We all know that social labelling shapes and defines public opinion, and over time it can create new and often distorted meanings about a particular social or cultural group. Growing up in a small white suburban town in England, labels were commonplace to people like me who had brown skin. My Malawian mother always put racism down to ignorance, especially when kids would shout out the words “golliwog”, “monkey”, and “nigger” to me; but I’ve always felt that it was much more than that because ignorance implies that they are unaware, vocalizing an unconscious choice, without any intention behind their words, something I could never believe as true.
Now living in Buenos Aires, I’ve come across a new label “Negrita”. For those of you who don’t know what “Negrita” stands for, it doesn’t take an etymologist to work out what it could potentially be referring to. This Spanish word, according to many South Americans and Urban Dictionaries translates as “little black girl” (negra), and is used as a term of endearment or just descriptive term without being offensive. Yet, who defines what is offensive and what is not? Unsatisfied with this description, I started asking Argentinians what this word means to them and was struck by the similarity in their answers. It was as if they were programmed into giving me the same response.
“Its not a bad word, we use it even if you’re not black”; “its a term of a endearment”; “comes from a good place”; “we use it to call a friend or family member who is a little darker” and “sometimes its related to economic status, but we’ve been using it for years”.
And that’s the problem right there! They have been using it so long that the original meaning has become lost in a matrix of local idioms and synonyms. Fascinated with the etymology of the word, I set out to find out where “Negrita” originated from? It didn’t take me long before stumbling upon this advertisement. Published in The Mercantile Gazette (Buenos Aires) on April 10th 1835, was the sale of a young black girl of African descent. And I thought to myself, could have “Negrita” meant endearment back then?
The main synonyms for “endearment” are affection, fondness, and love, words that could (and should) never be used in concord with slavery, but when someone calls me “Negrita” it comes with a whole different set of meanings; and that’s the danger of “unconscious labelling”. We must recognise that our consciousness and personal histories can influence our judgements and feelings towards “others”, and occasionally blind us from seeing reality from a different perspective.
This inability of seeing from another persons perspective often lies in the historical continuity of nationalism which embodies many complex and interweaving factors. From blanquemiento policies and economic nationalism to aggressive expansionism and xenophobia reflects, all reflected in the ruling classes ideology. While many will argue that these were in place to encourage a shared culture, language and vision, it also alienated, eradicated and made invisible other cultures. This can be seen in the 1930s Argentine cinema, projecting Buenos Aires as the “Paris of South America”, thus resulting in the systematic abandonment of its diverse African and Indigenous inheritance and identity.
Without transcending these essentialist abstractions, Argentinians will continue to negate the deeper historical meaning attached to the labels of “Negrita”. For others, like myself, and those of African descent, it carries a whole host of racist subtexts. However, its important to clarify here that if anyone uses the term “Negrita” does not imply they are inherently racist, but it’s worth questioning, if the intention to use the word as “a term of a endearment” , it allows other labels such as “El nochi” or El Amarillo” (for Chinese people) to be naturalised in the same way. Whether some Argentineans believe themselves innocent of any racist meaning or connotations, just because it “comes from a good place” needs to be disregarded. People should not feel that good intentions somehow exempt them from believing that they are not perpetuating a history attached to racist meanings. As American-born poet T.S. Eliot once said;
“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”
Therefore, I believe that the worst thing about porteños is that they have good intentions. Blinded by this historical default of producing oblique racial “othering”, their good intentions need to be called into question, because at the heart of this conjunction is the fact that good intentions can sometimes have negatives consequences. While they may not be obvious to a person of privilege has never been on the receiving end of hate, they need to stop believing in the goodness of their deed and start disrupting the dominant cultures and legacies of their language that is upholding this system of racist “othering”. I ask you, start listening to those who are not within your dominant, white, and privileged circles that are shielding you from understanding the impact of your words on others. Invite Indigenous, Black and Brown people to help you understand the impact of your unconscious intentions, because without doing so your good intentions will not break the patterns of this unending form of oblique racism, nor deal with the white elephant in the room.
Remember, ignorance can create unfortunate consequences, and awareness requires conscious choices.