Archive for the ‘Language and culture’ Category
Why should anybody want to define himself by what he is not? — William Safire
I recently received an email from Jason, one of my readers, who wanted to know what POC and WOC are. So I gave him a short explanation. And then I wrote that if he doesn’t know the terminology, I might have to do a post about the two acronymns’ meaning.
I remember my introduction to the term in 2006. I was on a date with an older guy who is a Kenyan expat. He called me a woman of colour. Something in the phrase made me uncomfortable. I have no idea what it could have been. But I didn’t like it and for that week I kept introducing myself to my friends as – “Hi, I am Joy-Mari Cloete and I am a woman of colour.” We thought it was funny.
Fastforward to 2009, only 3 years later, and I have done a 360° on this phrase. I now realise that the word black isn’t always descriptive of the majority of people in this world — many are something else: Creole, coloured, Jews, Latina/o, Indian, Native American, Aboriginal, Inuits. And the term ‘black’ has negative connotations in many parts of the world. So it makes sense to call myself a woman of colour instead of coloured when I’m speaking to my Canadian friend who flinches when she hears what she calls the C-word.
POC means either person of colour or people of colour, depending on the context. Similarly, WOC means woman of colour or women of colour, depending on the contex.
No-one can safely say when the term was first used, nor do linguists know who had used it first. But an 1818 pamphlet, ”Report of the Committee, to Whom was Referred the Memorial of the President and Board of Managers of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States.”, may be one of the earliest known usages of the term. French colonies have used gens de couleur liberes to speak of emancipated black people. And the oldest known usage is from 1781, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But I’ll be damned if I can find a credible link on that piece of information.
And yes, immigrants and refugees could be people of colour. The term has expanded since it first became en vogue in the late 20th century, when Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr used it.
Activists created it as a counterreaction to ‘non-white’. Why do white people [get to] set the standard? And we have to define ourselves on what we are not? But perhaps my initial dislike of the term stems from yet again being ‘othered’. White people are just that — white. They don’t seperate themselves into categories, as they did with people of colour: quadroon, mulatto, quintoon, octoroon, Eurasian.
I have incorporated the words into my vocabulary but am still more than a bit reluctant to call myself black, even though I can identify with Steven Biko’s definition of black as everyone who had suffered under Apartheid.
There is sexism in language, it does enhance the position of males, and males have had control over the production of cultural forms. (Spender 1985: 144)
Sexist writing takes one of a few forms: you could assume that all your readers are men or you could use gender essentialist views of women and men.
Why does this matter? Surely, women have made many advances in the last 100 years? And surely, no-one means to subjugate women by something as simple as language?
My answers: it matters because women are human beings. Women and men should receive the same social, political and economical treatment. Yes, women have made many advances over the last century or so. But that does not mean that the process is finished: we still need to eliminate much man-centric language and thought processes. The former will only happen once the latter – modifying our thought processes – becomes the norm. And changing our thought processes is dependent on changing our language; the one cannot happen without the other.
And yes, most people do use [sexist] language innocently but that is a poor excuse for using sexist language.
I recently started reading Die Burger again and was offended at the subtle jabs at women in this Afrikaans daily: journalists write of companies, the SA government and processes as ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’.
I had a look at my copy of the Afrikaanse Spelreëls but I couln’t find any rule that promotes the use of the male pronoun when writing of inanimate objects. And even if there exists a rule such as that, surely Afrikaans – and, by extension, Afrikaans editors – should change the ‘convention’ to something more fitting the 20th century? Surely we should lobby the Afrikaans media to change their writing style to include, and not exclude, women.
One of the excuses apologists offer for using sexist language is that it’s a reflection of today’s society. And that’s where they leave it; they’d rather not try to change the language – that’d be too drastic and would give to much power to the ‘PC brigade’.
I wrote Henry Jeffreys, Die Burger’s editor, a few emails – first email on 17 August – and only received a response from Hendrik Coetzee, Die Burger’s ombudsperson, on 2 September. He offered one reason why they support the male hegemony: it has been thusly decreed by the compilers of Afrikaanse Woordelys en Spelreëls and Sakboek van Regte Afrikaans.
Here’s the problem I have with that argument: it’s lazy and does nothing to change the status quo; instead, it approves of, and justifies women’s oppression. Another excuse Hendrik offered was that other languages — English, French, Dutch — use sexist ‘conventions’; therefore, it’s OK that Afrikaans follows their example.
I wrote an email to Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns and received – instantly! – an email from Professor van der Elst: he’s referring this issue to Professor Kotze, the head of their language commission. Professor Kotze doesn’t agree: he reckons that this has nothing to do with sexism; it’s part of the language conventions.
Professor Kotze from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University answered one of my many questions about the gendering of pronouns. I wasn’t satisfied with his answer and tried to prod a bit more. And then he wrote an incredibly patronising email to me – and to me alone; he had not CC the other respondents in on this last mail – with the hopes that I’ll have a wonderful life: “Sterkte met u lewe vorentoe.” It is OK for him to disparage me; however, it is not OK for me to be offended at his actions.
I’ll try to contact a few Afrikaans and Women’s Studies professors to see what they think.
I don’t know whether they’ll agree with me that this is sexist; many women are indoctrinated by society — they don’t see sexism. And they are some of the key people we need to speak out and voice their disapproval — if they do disapprove after they had given the issue deep thought. Your organisation or company needs an anal grammarian to obsess over everything you send out – to internal as well as external clients. But this person needs to be progressive, or at least aware of all the -isms out there.
So many of us wordophiles — my word — obsess over whether to use may or might; few of us obsess over non-ableist language. A few of us claim to watch our sexism but how many have a definitive stance on which term is more appropriate — gypsie or Roma? How many are there who still use ‘men’ and ‘guys’ as generics?
I’m not sure what to do next. The gatekeepers have spoken and I feel powerless. I feel powerless because of my inability to have a conversation with them without getting told off for my tone. I feel powerless because of the lazy arguments they use to justify the language rules. And I feel powerless because far too often I have to hear how I should rather fuss over more ‘worthy’ things. What those things are I don’t know.
Nearly two years ago I read – finally! – Steven Biko’s I write what I like. One of the items that most stood out to me was his view that we as POC sometimes try to ingratiate ourselves with whites or with those in power. These could be our white friends, colleagues or people whom we’re dating/seeing.
The people whom we’re trying to please could even be ‘acceptable’ members of our own race.
One of the ways in which we can do this is to dis our own people. We’ll say things such as “Yeah, coloured people are racists”. We do this so that the white people can feel better about themselves. No longer are they the only racists; their lone coloured tjommie told them that coloured people are also racist. This is, of course, a logical fallacy – coloured people [in South Africa] can be prejudiced but they can’t be racist. Racism = prejudice + power. But that’s a different argument for another day.
Another way to dis their ‘own’ is to beam whenever a white person says that they are so different to the other coloureds: their hair is so much prettier than; their accent is so much fancier than; and their way of thinking differentiates them from gam.
I do it, too. I was speaking with someone at the weekend when she mentioned she dislikes places – bars, clubs, and restaurants – that cater to gam. And I nodded. And then I felt bad – am I like ‘those people’ of whom Biko wrote?
This is similar to the N-word and how many African Americans use it to describe lesser members of their community.
This needs to stop. Today still. Next time I speak to that woman who distinguishes between herself and gam, I will say something instead of nodding. Next time someone mocks the alleged Cape Flats accent, I will say something instead of burying my face in my laptop’s screen. Next time I won’t write Cape Flets instead of Cape Flats. Next time I won’t get angry when someone thinks I’m from Delft or Bonteheuwel. Next time I won’t laugh along when someone jokes about how easy it is to get robbed in Mitchell’s Plain. Next time I won’t make fun of someone without front teeth. Next time I will make a bigger stink when Die Burger makes fun of coloured people. Next time I will make a bigger noise when someone complains about some other POC’s hair’s texture. Next time I won’t mock the structure of my nose. Next time I will get indignant when someone mocks a POC’s English accent. And next time, next time, my friend, I will wear my fluffy hair with pride.
After nearly a year of reading progressive blogs, I am finally starting to speak of myself as a woman. Not a lady: that implies that I need to act in a certain way. Or it implies that I am someone’s possession. And no, I am not a female. Use female when you’re either talking about lower animals or when you’re involved in a scientific environment.
I am a woman. And I am trying to call other women that, too. But after years of being involved in the patriarchy, it’s difficult. It might be that I hadn’t been doing this for that long. It might also be that the word ‘woman’ sounds far more serious than ‘girl’ or ‘lady’. Or it might just be that every new habit takes a bit of time to ingrain itself into our conscious.
I do still tend to correct people – those who call a woman a girl – to say ‘lady’ instead. ‘Lady’ has a more ‘pleasant’ sound; it is not as ‘fierce’ and ‘threatening’ as ‘woman’.
But why am I doing this? Surely there are more important things to worry about? You know the drill: FMG, blatant sexism, children starving in Somalia…
It matters because using the word ‘girl’ to refer to an adult patronises and trivializes her. The usage of ‘girl’ infantalises women, ie, we never think of them as competent adults who could run for office or demand change in the work place. Such a woman will forever think of herself as less than the men around her. And the men, too, will see her as a play thing, an amusement; they have no reason to take her seriously. Which means they might not vote for her should she decide to run for office. They’ll call her other names, too. And they might even create a group on Facebook called ‘Hillary Clinton: Stop running for president and make me a sandwich.’ Or they’ll just call her a ‘racist little girl‘.
Why is it that so many women in my generation – 25- to 35-year-olds – have a problem with the word ‘woman’? Does it sound like something you’d call your mother or grandmother? And do you also call men ‘boys’ instead of ‘men’? Jezebel asks a great question in their article: When does a girl become a woman? Could it be that women, on average, are getting married at a later age than they had before? Do we equate believe that ‘woman’ should be paired with ‘married’?
And what about the menz? Why do they insist on calling us ‘girls’, as though we’re all still 14-year-old with crushes on that cute guy from Science class? Perhaps for the same reason that I mentioned above — ‘girl’ doesn’t sound threatening. By calling someone a girl, you’re reducing her worth and putting her several levels below your own.
We need a female version for ‘guys’. Guys is an awesome word that can apply to all penised creatures. ‘Gals’ just sounds horrible, but that’s just me. There are many women who don’t mind calling themselves and others ‘gals’. Ooo, and let’s not forget about Grrrl.
I’m in good company with Second Wave feminists, it seems — they, too, eschewed calling other women ‘girl’. Third Wave feminists, however, seem to be reclaiming the word. And others, too: ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. But I am not a Third Wave feminist; I am just a feminist. And identifying as a Third Waver does not mean that one should accept all the ‘tenets’.
Feel free to call me a girl; just make sure that you use the corresponding label for men – boys.
I will, of course, continue to call women just that – women. The more often I do it, the easier it will become. And hopefully I will have a few converts along the way.
To be part of the gang may mean you have to endure — or participate in — sexist, vulgar language. You’ll find this everywhere: at the office, at the mall, online and even at home. The users aren’t always heterosexual males; women also use such language. People use this language to attack those people or ideas that they disagree with, and to attack those who scare them. I do not agree with such usage; in most cases it is used as a STFU tactic.
Why are women called bitches? Think about it. Successful women seem scary [to many]. Add self-confidence, good looks and self-reliance to that and you have the typical recipient of the Bitch label.
The problem is not that this language demeans women; the problem is that the user doesn’t realise this language use is offensive. Our culture has deemed it OK to call someone a douche bag but few know such things do exist and few know that there are women who use these devices. It’s become OK to use female and even male genitalia terms to describe unsavoury characters. How many times have you told someone to be a man and not be such a girl? What’s wrong with being a girl? And let’s not get into gender essentialism right now, please.
Do not tell me that you used the word faggot to mean a cigarette. What is wrong with insanity that people think it’s OK to call whoever does not agree with them crazy, insane or deluded?
An even bigger problem exists when we bring attention to the vulgar words. I’d hate my colleagues, friends, family members and acquaintances to think I’m a kill-joy. It’s difficult to know what to do when people make racist jokes or remarks. Yes, I’ll concede that these jokes may be funny. Sometimes. But they can’t ever be moral. And laughing at such jokes betray a great deal about us. Who decides who should make fun of whom? Is it not true that those with power [ are allowed to ]poke fun at those with little or no power? And as soon as those with no power protest against this treatment, they are branded as having no sense of humour.
Give me intelligent jokes any day. Let’s stop the offensive jokes.
Someone who sprays deodorant near me.
Someone who bumps into me. And doesn’t apologise.
People who block my exiting an elevator.
Someone who says “Myself and Carl”
People who use managerese.
Friends who cancel a meeting — at the last minute.
Someone who asks me whether I am crazy. I normally say “Yes, I am”.
Sms-speak in correspondence. Yes, even in sms messages.
I have never been the victim of ‘real’, ie, overt racism. I was brought up in the platteland and we moved to Cape Town some years later. I attended a well-known high school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town: D.F. Malan.
I like to think I received a good education there, even though I had been pretty damn impossible and had never studied for exams.
But one thing that DF cannot lay claim to is my accent and vocabulary. Come on, I’m affie plaas af; that’s how plaasjapies speak. And my accent isn’t that ‘suiwer’, even; my accent contains a bit of the Cape Flats. But I’ll never admit it in real life.
So it’s difficult to speak to Afrikaansspeaking people. Even liberal ones. I don’t want them to make certain assumptions about me. Impossible, yes, that’s true. But some assume I had learn how to speak in high school. Yes, people whom we could call enlightened think that. And even though my pronunciation isn’t always all that. I’ve even been contemplating telling people I had attended Kasselsvlei Hoërskool, just so that 1) I won’t differ too much from other coloureds who hadn’t attend former Model C schools and 2) so that they can marvel at this girl from Kasselsvlei who speaks die Taal so wonderfully. See, that’s a form of racism. It isn’t the Eugene Terre’blance type of racism; it’s the sort of racism that no-one will admit to.
The South African media doesn’t acknowledge the different social classes in the coloured community. Worse, the media doesn’t want to acknowledge that there are coloured communities in other parts of South Africa, too. The image of the happy Cape Coloured is imprinted in people’s minds and they’re reluctant to let go of it. And the accent gets mocked by all, especially by us coloureds. I do it, too: I assure everyone that I do not speak like that.
So what should we do? What should I do? Well, I blog. I want to start a conversation about race, gender and social status in South Africa. Cause we need it. It’s time that we start talking to those outside of our circle. We now have the opportunity to create our own history, to write our own story to tell our great-grandchildren. And there are many tools that we can use: blogs, vlogs, podcasts — do SA use this, though? — community forums, and all the other social media tools.
It’s time that we have some positive role models. Sure, we have Jo-Anne Strauss and Felicity from 7de Laan… but we need more. How many more? Um, as many as possible until the average South African realises we are all multi-dimensional people. Until the time when the average South African won’t think all coloured people live in Mitchell’s Plain. Until the time when my landlady won’t enquire from me where I had gotten my accent. Until the time when the coloured actors in 7de Laan speak Afrikaans with their own accents, and not ‘white-sounding’ ones. And until the time when we – I, too — won’t even think there is something like a ‘white Afrikaans’ accent.
And after that? Well, we can’t ever stop.
- Being coloured means being watched by the store security guard much more closely.
- Being coloured means being expected to like Gatsbys.
- Being coloured means Afrikaansspeaking tannies are surprised about your ‘nice’ accent.
- Being coloured means the waiter assumes you’re European when you order steak tartare or a ristretto.
- Being coloured means spending too much money on hair relaxers and other straighteners, never mind the amount of time it takes to blow dry your hair.
- Being coloured means you were probably brought up on the wrong side of the tracks.
- Being coloured means people are surprised that you hadn’t been brought up on the wrong side of the tracks.
- Being coloured means people are surprised that you blog about grammar, language and stuff.
- Being coloured means car guards call your white friend Ma’am but they call you sista.
- Being coloured means being ashamed to admit you like R&B music to your white friends.
- Being coloured means people expect you to be happy. All the fucking time.
- Being coloured means getting shitty service.
- Being coloured means other people call you a ‘coloured’.
- Being coloured means you have to be strong[er].
- Being coloured means you might codeswitch.
- Being coloured means you live in two different worlds.
- Being coloured means having friends assure you that “you’re not like those other coloureds”.
- Being coloured means the SA Media only shows one side of your culture: the Cape Coloured.
- Being coloured means you should watch Girlfriends, not Sex and the City.
- Being coloured means denying that you’re a typical coloured.
- Being coloured means everyone dismisses your culture as non-existent.
- Being coloured means you have few positive role models in the media.
- Being coloured means you’re called a ’so-called coloured’.
- Being coloured means your blog does not get much linkjuice.
- Being coloured means having a R10 000 chip on your shoulder. Always.
- Being coloured means that ‘flesh colour’ stockings and bandages are too light.
- Being coloured means having to work harder at being nice.
- Being coloured means you always wonder “Is it cause I’m coloured?”
- Being coloured means people think you’re on Mxit when you’re posting a link to Twitter or Friendfeed.
- Being coloured means getting the table in the corner near the kitchen.
- Being coloured means you’re the only POC (person of colour) in the restaurant.
- Being coloured means your [white or black] friends don’t always get your cultural references.
- Being coloured means no-one comments on your blog.
- Being coloured means kak espressos and not getting a ‘Thank you’ from waiters. Ever.
- Being coloured means people are surprised that you read [books, blogs, newspapers, magazines].
- Being coloured means you wonder — sometimes aloud — where the coloured bloggers are hiding.
- Being coloured means people roll their eyes when you say something is race-related.
- Being coloured means you should go to Galaxy, not Asoka.
- Being coloured means acting more white when with whites, and more black when with blacks.
- Being coloured means being invisible.
- Being coloured means the waiter is surprised at the small/modest/large tip you give.
- Being coloured means people assume you got your accent at a Model C school.
- Being coloured means people assume you are religious.
- Being coloured means people assume you speak Kombuis Afrikaans.
- Being coloured means people assume you speak Kitchen English.
- Being coloured means ’shopping while coloured’, ‘driving while coloured’, hell, even ‘walking while coloured’.
- Being coloured means hoping to marry a white person so that the future children will have lighter skin, grou oë en ‘n betere draad hare.
- Being coloured means having to defend AA and BEE ad nauseam.
- Being coloured means not knowing who you are.
- Being coloured means tipping too much cause you want better service next time.