The Importance of Context

TRIGGER WARNING: Triggering racial epithets used in this article, mention of sexual assault.

Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia.”—José Ortega y Gasset

Being abroad as a US citizen of color has allowed me to have various and inaccurate identities attributed to me. Generally, I do my best to patiently explain that yes, I am a Black/African-American US citizen—the last part frequently causes surprise—and move on with my life.

This confusion of identity has given me an interesting vantage point to both see from afar and experience first-hand the ways in which different racial, ethnic, linguistic, social, etc. identities are culturally absorbed and broadly understood. The most recent bout has been in Santiago, Chile. I absolutely love it here and have had a generally positive experience, so much so that I extended my planned stay by an additional 10 months. That said, a number of recent instances have been building up that have reached a tipping point with the hooplah that arrives with the October holiday season across much of Europe and the Americas—from jubilant candy-seeking to deeply spiritual—that pushed my feels into needing to write, write, write it out because hey, what better time to deal with issues of oppression and appropriation than Halloween, amirite?

Over the past few weeks, I’d already been thinking about the conversation around appropriation and how even in the not-so-mainstream media, the focus was on the (very real and very important) personal offense these acts cause, and less so on other factors Several of the aforementioned interactions I’ve had throughout the past month that led me to this point are include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • A 6-year-old student walked into English class and the first question innocently asked was “Profe, que significa ‘nigga’?”
  • At the end of a texting conversation with a Chilean friend (young adult), the parting message I received was “Yah, buenas noches, mi lindo nigga!”
  • I had an 11-year-old student excitedly start singing Gansta Rap’s “Nigga Nigga Nigga” in class when I asked students to tell me about one of their favorite songs in English.
  • I went to a set of hip-hop dance classes where the instructor chose to use Tyga’s “Hit Em Up”, where the main word being sung along to/used to help count and said quite loudly and forcefully was “nigga”; after class, the refrain was quietly sung by the students (ages 18-30+) as they left.
  • I had a 9-year-old student enthusiastically and cluelessly greet me with “Hey, Profe, my nigga!”
  • I was told by a business professional in the same breath that they were “proud of their beautiful fair skin” but that Chile doesn’t have a race problem.
  • A post in a Facebook group wrote that they were seeking “Russian/Northern European/North American looking” people for a photoshoot, which led to interesting responses when I stated “If you want white people, just say so.”
  • The brief but noticeable flicker of surprise on people’s faces when I tell them I’m from the United States and not Brazil or Colombia or Africa.

I don’t think anyone in the above examples are terrible people, and I haven’t experienced anyone using the n-word to my face as a pejorative the way I have countless times in the US. I don’t believe they are capital “r” Racist, the 21st century ultimate insult (for some people, at least). But I had to stop and think for a moment about how to explain why, in a non-US/ post-colonial, situation, I still strongly felt that something just wasn’t right. And then it hit me.

Context is everything.

But what is context? Context doesn’t just involve the past—it involves our present and our future as well. It extends to the here and now, making and keeping us aware of how these images and words still float around our conscious and subconscious levels of thinking. Understanding context helps us to understand how these images and words have already led—and continue to lead—us to form beliefs and opinions about others that affect the ways in which we conduct business as usual every single day (of which we often aren’t even close to being consciously aware), beliefs that aren’t going to go away without some serious work and are more likely to be reinforced each and every time you encounter something that so much as passively affirms it.

So, in the case of the n-word, the context is more than just the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It’s more than just the historical pejorative given to anyone who was unwanted in someone’s (historically anglophone) country. It’s more than just a word that gets tossed around haphazardly in the entertainment industry.

In the case of Halloween costumes, the context is more than just the fact that many of the parts of the costumes that people wear (if not the entire things) are eyebrow-raising at best and horribly offensive and psychologically triggering at worst, though most probably fall into the “bad taste, stereotype perpetuating” category. It’s more than just the history behind many of those costumes, which are based on caricatures and beliefs about real peoples’ bodies that were used to justify all kinds of violence against them.

In the case of both the costumes and the use of the n-word, it’s about more than “political correctness” because anyone who is serious about real social or systemic change (and we all should be, for all our sakes) shouldn’t care much about “political correctness” because it really gets us nowhere.

So what does this all mean? It means that embracing context can show us the patterns and logic these words and images create that affected and shaped—and continue to affect and shape—the lives of countless numbers ofpeople around the world in horribly oppressive ways.

Context is remembering that across the globe and for various historical reasons, light-skin is prized and associated with intelligence, beauty, innocence, and other positive traits (remember: subconscious processes!) while darker skin is often associated with stupidity, violence, and laziness,

Context is recognizing that as the process of “Americanization” (or “Westernization” or “Globalization”, pick your favorite) continues, the usage and definition of things like English and hip-hop “culture” are no longer limited to the lands in which they were initially created. As my friend and co-blogger stated,“They are in the process of passing outside America’s meaning-making jurisdiction, if they haven’t done so already.”.)

Put more concretely, the past part of context—what aids in shifting the focus beyond the interpersonal realm of “offensive” acts of racism, sexism, etc.—helps us understand that the reason I continued to hear variations of “there is no racism in Chile”. After the end of the military-controlled government, the rather rapid influx of predominantly US products, businesses, and media in the past 20ish years to Chile also brought with it the dominant (and misguided) US definition of “racism”, where racism stems from being consciously mean and/or prejudiced against people of other racial or ethnic groups; in the US, historically these groups are specifically Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, allows for “reverse racism”, and tends to ignore First Nation/Indigenous populations . This definition was brought into the sociopolitical fabric of Chile whose only other major socially distinguishable/recognized “ethnic” or “racial” population is the less than 5% Mapuche.

We know that every society has a complex social web that manipulates people into acting and thinking in certain ways—or at least getting them to pretend to. But when ideas are brought in and embraced from the outside, the people around whom those ideas are built are also affected, which is magnified as those ideas adapts themselves to beliefs that already exist.

The idea that Blacks and other dark-skinned people are more violent or threatening? Yep, they’ve got it.

Are Black/dark-skinned males hyper-sexual and wielding enormous penises? Duh.

Are Blacks/dark-skinned people inherently more athletic and physically stronger? You betcha.

Are they poor and lazy? Of course they are!

And the list goes on.

These are the types of images running beneath the surface when we hear certain words or see certain styles of dress, and they are familiar images that can be found around the world. Context is what allows us to step out of what appears to be on the surface and dive into the myriad of ways that it affects every facet of our lives, from interpersonal interactions to seemingly impersonal decisions. Everything we digest from the media, from our educations , from our political and social and religious leaders, and from the barrage of marketing and advertisements we encounter daily plays off of and employs these images and words, which once again affects our interactions and decisions.

So why is the n-word here not so out-of-context in Chile as one might think, and why do Halloween costumes continue to warrant a serious discussion beyond “it’s bad taste”? Because images and words have the ability to trigger the aforementioned cognitive processes based on directly associated ingrained thoughts and beliefs. And real people suffer as a result.

Of course, context is not a one-way street, and when words and images travel, the impact of the old context may not fully come with it, because it can’t. For Chile and the prevalence of the n-word, the full history of its use and meaning—which evolved over time— simply isn’t here. So it makes sense that use of the word doesn’t come with that consciousness. Meanwhile, the exposure they have doesn’t make it any easier. A line from the Tyga song I mentioned earlier states “I said fuck them other niggas, cause I’m down for my niggas” which is bound to confuse anyone about what the word means, how it’s used, and who can/can’t use it, including and especially in the US (because we have this debate all the time). The challenge in Chile is that the word has been absorbed largely though hip-hop/rap music and through movies with Black characters exchanging the word—thus, without the past or present parts of context that created the word in the first place—which conjures up very particular images and beliefs about Black people in general, specifically (as my trusty co-blogger once again nails it) “from the hypermasculine heterofantasy of mainstream hip-hop”. And, as previously stated, these images definitely exist here.

Like I mentioned before, I’ve never had the word hurled at me pejoratively here in Chile(nor have I heard of that happening to anyone) and I don’t think that those who use it—remember, usually in the “between friends” way—are mean, scum-of-the-earth people. But the use of the word and the way that it is being used comes from a particular context, and we cannot subtract it from that context when it clearly is working to re-construct similar beliefs/ideologies that led to its original creation in its new home. The word evolved to have that meaning because of and in spite of its history. Simultaneously, the sociopolitical context of its modern usage from which it is being borrowed—primarily it’s cultural use within Black communities as both an act of positive reclamation among Blacks and as an insult towards other Blacks—is built upon that same violent history. Simply put, contemporary usage of the word—wherever it is being used—cannot be separated from its painful and violent history and continuing legacy. So, while it definitely isn’t a carbon copy of what we have in the US, it is still problematic in it’s new form.

To draw this to a close, I definitely acknowledge that there are terrible people out there who are fully aware of themselves when they do and say terrible things. But the discussion simply cannot end there. I offer you this parallel: immoderate consumption of alcohol lowers our level of cognition and makes it more likely that we will injure someone else. But we also know that alcohol lowers inhibitions and makes one more likely to suffer from heart disease, kidney or liver failure, brain damage, infertility, and to commit sexual assault. Singly, any one of them is a sufficient reason to moderate your drinking, but taken together, they paint a much fuller picture that brings us much closer to necessitating it. Halloween is now behind us, with Thanksgiving looming ahead of us, where another round of heated debate is sure to spring up. As we consider what these holidays and associated images mean, I ask is that we ensure that we paint the full picture when it comes to use of language,sociocultural appropriation, and historical meaning-making, and make decisions on what to say and how to (inter)act accordingly.

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3 thoughts on “The Importance of Context

  1. Well written and very thoughtful son. It never occurred to me that our disgusting continued use of derogatory words (like N****r) through our pop culture have had the effect of spreading those terms of less than endearment all over the world. The absence of context removes all sense of insult in the casual use of such terms. Our Pop entertainers somehow think it is OK to denigrate their own race of people in the interest of making money. There must be some way to stop this insanity. Some how, some way we need to drop that word from our collective vocabulary before it comes to completely define us.

  2. Pingback: Must Read Cheat Sheet |

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