How do we translate experience of skin colour?

12/01/2017
Dictionary entriesLeft Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, fift edition published in 1995, right Suomen kielen perussanakirja (Basic Dictionary of Modern Finnish), reprint of the edition first published between 1990 and 1994.

Theaster Gates, the author of the Festival’s forthcoming commissioned work, has deep roots in the black culture of the USA. But how do we tell people about the artist’s roots, when the standard term in Finnish afroamerikkalainen (Afro-American) is considered in the English-speaking world to be already outdated, and even incorrect use of language?

The term afrikkalaisamerikkalainen (African American), which is used less frequently in Finland, is considered by many people in the USA to be more politically correct, even if it is often reserved for situations in which members of the white majority population talk about black people. The choice of words governs how the experience of anything other than white skin is mediated into the prevailing modes of speech.

On the neutrality of the ‘Afro’ prefix

“Definitely outdated,” is Elizabeth Peterson’s, University Lecturer in English Linguistics at the University of Helsinki, view of the way words in English are formed beginning with ‘Afro’, such as Afro-American. She adds: “As for ‘Afro’, that’s a hairstyle, not a people.”

In the USA the compound word beginning with ‘Afro’ has been displaced by ‘African American’. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says the latter term gained prominence at the end of the 1980s, “alluding as it does not to skin color but to an ethnicity constructed of geography, history, and culture.”

“The connotations associated with words can be borrowed from one language to another, so it is possible that in Finnish, too, the trend will be towards use of the expression ‘African-American’, and using it will begin to be seen as making a positive statement. But, at this point, afroamerikkalainen is still, for many people, a neutral expression in Finnish, and is used considerably more commonly than afrikkalaisamerikkalainen. In Finnish the ‘Afro’ prefix generally refers to something African, as in the compound words afrotanssi (Afro dance) and afromusiikki (Afro music),” says the editor of Kielitoimiston sanakirja (dictionary of modern Finnish), Eija-Riitta Grönros.

Grönros, nevertheless, points out that the way the word is spelt matters, too: “You frequently see it written with a hyphen, as afrikkalais-amerikkalainen, but according to the principles of Finnish orthography, a hyphen is used when the parts are of equal value, i.e. if someone or something is both African and American, as in the compounds ‘Finnish-Dutch couple’ or ‘Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre’. While, if the first part qualifies the ending, there is no hyphen. Afrikkalaisamerikkalainen is not about the person being both African and American in the same way, rather the first part qualifies the ending.”

The history disguised by correctness

It seems that discriminatory power relations cannot be avoided solely by a reliance on being politically correct. As long as white US citizens are not said to be European American, the term African American ascribes an unequal status to black people.

The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says that the word most commonly used among black people is ‘black’. It is still associated with the equal rights gained by the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. ‘Black’ still carries with it the history of slavery and the racial segregation that followed it, a history shared by most black people in the USA.

“If you ask ten different people, you will probably get ten different answers about what is the ‘right’ terminology,” Peterson says. “As a European-American, and one who strives very hard to be politically correct and fair, I prefer the term African-American. My understanding is that the term ‘XXXXX-American’ is a neutralizer, as, with the exception of American Indians, it is a country of immigrants. I struggle with this, too, of course, because it bothers me that race/ethnicity becomes the central issue. But it’s a post-modern world, and it’s common to be of mixed background.”

Cultural change is a part of Finnish everyday life, too. Increasing numbers of Finns have skin that is something other than ‘white’. One of these is the writer of the Ruskeat tytöt (Brown Girls) blog, Koko Hubara. “I myself decided on the word ‘brown’ for two reasons: for me it is a synonym for the word ‘racialized’, i.e. it refers to ‘everyone’ who is racialized, not just black people, and, on the other hand, it also describes my own identity, specifically the fact that I personally do not have an African background, but that my background is in the Middle East,” Hubara says.

When we talk about the history of language we are always also talking about culture in general. As IHME artist Theaster Gates said in an interview in The Atlantic magazine on the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington last autumn: “The notion of blackness, the notion of a people’s culture is always dynamic and alive.”

In April, the IHME artist for 2017, Theaster Gates, will be bringing to Helsinki his ensemble The Black Monks of Mississippi, which draws its inspiration from blues, gospel and Buddhist mantras. The title of the complete work is The Black Charismatic, with part of it being released as the group’s debut album. The album release will be celebrated with a launch gig, in addition to which the Festival will include a screening of the world premiere of a soon-to-be-completed documentary film about The Black Monks of Mississippi and an installation in public space.