The Language Files 8: The pot calls the kettle… “un black”?

It’s been a while since we’ve had a language file. I’m pleased to say that in general I am feeling increasingly at ease in French (I’m purposely blanking out an oral exam I had on Greek religion here…). Constructing sentences, anally retentive insistence on grammatical perfection considered, is getting easier. One thing that no grammar book can teach you, however, is how to be P.C. As in, politically correct. As in, how not to offend people.

Not (thankfully) that I have made any major cultural boo-boos, but one thing that has surprised me is racial terms. Specifically, in French, if you are referring to a black person you call them un black – “a black”. You don’t say une personne noire, i.e. “a black person”, as I just did in English. It’s taken some getting used to. In fact, the French word for black, noir, is a dodgy one when describing people, and carries a high risk of offense. It is much safer to go with the English “black”.

Two things spring up immediately which make me think, HUH? Firstly, black? Why the adoption of the English word? Bizarre. It has become more acceptable to use an English word for a word which exists already in the language and means exactly the same thing. Secondly, what happened to the word noir to make it so undesirable? Naturally, as an English speaker, any French word has a nuance of class and chic, so my viewpoint is slightly blinkered; it sounds prettier than the English equivalent if anything. It certainly isn’t an out and out offensive term like the other N-word no-one likes to say (except some black people themselves, but that’s a whooole other post…)

Good luck to you in England if you refer to “a group of blacks”! But it is acceptable to say that in French. In fact, in French, you can make a noun of any race and it’s perfectly acceptable. Un Français, la Méxicaine, ces Chinois…. Well, in English sometimes the same thing just doesn’t work: “I was talking to the French”…the French what? Man? Woman? All the French in existence? In other cases, it seems acceptable, “I was out with the Italians” (as in, a particular group of Italian people). Other times it smacks of disrespect: “that Japanese over there”. It works with some races, not with others.

How tricky it is to navigate the perilous waters of racial labels! It is unspeakable to refer to someone as “coloured” in England but in South Africa it is the name of a race. Yes, I was surprised when I first heard that there is an ethnic group called “Coloureds”. Though I know it’s acceptable there, every time I hear it, ouch! I can’t help flinching inside.

A lot of people seem to have a problem when I refer to myself as “yellow”. They often protest, “but you’re not yellow…you’re more white than some white people!” But then white people aren’t really white are they? I’d say many err on the pink side. (Incidentally, you can’t say un blanc – or indeed un white – in French. I digress.) Just as black people would probably be more accurately described as “brown”, but it’s just what we say, n’est-ce pas? Yellow, therefore, is the colour I attribute to myself as an Asiatique, but it doesn’t seem to have entered into everyday language. Is it offensive? I haven’t a clue. I don’t think so, but then I never have anybody refer to me as yellow, except for myself, and fellow yellows (ha! That rhymes…), and mostly with a heavy dose of irony.

I could go on. It’s a touchy subject for some, and elicits naught but indifference in others, but it’s something that we here, in a multi-national community on an increasingly globalised planet, should all be aware of. I’m personally still bewildered…un black? Really? Where did that come from, I would love to know!


7 thoughts on “The Language Files 8: The pot calls the kettle… “un black”?

  1. I didn’t know that black was used instead of noir… how bizarre… A similar thing happened to me with the word Pedé (think this is how it’s spelt) to describe homosexuals (Can I say this??? I don’t know what i can/cannot say anymore…). This is rude. It is polite to call someone gay but not pedé, whereas I just thought it was another way of saying gay/homosexual. Anyway, lesson learnt.

    • Certainly one thats a bit tricky. You can use it as an endearing term to someone you know who’s gay and often within the gay community it’ll be used without the negative overtones. The French gay community will also use female pronouns like in English when they’re actually talking about other men!

  2. Hi!
    I’ve just discovered your blog, which is pretty interesting! I’m a student at UNIL (but currently in exchange year)

    So just to answer your question about “yellow”, in french, saying ” un jaune” is reeaaaaally rude. It’s pretty lowering. We’d say “une personne asiatique”. Or the name of the country if we know it (but as you pointed out, in the post about giving a face to a continent, better not to try that without knowing!)

  3. So, about black/noir: as a French speaker, “un noir” sounds old-fashioned. Colonial. The kind of thing the slightly racist old lady next door would say. “Un black” has an anglo-saxon and therefore (from here) American connotation. It echoes of African-American culture (more modern) rather than “those from the colonies”. Depending on the context, it could be ok to use “noir”, but indeed, “black” is safer. Also, probably, for a French speaker, the meaning of the English word “black” is less front of mind, and so it simply becomes a label for black people. I think the way I feel about “noir” in French is possibly similar to how you feel about “coloured” in English.

    As for pédé, it’s an abbreviation of pédéraste, strictly speaking, a man who likes young boys or teenagers. It’s generally used in a homophobic context, but of course, “recycled/reappropriated” by the gay community. So again, it /can/ be ok to use in certain contexts (specially by homosexuals to refer to themselves, like using the word “nigger” in certain black subcultures) but generally, “gay” or “homo” is more respectful and neutral.

  4. I was also really shocked when I first started hearing and saying un black. I still hesitate today in saying it because there’s always that PCness of my brain kicking in saying that I’m not allowed to actually say that!

    But for the ýellow’ label, back in Australia most will understand that when you say it due to our history. There’s a part of Aussie history called the Yellow Peril during our gold rush in the 19th century which we learn in high school, but we would never use it. We understand what it’s in reference to, however it does carry negativity due to the nature of the history.

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