May 02, 2022
HE WHAKAARO | OPINION: Colonisation’s legacy in language
Atakohu Middleton: The stoush started with a column on the excellent Māori and Pacific site E-Tangata. Three Black New Zealanders talked about the anti-Black racism they’d experienced in Aotearoa, a disconcerting proportion of that from Māori and Pacific people, and, in particular, others’ use of the N-word.
Auē! I watched the fallout on Twitter with dismay; it was, as writer Tina Ngata wrote, “embarrassing, disheartening, and at times gut-wrenching”.
The messy business got me thinking about whakapapa of words. We’re all aware of the roots of the N-word in the language of colonisation and slavery, and it’s no surprise that it was the least acceptable word on radio and telly in the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s latest survey (I wrote about this last month).
But colonial language still infects te reo Pākehā, often to our complete ignorance. We absorb language from those around us and often use words and phrases that have a deeply racist whakapapa without realising.
Other words we use may not be rooted in colonial racism, but there is an argument that they can subconsciously reinforce a black-is-bad, white-is-good binary. Among these are blacklist, black sheep, black mark, blackball (to vote against someone joining a group) and black spot (for a piece of roading prone to traffic accidents).
As a journalist, I’ve avoided these sorts of nouns since the early 1990s, when I worked in journalism in England with Black British colleagues who cogently explained why they were best avoided. That was an eye-opener.
So let’s unpack some of the language that we inherited straight from the colonial enterprise. By the way, I’m not out to be a language pirihimana here, just to raise awareness.
Slave and master are words used in tech fields to describe software and hardware in which one component or process controls another; it’s pretty clear where those came from. A few years back, after two Twitter engineers lobbied for a more inclusive programming language, the social-media giant dropped words such as master and slave from its code as well as blacklist and whitelist to talk about unwanted and preferred elements. Its replacements for the latter two are allowlist and denylist (more here).
Lynch mob: I am amazed how often I still hear this in Aotearoa. Used now as a term to describe an unjust attack of any type, its whakapapa lies in the white lynch mobs of the 19th and early 20th centuries who would torture Black Americans, often by hanging, as a form of vigilante justice.
Sold down the river: Used now to describe a betrayal, its whakapapa lies in the 1800s when Black men, women and children were gathered at markets on the Mississippi River to be sold to plantation owners further south (more here). A quick Google search shows that this is frequently used in local journalism.
Grandfather clause (or grandfather policy, grandfathering, or grandfathered in) is a legal term that means an old rule will continue to apply to existing situations while a new rule will apply to future cases. The term arose from 19th-century legal and constitutional changes passed by various southern states of the USA that created requirements for literacy tests, payment of poll taxes, and/or residency and property ownership to be able to register to vote.
Some states exempted those whose ancestors (grandfathers) had the right to vote before the American Civil War, or as of a particular date. The idea of these provisions was to stop former slaves and their descendants from voting, without denying voting rights to poor and illiterate whites.
In a completely different vein, I recently found myself about to use the phrase cakewalk to describe an easy task, but hesitated as I had a vague notion that it had something to do with slavery.
A bit of digging among reputable sources suggested that cake walking was originally an exaggerated, strutting, processional partner dance in Southern US slave communities that mocked the stiff and mannered dances of slaveowners. There is a suggestion that (unaware) slaveholders would award cakes to the best strut.
Whatever the true story, the cakewalk is likely to be the origin of the phrase to “take the cake” or win first prize. For more on this, check out the entertaining rundown here.
- Radio Waatea and its board would like to advise that the opinions posted are those of Atakohu Middleton and not the views of Radio Waatea, its management or its board.