtle other times less so. For example, we can say, “someone just walked into the room,” which is, in itself, quite meaningless. Or we can draw attention to that person’s skin colour or gender and say, “a black person just walked into the room”. We can also say, “a woman just walked into the room”. And then, of course, we can say “a yid just walked into the room”. Same act, same person, same time – different deployment of words, each with a different meaning, and suggestive of motive. We don’t need to discuss this here, as it is self-explanatory.
This past week, the Uruguayan football player, Luis Suarez, who plays for Liverpool FC in England, was accused of being a racist. (Some of us will never forgive him for denying Ghana passage to the final of last year’s football world cup. Bliksem!). Nonetheless, instead of denying that he had used the word “negro” when he addressed Patrice Evra of Manchester United, he explained that where he came from, the word was used descriptively, in an almost familial way and not pejoratively. Now, if he is a racist he deserves to be punished; I make no excuses for Suarez. The incident did, however, remind me of my own childhood, and much of my adulthood – and our desperate need to have a discussion about the deterioration of race relations in South Africa!
When we were growing up in Eldorado Park, Kliptown, Pimville, Noordgesig, Orlando, Alex, Diepkloof and Western Coloured Township, we referred, among ourselves (to each other) as “bushies” and “darkies”. We never had problems with that. I was also reminded of the term “char” – which we used, descriptively, to refer to people of Indian decent. There were also contradictions. For instance, the term “coolie” was generally considered to be offensive. However, later in life, I traveled to Guyana, where I heard people (some of whom claimed South Asian ancestry), refer to themselves and others as “coolies”. I had no right to universalise particularities of South Africa’s racial nomenclature, so I kept my mouth shut.
While I PERSONALLY have problems with throwing around these racist terms, including words like “bitch” and “ho”, personal biases need not prevent us from discussing these things. The fact is, the meanings of words tend to change from time to time, and from place to place. A good example is, of course, the word “intercourse” which could refer to conversation between two people or to sexual coupling. Anyone who has read the work of Michel Foucault may have an appreciation for the concept of madness, especially how our own understanding and use of the term has changed over time.
Anyway, the Suarez incident is useful for a discussion on race relations in South Africa, a discussion that has been newspapered over for a long time. What would happen, for instance, if someone from, say, Taiwan, came to South Africa and referred to someone as “coolie” and in defence, explain that she had heard the term used in Guyana where it was quite meaningless? Somewhat similarly (I think), why is it okay for rap artists to refer to women as “bitches” and “hos” in their lyrics? If there is no problem with the use of these words, then why are they (sometimes) censored on television? Who holds the power of words and their deployment? Is every use of the word “negro”, “niggah” or “bitches” offensive everytime, or is it meaningless sometimes? If Luis Suarez tells us he is not a racist, should we believe him?