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Thursday, 20 February 2014

Racism, political correctness and aesthetics

I do not consider myself to be a racist. This is not an "I'm not a racist but..." statement. I hope it does not come across as one. I judge people, don't get me wrong. I judge them for what they say and do. I do, however, make a deliberate effort not to let their appearances affect my judgement (and when I say I have to make an effort it's because I have been tempted to judge people who fake-tan to the point of looking orange). 

I worry, however, that I cannot be completely politically correct or find a level of political correctness that I am completely comfortable with. I fear it may have to do with my upbringing and I wonder if I'm actually at fault or only seem to be.

Case at hand, yesterday night I was dancing and talking to my dance partner in Spanish. I pointed out that there weren't a lot of leads and I felt a little bad because another beginner, like me, was sitting and waiting for her turn. She was sitting next to another girl I didn't know. I pointed out "[girl's name] is waiting for a dance partner and I know she needs the practice because she's a beginner." He didn't know who I was talking about, so I said "la negrita." He understood me, but I quickly worried that such a word maybe doesn't belong in civil conversation or any conversation given the stigma that surrounds the word "negro" in English. However, and though I see how it's different because we don't call white people "blanquitos," I grew up using this word to denote black people. I hesitate to use the word "black" but in my defence I once read it was a politically correct term to use, given it's just a physical description of the colour of their skin and, at least in English, you are also allowed to call white people white. Also, I have a problem with the term "African-American" because, though it means they are descended from the people who originally populated Africa, to be African means to have been born in Africa to me and the term just begs for numerous clarifications that shouldn't be necessary. Linguistics aside, I'll go back to the scene I was describing.

The two girls are what they'd call black in English, but in Spanish (at least the Spanish I speak) there are distinctions to describe how dark the colour of your skin is. The darker shades of black will have you called "negro" and somewhat lighter shades might warrant "moreno." Some people might use the word "moreno" to refer to dark black people, afraid that the word "negro" has negative connotations, and I frankly don't know if they are right to. The way I see it, it just helps you better distinguish two people much like calling blue "blue" and purple "purple" makes your life easier than calling them both "blue" and clarifying which exact shades you're talking about depending on the context. Out of the two girls, the one I was talking about was darker, so it only made sense to me. 

Note how we use the diminutive* form of the word for black. In Spanish, it's often used as an endearing term and while "negro" or "negra" can also be loving terms and need not be insulting, if you're using someone's skin colour to insult them you won't call them "negrito" or "negrita." You'll call them "negro" or "negra." Confused yet? Again, because of the way I was brought up, I've grown used to using the diminutive forms feeling they will not be understood to be insulting or demeaning. I guess I am writing this to justify my word choice to the person who grew up speaking Spanish but moved to an English speaking country twenty years ago because I feel he may have thought the worst of me for using that term and I really didn't mean the worst (or, indeed, anything bad at all) by it.

I am of the opinion that words on their own have little meaning and as such one can (at least in theory, or in the right company) use the word "negro," even in English, and mean no harm by it. Just like I did in that sentence. Because a word is a word is a word and I it is not my intention to call anyone that or to relate any living person to the living hell that slaves went through. I know some people do and that's why I understand it if it rubs some the wrong way to even hear the word or see it written, but I insist the harm is in the context and the intention behind the word choice. The same holds true for other similarly ugly words. The true crime is to believe that the word itself is an insult when it is, in reality, just a description. The true crime is to believe that being black makes you inferior and therefore to call someone black is to call them out on that inferiority. 

This brings up a much bigger debate about judging others based on their appearances because a number of adjectives that should be merely descriptive have also taken pejorative connotations. Think of words like "fat:" while it merely indicates that a person is "voluminous," nothing bad on its own and actually a bit relative, it can be used as an insult. I am, of course, not well-read enough to bring up a proper discussion of aesthetics and I completely ignore the surely much wiser words of the people who have studied the subject thoroughly. I do remember it being brought up in a philosophy class that the ancient Greeks (Plato, this is) once thought that all good things came together and thus to be virtuous came hand in hand with being beautiful and being intelligent. My personal observations beg to differ but it would seem we keep associating un-good (or altogether bad) things to the things we do not deem beautiful or attractive. Just ask the people with outstanding résumés who didn't make it past the interview because someone more attractive got the job. 

The missing realisation is that aesthetic judgement on a thing that just "is" cannot either change what it is nor attribute new properties to it. Fat people are not dumb (an association I've often found being made,) nerds need not be socially incompetent, people dressed a certain way don't behave any particular way. The fact that some people think so does not make it true and yet actions derived from that incorrect and very faulty line of thought affect fat people, nerds and anyone with a peculiar sense of fashion. It's unfair.

The fact that I am not attracted to black men or Asian men or very athletic men does not make them unattractive. It just means I am not attracted to them. It does not mean they are not worthy of me being attracted to them and I don't think any less of them. Except I probably won't think of them very often (as I would of a man I was attracted to) but that is not the point. 

I also think it's unfair to assume beautiful people are somehow at fault in other ways because they'd otherwise be too good to be true. Luck, good genes, good brains, good upbringing and the willingness to work to look good are far from uniformly distributed. I thought that was clear. So I don't think it's fair to use "blonde jokes" where the colour of a (usually pretty) girl's hair somehow has an influence on her ability to think. 

So, what is fair? On the one hand, people with light-coloured skin, eyes and hair, apparently. But I find those are infamous for their unjust statements such as the ones used above, so I'll just forget about that stupid pun and the irony and go back to my discussion. What is just? Is it correct to use descriptive adjectives as such while knowing that they may have negative connotations to other people who hear them? Is it better to find less accurate words that don't have this emotional baggage attached to them? I'm all for accuracy, when it's available. I wish I could say that if people find bogus ill intentions in words that don't merit them then the problem is with them and I should be able to rest easy, but the whole point of communication is them knowing exactly what you mean and they won't if they think these things. You can then either go on a crusade to educate the masses or settle for finding other words and hoping they haven't yet been used to denote anything your company thinks is bad. 

Bottom line, I am not a racist. If you think I am then I hope you have damn good arguments to explain it because it may all just be in your head. I still apologise if any use of words coming out of me offends you because you never know who you will offend and in this particular post I don't intend to offend anyone. Unless you're a racist. Then fuck you.

I still wish I'd been able to come up with "the one on the right." Damn it.

*Dictionaries offer this as a translation to "diminutivo," the form of words used in Spanish to denote a reduction in size of the noun in question. E.g. "Perro" = "dog," has the diminutive form "perrito" = "little dog." I believe this is also true in Russian, but I may be wrong about it being the diminutive. Maybe it's just translated as such in Spanish... never mind.

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