Philippa Mwayi explores the dark side of language and what the word 'black' really means in today's society


By Philippa Mwayi / 5 January 2020


Illustration by Philippa Mwayi

I don't want anyone to confuse the title with the phrase 'what does it mean to be black' as that is an entirely different conversation...

One I hope, for most of us, to be more positive. I'm asking for people to try and think about the world 'black' outside of a racial context, and consider the connotations and associations that spring to mind. Then take into account the proposition that except for children – very small children – few people are able to think of the word 'black' without automatically relating it to race, which is where the problem lies...

I first thought about this when I went to the People's Vote March last autumn. We were all gathered hoping the end result would be a second referendum. Whilst that was unfortunately not the outcome, it was an inspiring moment to see thousands of people championing inclusivity and protesting for what I believe to be a good cause. If there was a truly safe space to be, where the vast majority were progressive, that would be it. So, I was surprised when I was left questioning the roots of racism on the way home.

During the march, a pre-recorded video featuring Brian Cox was played where he quoted Churchill and said, ‘The future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black.’

Whilst it's no secret that Churchill had some very questionable views on race and black people in general, he is for sure not the only person using black as a synonym for bad, scary or dismal.

 Simply search the definition of black and in an answer box generated by Google, you will find the following definitions:

 ‘characterized by tragic or disastrous events; causing despair or pessimism’

 ‘full of anger or hatred’

 ‘very evil or wicked’

 As well as the above, you will also find the following definition of black in relation to race:

 ‘belonging to or denoting any human group having dark-coloured skin, especially of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry’

It should be obvious why that is a problem.

For someone who is vocal about racism and for the most part not afraid to call people out when they are exhibiting racist behaviour, I often receive the same comebacks that are typically along the lines of 'why does it always have to be about race', or 'it might not have anything to do with race', and I can never quite get across the fact that it pretty much always is about race. Racism and the effects of people's subconscious and even conscious prejudice are ingrained in almost every aspect of life, including our language. However, people seem to find it so easy to dismiss racism as a real issue unless it's as glaringly obvious as someone with a swastika tattooed on them.


From The Oxford English Dictionary definition of 'black' 

In a world where 'dark-skinned people' appear in the same search result as 'evil & wicked', it is infuriating when I cannot get people to understand how deeply ingrained racial prejudice is.

If you had no knowledge of the world and were relying solely on a dictionary (which should be a credible source) to educate yourself, imagine the opinion you'd form of an entire race before even coming into contact with them.

When even the word itself has negative connotations, how can anybody have the confidence to say that racism is a thing of the past? For as long as 'dark-skinned' people are called black (and I am by no means suggesting this should change; being black is something to be proud of), the connotations of the word outside of racial parameters cannot possibly exist separately. The other definitions of black are proof that whilst all the work we are doing now to dismantle racism is not wasted, racism is deeply rooted in our systems, including our language, and so we need to start questioning everything if real change is going to come about.

This post isn’t necessarily a call for action; I just hope it gets people thinking and questioning rather than passively accepting. I'm not suggesting that we should stop using the word 'black', but this information should make some of us twice about how deeply rooted racism is.


Like this article? You can read more of Philippa's writing here: https://philippagrace13.wordpress.com/

Art by

Philippa Mwayi
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Philippa mwayi

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