Friday, August 21, 2009

A Derogatory Term for Black People

Proving that the certain professions can attract obnoxious, officious pricks the world over, an Israeli bus driver has refused to let a woman of Ethiopian descent on, saying:
What, don’t you understand that I don't allow Kushim (derogatory term for black people) on board? Are you trying to smash my door in? Were there buses in Ethiopia? Why don't you walk? In Ethiopia you didn't even have shoes and here you do, so why don’t you walk?
Clearly this bus driver isn’t coming off brilliantly in the article. As’ad of the otherwise interesting and informative Angry Arab News Service still isn’t satisfied
Well notice that the paper managed to cite the word Kushim without telling its readers that it means "Nigger." Israeli newspapers don't want to spoil the bogus "liberal" image of Israel, that it never ever deserved.
Aside from the fact that it means ‘Niggers’, plural (the driver later refers to the woman several times as a ‘Kushit’), As’ad is being rather profligate here with the word ‘means’.

Like homophobic abuse, racial slurs are more complicated than they look. How strong is the word ‘כושית’/‘Kushit’? As far as I know, ‘Nigger’ is pretty much the worst thing an English speaker can throw at a person of colour. Is ‘Kushit’ just as strong? Is it relatively mild, like ‘Darkie’, or pseudo-scientific, like ‘Negro’? And where does it come from? Does it, like those three, refer to skin colour? Is it based on stereotypes, like ‘Frog’ or ‘Kraut’? Is it a corruption of the standard term in their own language, like ‘Pollack’ or ‘Yid’? Some racial slurs, like ‘Wog’, seem to be just random, bile-filled clusters of idiotic phonemes. Is it historical, like the Arabic ‘عبد’/‘abd’, meaning ‘slave’, or is it, as the ‘-it’ ending would suggest, a reference to perceived geographical origin, like ‘Paki’? It turns out it’s a mixture of the last two: from ancient Kush. But that doesn’t tell us about its usage. Is it actually as strong as ‘Nigger’? Has it, like ‘Nigger’, been reclaimed at all by those it designates? Can it be used for all dark-skinned people, only black people, only black Ethiopians or only black Ethiopian Jews? Even Wikipedia doesn’t help much, though shows this particular slur to be surprisingly popular among Israeli bus drivers. Even weirder though, putting “כושית” into google images turns up an awful lot of porn. Draw your own conclusions.

Again, a lot more questions than answers. So I reckon Ynet was absolutely right to explain, rather than translate the word. There probably is no exact English translation for ‘Kushit’, and forcing one is not only inaccurate linguistically, but also politicises the translation. As the name might suggest, the Angry Arab News Service isn’t exactly the most pro-Zionist blog I’ve ever read, and while As’ad may be right to attack casual Israeli racism, he shouldn’t expect translators to do it for him.

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