Jean Barker

Offensive terms

2014-02-07 07:14

Jean Barker

"You wouldn't happen to have kaffir limes, would you?"

I froze, turned and stared. The speaker was a pretty blonde white woman - some kind of actress, probably - chatting to the hispanic grocery assistant in a trendy Glendale supermarket. It took me a moment to remind myself I was in LA. But it was as if she was shouting.

Raised under apartheid, that's a word I hear across a crowded party.

The woman didn't even know she was being offensive. All she was trying to do was buy some citrus hystrix (but try asking for that in a US supermarket). But here, racist limes are all over menus, supermarkets and food blogs.

It's excruciating for me. But not for Americans...and that makes me think of a certain black ball-shaped sweet that I used to buy at corner cafes as a kid. Anyone else old enough to remember "nigger balls"? Eish, indeed.

Even during South Africa's most racist years, nobody would have referred to black sweets as "kaffir balls". But corner cafes stuck on that label "nigger balls", long after they were officially renamed in the 80s by the factory to "black balls". We didn't call them by the N-Word to be racist. I didn't even, as a kid, know the term "nigger". I didn't even know what I was saying when I cluelessly chanted quaint little nursery rhyme, now politically corrected to go "catch a tiger by its toe".


I was aware that "coloured" was offensive in the USA when I arrived. What I've never been able to figure out is how to explain to Americans that it's not at all offensive in my part of the world. The people who made "Mandela" also couldn't explain this to Americans, which is evidenced by how they edited coloured people out of South African revolutionary history told in the film.

Here in the US, being mixed race is not a community or racial or public identity yet - "bi-racial" people are mostly assigned by strangers to the darker-skinned identity in public life. I have a "bi-racial" friend who's half Chinese, half white. Most people assume she is Asian, and nobody assumes she's white. Ever.

Use the term coloured? It's like calling black people "negroes". Explaining that it's an identity with language, food, music and more associated just makes Americans frown at me, as if I'm telling them I know what's good for black people or something... it's beyond awkward.

Is it racist if you are "just joking"?

You could make the argument that South Africans have made the effort to get with the global programme. We don't say "nigger" unless we're black and our friends are hip to it. Only demented old honkies who still think "Rhodesia" exists say "kaffir".

But we still say stupid stuff. Take that "NOT MADE IN CHINA" T-shirt sold by Big Blue - a trendy "afro-positive" clothing store. Great, a political statement about buying local? Great. One problem... the word CHINA is in yellow. Yes, seriously. You've heard of the "yellow peril" from your grandpa, or in your high school history class, haven't you. Racist as hell.

A few years ago a trendy hipster-urban corporate publication changed the R in their name to an L for the China edition. In America that would be offensive. I thought it was funny, at the time...

But I don't know. And when someone recently Facebooked that their iPhone was broken, a South African acquaintance suggested they put it in a bag of uncooked rice for two day because “Asians, who are attracted to rice, will come during the night and fix it”.

Is that funny? Maybe. Is it innocent? Well let's see: In South Africa - unlike in America - people from China, Korea and Japan are a small minority, and a somewhat resented one as they were given "white" status under apartheid. Also, South Africa's labour is cheap, but not as cheap as China's! So we feel that through unfair labour practice China has "stolen" work that could be ours and flooded our markets with products we er... can't help buying.  Complicated, yes. Harmless, not really, because stereotypes always harm real people.

Talking it out

When I discussed this with South Africans, what pleased me was how willing they all were to have the conversation.

Many said "I didn't think about the fact that it was yellow". Thinking it over, they became faintly horrified. They had all read it as pride. But would they wear it in Chinese? No, they said.

What I'm realising, having lived in South Africa, England and mostly in places in all those countries where spoken English varies from community to community, is that what's hardest about the new global dialogue is finding the time to listen to each other and finding out what we meant to say in the first place.

What we say before we think is what cultural stereotypes teach us, and usually, those teachings turn out to be bullshit.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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