Blackby 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.