While it is Black History Month across the Atlantic, it is important to remember our rich history and reassert our significance and importance to the global cultural fabric that all too often gets overlooked. But it’s also really important to think about the correct and long term ways of securing that position for ourselves.
In an attempt to reassert our own value and importance, in the last few weeks, there’s been a big question about why the dictionary’s examples of black are still associated with negativity. Recently on the @PULLUPFORCHANGE Instagram account, there has been a stream of support for the movement to lobby dictionaries to permanently changing the definitions of the word black to say something more positive and uplifting, claiming that having negative definitions of the word black is racist.
And I believe in uplifting our race as much as the next person, but I also fervently believe in taking effective steps- steps that will make a real tangible difference. The road to racial equality and recognition is long and hard, and in the black community particularly, it’s even harder. But I don’t think using energy and momentum on changing long-standing linguistic definitions is wise. Here’s why:
Dictionary Definitions of black
Most dictionaries now define the word ‘black’ as: “the darkest colour, owing to the absence of light.”
It’s a very tactful and honest definition. But next to these definitions, there tend to be examples of how the word can be used. Some of those examples in the OED and on Google acknowledge that ‘black’ can be used as a cultural word- Black with a capital ‘B’- referring to the Black community or people of African, Afro-Caribbean or Aboriginal descent. But it also has examples that refer to more negative things, like dirt or rot.
And this is the part that makes a lot of people unhappy. But I think the key to understanding these definitions is understanding that the word ‘black’ is just an English/European, descriptive word that’s connected to the cultural and religious frame of reference of the Christian European Anglophone countries. And that isn’t always a racist frame of reference. The word has existed for centuries, as a colour in the same way that white, orange and blue are simply words assigned to visual objects that bear that colour. Those colours then become associated with ideas, feelings and conditions that the people speaking that language have encountered.
Neither word was created to categorise the race of people who came out of either Europe or Africa. Europeans took these natural words because of their pre-existing negative or positive connotations and, though harmless in their wider social contexts, deliberately assigned them to their new mythical and prejudice based categorisation of race.
Black is just a colour, used to identify and describe things, which may have negative connotations. Likewise, white is just a colour used to identify and describe things that may have positive connotations.
These words are not markers of ethnicity or race; they were employed by Europeans who had already developed a prejudice against a group of people and then used by Europeans to justify their prejudices against these groups of people. There’s no such thing as a Black race any more than there is such a thing as a White race, or Yellow race or a Brown race. These are fabricated labels that European powers have continued to use because it suits them to associate us with the pre-existing anglophone communications of goodness and evil. They picked white for themselves because they associate themselves with what ‘white’ symbolises, but that doesn’t mean the ‘white’ race is a real thing, and it doesn’t mean you change the definition of the colour white.
Of course, within the context of the realities of Black history, the definitions seem problematic. But if it bothers you that much, you don’t need to label yourself as Black to identify with Afro cultures. There are other words, or specific ethnicities, like Yoruba or Ashanti which you can stick to. Alternatively, if you’re able to separate the realities of some of the negatives that come with the word black, and see yourself solely as Black with a capital ‘B’, then there’s no reason to use another label because your free to label yourself as you wish. But if you are unwilling to label yourself as anything other than ‘Black’, but are insecure with how the English language works, asking dictionaries to change it to suit you isn’t really going to fix that. It’s going to be used in negative situations anyway- because those are the rules of the English language.
Rotten teeth would never be described as pink just because we are no longer want Black to be associated with decay- if the teeth are black their black.
So, the issue isn’t the word, and you can’t blame the English language for associating negativity with Black.
But you can blame the European and Anglophone colonisers for creating the concept of race and naming our race after a word that has so many negative connotations, purely to suit themselves. Race isn’t real. It’s a device. Its an indicator of European fabricated ideas about what a group of people are, or should be.
What we need to do is pick a word from our own languages or our shared pan African cultural and oral exchanges, to describe ourselves as we see ourselves rather than attempt to change centuries upon centuries of linguistic cultural and experiential evolution. If you want to be broad, you can call yourself a person of ‘African descent’ (unless that bothers you and you’d rather be separate from Africa by being simply Black, in which case, in my opinion, you have others issues you need to address) or something else. Personally, I think something with the word Afro in it would work well.
You are who you believe yourself to be
I wholeheartedly believe that removing the negativity associated with Blackness is important. And I truly believe that it is important to be proud of being Black. But if dictionary definitions bother you that much, it’s not the dictionary fault. And lobbying them to change the definition is ridiculous because the colour black has many connotations that can’t be helped. And this attempt to get validation from European dictionaries that you are not what they claim you to be, just reassert their control over you and your idea of yourself. And we don’t need to give them that.
You know how you identify. And you can choose not to call yourself by the label that was given to you 500 years ago if the label bothers you. Or you can choose to redefine it for yourself. Both are effective.