Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sticks and Stones...

First it was Chinese babykillers, now it's a cat named Nigger. Sometimes I think my excursions into the world of social networking aren't quite what they might be in an ideal world.

The cat belongs to some friends of mine here in Salvador. I was browsing pictures of their pets (clearly a valuable use of my time) when I found a photo that made reference to the aforementioned cat. I was shocked, and I made a comment to the effect that in English you wouldn't be able to use that name.

Here in Brazil, or at least in Bahia, Negão is a common name for animals, and also a nickname (for humans), and even a term of endearment. Negão does not have the same connotations as the n-word, although I've heard that it can be considered hate speech in certain contexts. Then again, I've also known people to call one another Preto (black, male) and Pretinha (little black female) affectionately here, mostly by blacks but also by whites. These words, which would be super-charged and almost impossible to use comfortably in English, at least in the United States, at least by a white guy like me, don't have the same bite here. Although I'm sure they could under the right (I mean 'wrong') circumstances. I thought that might be what my friends' were thinking when they gave the cat this name- trying to translate the n-word as something more like Negão.

My friend replied to my comment, directing me to another photo of the cat, where a discussion had already played out about the dubious moniker. She had explained to someone else that she knew the word was offensive in the United States, but she lives in Brazil, and has both blacks and whites in her family, and they were using the word 'without negative connotations'.

Okay, I have to admit I was upset. Growing up in the States, with huge helpings of racial guilt, this word was, and still is, strictly verboten. But it's complicated. I remember when nigga started its rise in the hip hop community, and although it hasn't de-stigmatized the word, it has created a new context for it, even an affectionate one, for some in the African American community. I've even been called nigga in Brooklyn (but I assure you there was nothing affectionate about it). I also read a bit of the history of the word online, and apparently it was not originally an offensive term, back in the 17th century.

So how much of this is my problem, my hang-up? If she was African-American and named her cat 'nigga' would I be as bothered by it?

I've had some bad experiences writing down stuff related to strong emotions, so I either avoid doing so, or write very carefully and deliberately when I do. I thought a lot about what I wanted to say about this name, and then I replied to the effect that yes, she's in Brazil, so she can do what she wants, but "essa palavra eh palavrão mesmo para gente de meu pais, não se traduz como 'negão' mas significa odeio e racismo, mesmo com os B-boys falando 'nigga' estes 20 anos" or, to translate, "the word is a swear word for people from my country, you can't translate it like negão, and it signifies hate and racism, even with the B-boys saying 'nigga' for twenty years."

I don't think my friend has the same compunction as I do regarding choosing her words carefully, but then again, I don't know if she found the subject as uncomfortable as I did. She wrote me a fairly lengthy comment back, the kind of thing that makes me want to take my Portuguese to the next level, because my vocabulary and comprehension hit the wall pretty quickly when the subject matter gets more abstract and complicated.

I'm not going to quote her, but eventually I puzzled out that she was saying that no, she doesn't take the attitude that she can do what she wants because she lives in Brazil, she told me that hate and racism are not in the translation for the word nigger, and that I as an American know that if I translate the word nigger I won't find the words 'I hate' in there, and that it's all in the 'attitude' you bring to the word, and the negative attitude implicit in the word only exists in my country (the U.S), and here it doesn't have that because most people don't know what it means.

Well, maybe she did feel strongly about the subject. And I did pretty much quote her after all.

I had to disengage. I knew that the conversation was going to go downhill, and really we should talk about the subject face to face and not on Facebook. So I didn't reply, but I really wanted to. Mostly I wanted to tell her that my computer's dictionary (the iDictionary?) tells me that nigger "remains one of the most racially offensive words in the language." I also wanted to tell her that I hope she doesn't try to create a Brazilian usage for the word, one free from negative attitude.

But basically I don't agree with her. I think she is trying to do what she wants because she's in Brazil, and I don't think you should try to redefine hate speech if it suits you, or if it's even possible. I like to think that if I found out 'Kuza' meant 'genocide' in... Hindi or something, I'd stop using it. As it is, it's already uncomfortably close to 'Yakuza' which I find troubling.

I really have to stop doing this. I get into these sticky conversations on Facebook, which I bail out on, and then I go and write about it on my blog. I think it's some weird manifestation of passive-aggression. The first time it was about someone I didn't know, this time it's about a friend of mine. Well, sort of a friend. I happen to know that very few of my friends, and almost nobody in my family, reads this blog, so I could probably write a lot more about them and nobody would be the wiser. But I don't think I will. And I should stop writing posts like these. And I should continue the conversation with my friend the next time I see her.

But let me just make this absolutely clear, in case I've been vague or equivocal, that I think Nigger is a really stupid name for a cat.


Claudia said...

If I were you I would not go into details and explanations. There is no translation for culture, cultures are different and what is sensitive here is normal there or vice and versa. So much mistake and violence is done once one is forced to adopt another way of thinking, not every culture is established over the same values, even race values.

Everybody is called nego, nega, neguinho, negão, neguinha, preta, pretinha, pretinho in Brasil. I grew up being called neguinha and pretinha by my father, friends, boyfriends, husband and I am not black at all. In Brasil the black movement is called movimento negro. Brazilians are not like US nationals, what doesn' mean Brazilians are not racist because every country is...

However, US society values sound scary, can anything be more racist and discriminating than the forced Afro-Americanism? Why someone has his/her origin made clear while European-Americans don't need explanations to be who they are? Neither Asian Americans, isn't it obscene? It sounds obscene to me!

There is no truth in all these, it is all relative to its own environment. Culture require understanding and not translation.


Daniel @ Garanhuns said...

I am sure you have heard the word "PINGA", "cachaça", sugar cane alcohol. To us Cubans, pinga is the "f" word, at the top of the list of "the 7 words" you can't say. It is means penis. Our dog is called "pingon" which here means nothing really, but my mom screams at me when I talk about the dog usng his name. here it don't mean squat, but to a Cuban it may be something else. Likewise, for Cubans "carajo" is the equivalent of "poxa", but if you translate it to Portuguese it's "caralho" which is a big no-no here in Brazil. Meh, go figure...

Stephanie said...

i agree with you. having grown up in the south it is a HUGE stigma. The word does not escape my lips. EVER. And hearing other people say it, makes me cringe. Even here I dont like to listen to people call eachother morena, pretinha, etc etc, etc. There is an older neighbor here that everyone refers to as pretinha. I refuse.

Elena B. said...

I have to say I agree with you, I would definitely be bothered by that too. Although, as you mentioned, using 'nigga' is acceptable in certain contexts, the other word is not, particularly by someone who is not involved in African American U.S. culture.

Claudia, you mention the terms that Brazilians use, and that they are ok in the Brazilian context, but the problem is when you take a word, such as 'nigger' out of context (in Brazil), you have to use it knowing the connotations it has. I wouldn't use a highly offensive word from Brazil in the U.S. and say 'it's ok, because no one knows that it is offensive here.'

Good luck talking to your friend Mark, those kinds of conversations can be tricky :/ But I think you're right to have commented in the first place, and to take the conversation off the internet and bring it face to face. And, by the way, to mention how strong the word's context is, I cringed when I actually typed it out.

Anonymous said...

I found this post hilarious. I married a Carioca and now have a friend called Pretinho and another called Gordinho (little fat)--another one, while not "racist" would never fly in the U.S. My black pomeranian has also been called "niginho". Personally, I've not had any issues with using the regional tonuge--but think the N-word is deplorable. Different culture=totally different state of mind.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I wouldn't call my cat "nigger" because I'm too familiar with the English language to the point that it makes me uncorfortable with the term. I agree with Claudia when she says that there is no translation for culture, but I wouldn't use the term 'neguinho' either(I avoid this term, even though I know that many people are ok about using it). I am pretty sure that most Brazilians wouldn't like it if their relatives named their pet "caralho". And that was Mark's reaction. He's from a country where this word (nigger) has a pretty negative connotation and he cant' just ignore his cultural background just because he's in another country. I would cringe too if I lived in the States and my neighbor named his pet 'buceta' (Come here buceta! Roll over buceta). I would feel very uncorfortable. One thing Mark didn't mention was how she pronounce it. It's a hard saying 'nigger' in English when you are speaking Portuguese.

Mae said...

I don't know if your friend is a white Brazilian or a black Brazilian, but I have heard of similar discussions being had between Americans and white Brazilians. I find it interesting, to say the least, that the white Brazilians have been the ones to vehemently refuse to see anything wrong with using the word "nigger" in Brazil. Often, they have accused the American of being the true racist and culturally unaware because they(the American) can't see how using the word "nigger" is REALLY OKAY in Brazil. I'm sorry, but no. The black Brazilians I talk to totally get it. Like in the United States, people who are not the victims of racism really have to look outside of themselves,to make a concerted effort to recognize their white privilege and how that privilege allows them to be completely blind to racially charged words and actions.

Think about it. How many white Americans actually sit around and have serious discussions about racism with people of different races...and I don't mean 1. whether or not racism still exists, 2. whether or not America is "post-racial", or 3. whether or not affirmative action is racism against whites. I mean actual convos with people of color about the racist experiences that they have and the racist experiences that white Americans have witnessed happen to people of color. It barely happens in the U.S. and even less so in Brazil, the land of miscegenation and the myth of a racial democracy. Racism runs rampant in both countries. Please don't continue to be blind to it (speaking generally, not to the OP), or let misinformed folks assert that Brazil is some "racial paradise".

Daniel @ Garanhuns said...

Fabio- I worked a lunch stand at a stripclub once (Florida or Miami-Dade County passed a law outlawing nude dancing at an establishment that did not serve food, so me and a friend got the bright idea to set up a lunch truck outside a club). Anyways, the Brazilian girls who worked there got a BIG kick out of a bouncer from Honduras whose name was Buceta. To throw in a quote form the Princess Bride "I do not think that word means what you think it means". Poor guy never understood why they always laughed in his face calling his name till I explained it to him.

Fabio Bossard said...

Hahahaha. He had the perfect name for the establishment. You know, some people would cringe, others would laugh. My friend from Arizona tells me this story when she took her Brazilian friend out to dinner in a Mexican restaurant. It said 'pinto' somewhere on the menu and her friend blushed. I probably would have laughed, cause 'pinto' in Brazil is a cute name for 'dick'.

Eloisa said...

Nice post, thanks. Appreciate the honesty.

I am a translator. The n-word is a horrible translation of "negão". "Criolo" would be a little better. But in Brazilian Portuguese there's no word that express the exact meaning of the n-word.

They are very very different in meaning. You cannot just import all the connotations of a foreign word just because they vaguely sound the same and vaguely refer to the same thing. It's absurd. And it's also, sorry to say, a bit arrogant. a bit colonial.

"Neguinho," as you now, means "person," as in "neguinho pediu uma cerveja no bar." You don't know the race of "neguinho". That goes to show it's completely different from the n-word.

Mind you, I think there's blatant racism in Brazil. And it seeps in the language too. But that was just a wrong example of it.

Again, thanks for posting! :)

Eloisa said...

AAAHHHHH! Just disregard me previous comment. I thought the name of the cat was "Negão". It is not.

Good thing I didn't waste paper, just time (and pixels?)


Eloisa said...

OK, now I'm spamming you. sorry. But I just wanted to say I totally agree with you. OK, off to work...

markuza said...

EDITOR'S NOTE: I responded to all the comments up to Mae's in the next post. Now I will respond to the others.

Daniel- I'm curious to know what buceta could possibly mean in Spanish!

Fabio- your friend probably saw 'pinto bean' on the menu- I don't know if that kind of bean exists here in Brazil.

Eloisa- I appreciate your comment, and even more your second and third comments. I did want to point out that you illustrated precisely a point I tried to make in the post, that it's a good idea to take a deep breath before you hit the 'send' button, particularly if there are strong emotions involved.

By the way, just for fun I ran the word 'negão' through Google Translate- it translates it as 'nigga.' I had to laugh at that.

Daniel @ Garanhuns said...

Beats me what Buceta is in Spanish. Keep in mind between Spanish speaking cultures words are different. For a Cuban "Guagua" is a bus, to others it means "baby" because of the crying sound "guaaa guaaaa". To some "cojer" means get, in Colombia it is slang for "screw".

markuza said...

Yeah, I've heard that to 'pick someone up' can mean to get someone by car, or in one brand of Spanish it means to have sex. I've mentioned my 'maneater' lack of translation on this blog, haven't I?

Anonymous said...

Buceta means Vagina, It was one of the first words I learned ;p