At the risk of beating a dead horse, this ‘Neger’ headline deserves another look. For those who may have missed it, a headline from Dagbladet Roskilde on April 18 read: “Neger stjal bil fra 80-årig”. Translated, this reads as “Negro/n****r stole car from 80-year-old”. Now, anyone from the English-speaking world would know that those two translations have quite different connotations, and The Copenhagen Post’s decision to translate it as the latter has come under some criticism.
Look, I’m not an etymology expert, but a quick look at the Wikipedia entry for ‘n****r’ reveals: “The variants neger and negar derive from the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black), and from the now-pejorative French nègre (n****r). Etymologically, negro, noir, nègre, and n****r ultimately derive from nigrum, the stem of the Latin niger (black).”
In another words, different branches, same tree. Both words have a complicated and painful history, and for many the use of either induces instant cringes.
Just as Dagbladet Roskilde’s editor Steen Østbjerg stood behind the paper’s decision to use the word, we stand behind our decision to call him out on its clearly negative and discriminatory tone.
And the nitpicking about the translation overlooks the point. For one, the use of ‘neger’ is resolutely unnecessary in this headline. For another, both ‘Negro’ and ‘n****r’ group people by their skin colour in a pejorative manner. And thirdly, if you really think ‘Negro’ is an A-OK word to use, try going to any major city in the US and calling a black man a Negro. I’m sure he’ll totally understand your argument that it’s acceptable to use it in Denmark.
After the newspaper’s headline choice became a story of its own, apologists of all sorts came out of the woodwork to defend it. Most of the arguments followed one of two lines of reasoning: either that the word is merely descriptive and not offensive at all, or that the word was acceptable in the past and therefore should continue to be so.
Those who chose the first argument like to point out that the newspaper was merely using the 80-year-old woman’s own words to describe the car thief. But seriously, do they think for a second that if this old lady had said that a ‘fa**ot’ had stolen her car, that that particular ‘description’ would have made its way into a headline? What if she had said it was a “Muslim terrorist” or simply “a fat, ugly bastard”? Surely this line of defence then falls apart.
It was also argued that the headline’s ‘descriptive’ word would help apprehend the criminal. Ignoring for a moment the ridiculous notion that readers of Dagbladet Roskilde go out fighting crime after their morning coffee, the police later told Jyllands-Posten that it was, lo and behold, the make of the automobile – and not the skin colour of the perpetrator – that led to the car’s recovery.
As to the second argument – that the word was acceptable in the past – it’s worth asking the apologists what other outdated notions from the 1950s they’d like us to return to. Women as homemakers? Corporal punishment? A system akin to the US’s Jim Crow laws? That something was okay 60 years ago is hardly an argument that it is okay today.
To be clear, many have condemned the usage of the word. And funnily enough, while Østbjerg was giving interviews defending the paper’s choice, his online team was busy changing the headline from ‘Neger stjal bil fra 80-årig’ to ‘Sort mand stjal bil fra 80-årig’ (‘Black man stole car from 80-year-old’) and finally to ‘Mand stjal bil fra 80-årig’ (‘Man stole car from 80-year-old’). Seems not everyone at the paper shared his opinion.
David Trads, a US-based correspondent for Berlingske newspaper and host of the Radio24syv programme Globus USA, also expressed dismay at the headline.
“Neger! That’s a word that I had almost forgotten existed,” he wrote on the radio programme’s Facebook page. “Here in the US it would be completely unthinkable to use that word because it would be unquestionably perceived as vehemently racist.”
To prove his point, the radio programme spoke with Akili Brown, a young African-American graphic designer, who called the headline choice – translated to the word ‘Negro’ – “naïve”, “sterotyping” and “offensive”. And the word ‘Negro’ itself?
“Its an outdated term. There are many black people that would be heavily offended by the term,” Brown told Globus USA. “It’s just old, it’s inappropriate, it doesn’t have any real place anymore.”
Granted, perhaps because Denmark doesn’t have such an ugly racial history as the US, it has largely avoided painful conversations about what people should and should not say about one another. But lest we forget, for nearly two centuries Denmark was active in the Atlantic slave trade and thus shares at least a sliver of responsibility for the horrendous treatment one race of humans suffered at the hands of another.
But, can a country that is overwhelmingly white really be in a position to determine whether the word is racist or not? And given its long and brutal decade-plus campaign of demonising foreigners, particularly those who don’t look ‘Danish’, can Danes really be surprised that so many are unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt?
NOTE: After publishing this column, I became aware of this.