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Culture, Reality


by Lendyll Naicker / Illustration by Sasan / 03.07.2012

The total absence of colour, due to the absence or total absorption of light, as its opposite white arises from the reflection of all the rays of light. – Oxford English Dictionary

Black market. Blackmail. Blacklisted. The black sheep of the family. Black curse. Black name. Black prince. Black comedy. The bright angel Lucifer transgresses and is thrown out of heaven to become the dark lord of night. Mussolini’s Fascist militia were the Black Shirts. Misbehave and get a black mark against your name. Black cats bring bad luck. Black soul. Black work. Thirteenth century Europe’s bubonic plague is known as Black Death or the Black Plague. The list is extensive.

The English language is peppered with symbolism indicative of black as inherently negative. Fear of darkness is an ingrained human survival trait given the hazards concealed by a lack of light, and the dangers posed thereof – which had been of particular menace to our early ancestors. This ancient opposition between day and night, or light and dark, had become a common motif in numerous cultural mythologies. In ancient Egypt, for instance, Apopis, the God of darkness and chaos (night) would be defeated by Ra, the bringer of light and safety (day), and so raged the eternal battle. How does the negative association translate in a contemporary context, where black is taken to represent a significant portion of the human populous? Has the English language reinforced racism over the years?

The downbeat traits associated with “black” seems to be so universal that it is difficult to call it in question, but the close relationship between the colour and negative semantic content no doubt exists. The Romans, for instance, had two words for black: niger and ater, each of which also meant dark, sad, ominous and/or malicious. Niger has of course evolved to denote a racial slur; one currently undergoing what many linguists term “bleaching” – the affected populous appropriating and desensitizing themselves to the terminology as a form of subconscious defence. Even if the connection is no longer apparent in other European languages outside of English, there are far too many idiomatic expressions in which black stands as a synonym for the destructive. And one need only reference artworks of the European cultural renaissance to confirm – Depictions of Hell are mostly expressed by a vast, lethal fiery grounds playing host to a plethora of African people being prodded by black demons with pitchforks.

Dr. David Williams, professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University cites the work of researchers who, having put together a database of texts, books and magazine articles that the average college-educated American would read over the course of their lifetime, found that the word “black” had been most commonly associated with the words: poor, violent, religious, lazy, cheerful and dangerous. By contrast, the word “white” had been associated with wealthy, progressive, conventional, stubborn, successful and educated. “Research shows that when one holds a negative stereotype about a group and meets someone from that group… they will treat that person differently and honestly not know that they did it… The problem with our society is that the levels of negative stereotypes are very high. These negative racial stereotypes lead to societal discrimination.”

The General Social Survey, a national US social indicator found in 1990 that 44% of whites in the US view blacks as lazy; 56% believe they prefer to live off welfare; 51% see them as prone to violence; and 29% believe that blacks are unintelligent. “Not only do whites view blacks negatively; one in five whites – or fewer – are willing to say that blacks are hardworking, prefer to be self-supporting, are not prone to violence or are intelligent.” Dr Williams said.

Similar studies haven’t yet been undertaken in my native land of South Africa, but given our country’s ideological heritage one would be forgiven for expecting similar, if not considerably more vexing findings.

A superiority complex most likely evolved the moment European sailors stepped onto African and North American shores to discover that the native inhabitants engaged in cultural practices that struck them as undeveloped or primitive. Jared Diamond, American scientist and author of the excellent Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13 000 Years states that “In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography – in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.” It is likely that the language of a people exhibiting a dominant mentality would have developed a particular bias toward the perceived lesser peoples, and the word “black”, as per the Oxford Dictionary, holds significantly more authority when compared to its granted definition.

*Illustration © Sasan.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    the problem is not in the words “blackmail”, “black death” etc…..the use of the word black in those cases seems appropriate & fair…….the problem is referring to people as “black”……when the are: various shades of brown or tan or “olive” skin etc……or referring to people as “white” when they are various shades of cream or a pinkish colour or tan or “olive” skin…….the labelling of people as black or white is chromatically, scientifically, geneologically & linguisticly incorrect.

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  2. Adriaan says:

    Seems like you forgot what point you were trying to make so you just decided to make all of them.

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  3. nero says:

    I’m taking “black” back.


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  4. Anonymous says:

    Well, Asian people are referred to as Yellow – does that mean they’re cowardly? How about the Red native Americans – does that mean they’re passionate?

    Thanks for the history lesson, but what I needed was an opinion on whether people experience negative or positive connotations when they utter the words ‘black’ or ‘white’. You should have gone out to conduct your own interviews. Words are contextual as the first comment suggests. The first comment then makes a politically correct statement which fucks it all up because not all people are scientists and linguists.

    And don’t even get into the idea of dominance being an exclusively white trait; it is a human trait that consumes all of us. Just look at African tribalism. This communal thing that African’s pride themselves with is the biggest lie in the history of the continent. If Africans made the ships first, it would have been them killing off the native Americans first – that’s a given. Greed is greed no matter what semantic discussion we have about color. I propose you move your thinking down form the ivory tower to where it matters most – here on earth.

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  5. Phumlani says:

    Ivory tower. Yellow and red. All of it English no?

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  6. Rory says:

    yeah, some valid points. But all languages are racist, some intentionally, some not. you cant hold a language hostage for linking concepts and objects together with similar words – in this case black. as the first comments pointed out, the issue is calling a brown person black, and lumping them in with all the negatives. doesnt make the entire language racist.

    in fact, the problem is labeling people at all. it doesnt matter what you’re calling someone, if you’re calling them something…its racist by concept.

    for westerners, black is the colour of sorrow, saddness, death. in chinese culture, White is their colour choice for the same thing. but, as words like dashboard, awful, lucifer (lord of light – means the devil) prove, meanings change. so it’s not cast in stone

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  7. Ray says:

    I think what you’re trying to describe is the linguistically expressed duality of man and any attempt to frame this as determined racism is not only incredibly short sighted but also insulting at the deepest level, what’s worse, with no apparent recourse. What have you tried to accomplish with this article? Flimsy arguments for eternal white guilt? Proof of how many scholars you can quote out of context? If you’re going to be dropping N bombs, at least do it with a little class.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Yes Phumlani, it’s all English, only one of the most developed languages on earth. A language that has surpassed others by its number of words and works. It’s just English, so it must be racist. Get your head out of your ass and concede to the fact that there are greater things which you cannot control. I wonder what the connotation of Red in your language is?

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  9. nero says:

    @Anonymous: Perhaps a shade of rouge? Truly english is the lingua franca of the modern world. It’s incredible development no doubt the result of the policy stated in the old maxim “make the world England”, or was that “make the word English” ?

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  10. nero says:


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  11. zo says:


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  12. Linguist says:

    “Niger has of course evolved to denote a racial slur; one currently undergoing what many linguists term “bleaching” – the affected populous appropriating and desensitizing themselves to the terminology as a form of subconscious defence.”

    -Not subconscious – normally a highly conscious political project.

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  13. Babelfish says:

    Black belt – highest martial arts rank
    Black gold – oil
    Black ball – wins at pool
    Black ball – highest points in snooker
    Black tie – exclusive event
    Penny black – most expensive stamp
    All blacks – Best rugby team (debatable)
    etc. etc.

    Just a few off the top of my head, couldn’t be arsed looking up any more

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  14. Anonymous says:

    Ah, but thanks to Will Smith we now know for a fact that the good guys dress in black. remember that.

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  15. Jon J says:

    Whoa…Quite a badly researched article Lendyll looking only for the negatives. Babelfish above pulled some good examples but best is “In the Black’.
    Heard of that one Lendyll?
    Every company in the world which means ever worker in the world strives to be in the black. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/in_the_black
    Case rested….we all want to be black.

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  16. Lola says:

    I think all white South Africans should watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqYnaFQlxyQ

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