Racism in Language: The Origins of “Black” People

After having read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, I participated in a Socratic discussion on the mimesis (the manifestation of societal or real-world perspectives in art) of racism in the novel. This got me thinking: certain words in different languages have inherently racist, exclusionary, or derogatory meanings or undertones.

Let’s consider the word, “black.” It is a common word, not really seen as offensive or rude by most people. However, as one of my classmates pointed out, the use of a color to refer to an entire people is indeed somewhat if not entirely pejorative in sentiment (historically speaking of course). This is evident in the fact that most Romance languages, those of countries that participated in slavery of some kind in the New World, do not use the actual word for “black” to refer to those of African descent, not in polite/accepted speech anyway. There is no overlap between the color and the demographic term. In Spanish, you would would say moreno/morena or prieto/prieta (though as I understand it, the latter is highly offensive in the Caribbean). Even Portuguese, the language of the country that initiated the slave trade in the first place, distinguishes negro and preto in reference to people as polite and offensive, respectively. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante points out, this supposedly neutral term stems from a generalization for all the Africans of different ethnic groups and backgrounds.

African cultural and ethnic differences were neither recorded nor considered important in making distinctions, any African was black, and any black was a Negro, and Negroes had no cultural heritage. To recognize Africans as Asante, Yoruba, Ibo, Ibibio, Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, Serere, Kikongo, Fante, and so forth would have meant ascribing history, cosmologies, indeed, humanity to those who were enslaved. Without humanity, Africans could be called the worst epithets thinkable by white Americans.

Now, here’s another word: kaffir. This is widely known to be a word akin to the n-word in English in both its history and severity as a pejorative, mostly in South Africa, against Africans. This word comes from the Portuguese borrowing from Arabic for non-Muslim peoples in Africa. The original word itself simply means, “non-believer” with respect to Islam. However, you may also be familiar with the kaffir lime. This fruit’s name has similar but separate origins. Hindus and Muslims alike on the Indian subcontinent adopted the Arabic term to refer to the people of Sri Lanka, where the fruits were grown, and so they were named. As as result, this word does have racist connotations as well. However, in many places, particularly in Muslim countries and India, the word is completely innocuous, simply meaning, “disbeliever” with respect to one’s own religion, though it is not necessarily a nice thing to say.

I’m not sure I can find any other words at the moment, but I am sure they exist in every language. Feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr and discuss this (in a civil manner, I hope)!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.