The thrils and perils of the language of blackness

Stereotypes, in-jokes and who has the right to deploy them

September 05, 2019
Best of British: Stormzy performing at Glastonbury in July 2019 © Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
Best of British: Stormzy performing at Glastonbury in July 2019 © Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
Do you know any aggressive black men? How about angry black women? Perhaps you’d rather not say. One of my bosses at the BBC once accused me of being “aggressive.” Summoned by a senior manager to answer the charge, I rejected it tersely (but not aggressively). “I’m not having that,” I said. “Just because I’m tall and black. That’s a word that’s been used to describe people like me for decades. If I was white and Oxbridge-educated like my colleagues, you’d say I was assertive.” I told him that I’d accept assertive. But aggressive? No. The manager was stony-faced. The subsequent “trial” into my “aggression” went on for six months. Numerous colleagues I’d worked with at the BBC for the previous two years were solicited for their opinion. 

If Jeffrey Boakye’s Black, Listed had been around at the time, I would have handed it to my BBC managers as required reading. Boakye’s book investigates 60 words that have been used to describe black men and women; they are divided into eight categories ranging from “Loaded terms: Blackness in the white gaze” (subcategories include “Chocolate,” “Lunchbox” and “Suspect”), to “Outlaw accolades: The black masculinity trap” (riffing on terms such as “Gangsta,” “Rudegyal” and “Roadman”). At his best, Boakye is beguiling and witty, but still a somewhat cautious navigator of this field. He’s entered the kind of vexing racial landscape that readers might recognise from the work of the African-American novelist Paul Beatty, who won the 2016 Booker Prize for The Sellout, a fierce satire lampooning blacks and whites. 

The category “aggressive” doesn’t make an appearance in Boakye’s list—but it is a proxy for another word he does examine in detail. I guess, though, it would have been more difficult for the BBC to investigate me for being a “nigger.” (More on this vile word later.) The related phrase “Angry Black Woman”—which was applied to Michelle Obama when her husband was running for president—does make the cut. In a handful of paragraphs, Boakye defines this caricature as the belief that black women have “a tendency to go nuclear at any given moment at any provocation,” exposing how it is an age-old “dehumanisation of black femininity.” 

Black, Listed’s premise is to reveal the lazy assumptions and unconscious trains of thought that lie behind these phrases. Its crisp and succinct analyses are one of the book’s strengths—hats off to Boakye, who also demonstrated an admirably innovative approach in his first book Hold Tight, on millennials and grime music. But the brevity of the entries sometimes makes this book a frustrating read. This would be fine if this were just a quirky coffee-table book, but Black, Listed has grander ambitions. 

At the start Boakye provides a mischievous parody of the periodic table listing the terms used by and about black people. So W is Wog, Fm denotes Fam (as in family), Pt stands for Pengtin (an attractive or objectified black woman) and Ct is Coconut, defined here as saying “a black person is not really black because they don’t confirm to black traits (often stereotypes).” Boakye handles his subject with nuance and humour, charting subtle differences, for instance, between a scary “Blackman” and an unthreatening “Black Guy.” He also suggests “Darkie” may have fallen out of fashion because dark is now positive, kind of cool—try to imagine the protagonist of Black Panther in a white suit and you’ll get the point. 

Common historical terms usually drop off the radar once they’re registered as offensive to modern sensibilities. Medical school in the 1980s presented a bewildering selection of acronyms written in patients’ notes that would raise eyebrows today. FLK or Funny Looking Kid, for example, appeared when the physician couldn’t quite work out what was odd about the child in front of them.

As Boakye highlights, such abbreviations, especially when applied to black people, are rarely neutral, and can perpetuate bias. IC3 is a good example. Since the 1970s, British police have used seven IC codes to describe the ethnicity of suspects—IC1 (Northern European White), IC2 (Southern European White), IC3 (Black), IC4 (South Asian) etc. But as Judge Alistair McCreath, QC pointed out in 2017, only one code, IC3, is still used routinely. He argued this was offensive and should be scrapped. Boakye underlines the point that the supposedly neutral term IC3 gets “viewed through a criminality tied to stereotypes.” 

Like me and almost every black person I know, Boakye groans at the now apparently standard term for us: BME or BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic). Who decided on that? We’re not alone among the interested parties who didn’t get the memo. If Boakye has to offer a default word for his identity then black, the description most often used in the book, will have to do—for now. As for what to call himself, he suggests: “Jeffrey Boakye is an English teacher, writer and user of metaphors.”

A third of the way through, he builds up to the section on “nigger,” with some nervousness. Boakye neatly skewers Quentin Tarantino, who in his liberal use of the slur in films such as Pulp Fiction is “exploiting its shock value to add barbs to his art while goading us with his audacity.” Boakye contrasts Tarantino’s juvenile approach with the sophisticated play of the African-American comedian Chris Rock. In a famous sequence that originally dates back to the mid-1990s, “Black People versus Niggers,” he describes a “civil war” between the majority of ordinary black people and those who seem to play to the worst stereotypes of the white imagination. Complex and unsettling, Rock’s routine is, according to Boakye, “an in-joke with a Code 5 level security pass—you simply cannot play unless you are black.”

Turning to Britain he focuses on the racist language of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, before diving more deeply into the world of online haters whose anonymity allows their daily abuse of Labour front-bencher Diane Abbott, Britain’s most prominent black politician. There’s no faulting Boakye’s description of the digital trolls who “scream their pixelated abuse.” But for such an incendiary subject, his treatment seems tame—like he’s thrown a grenade but forgotten to remove the pin.

Think of the fun that could be had with less obvious examples. In 2014, Jeremy Clarkson was caught on (unscreened) film footage reciting a racist ditty. That the BBC did not at the time sack him from presenting Top Gear reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of some of our liberal institutions. Could it be that there are plenty of mini-Clarksons in the BBC who’d never out themselves as prejudiced because one of their best friends is, you know, black?

One of the difficulties Boakye faces is that some of the contentious terms in Black, Listed don’t have the same currency in Britain as they do in the US. So his attempts to graft them on to this country occasionally jar. This is especially true when defining “coons,” a problematic entry. “Coon” characteristics apparently include any sort of black buffoon-like behaviour on TV, ranging from random grinning or dancing, to having bulging eyes and making stupid noises. Boakye compiles a list of offenders, including the television chef Ainsley Harriott, “shimmying over saucepans and dripping innuendo” and Chris Eubank’s “pantomime pomp theatrics.” 

What if the popularity of black British celebrities of the late 20th century,” wonders Boakye, “was rooted in how coon-like their behaviour was?” I carry no brief for Harriott, Eubank and the others on his list but the author is straying into dangerous territory here. (It is notable that women are excluded—Boakye surely realises that a writer, especially a black male, wouldn’t get away with labelling a black woman in that way.) The men are easy targets. It would have been more fruitful to explore why TV executives have encouraged certain black presenters to act in that way, and to draw lessons from celebrities who’ve managed to pull out from the trajectory mapped out for them.

Similarly, Boakye has insufficient room to parse the history of minstrelsy. It emerged in the 1850s as a backlash to the popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Some of the first minstrel shows were theatrical versions of Stowe’s book, and their white producers transformed the noble and saintly Uncle Tom into a “yessum massa” minstrel. The very term Uncle Tom became a figure of fun and term of abuse. But Uncle Tom was no Uncle Tom before racist theatre producers turned him into one.

Rather than just quote David Olusoga on the rise of black-face entertainment in 19th-century Britain “as a symptom of hardening racial attitudes,” Boakye would have done well to consider why minstrelsy seduced Victorian audiences so much that couples like Charles and Emma Darwin adopted minstrel nicknames. Boakye quotes the cultural critic Stanley Crouch’s assessment that “rappers are the minstrels of today,” and unwitting pawns of big record labels. Boakye disagrees with this but adds “the history... of black people in popular mainstream culture is far from uncomplicated.” Amen to that.

I was particularly taken by Boakye’s wry reflections on the concept of coolness and in his analysis of the hierarchy of colour—teasing out the nuances between colourism and shadeism. But here’s a plea to Boakye (for later editions of his book) and to future writers on race and black culture. When exploring the loaded term “Lunchbox” (the threat or envy white people feel over the imagined oversized black male penis), please find examples other than a superb black athlete; there are thousands of alternatives. Maybe even choose a fictional character. The point can still be made.

Perhaps because it’s such a bold venture Boakye has a tendency to adopt a disabusing matey manner. But I sympathise with his need to construct as he says, “a safety mechanism to protect myself.”

Six months after the BBC inquiry into my supposed aggression had begun, I was called in for the verdict. “The case against you,” said the BBC senior manager, “is unproven.” Well, I can be far less equivocal in my verdict on Jeffrey Boakye. With Black, Listed, he has proven himself a gentle provocateur and a skilled chronicler of the thrills and perils of the language of blackness.

Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffrey Boakye is pubslied by Dialogue Books, £18.99

ColinGrant's latest book, Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation (Jonathan Cape) is published in October.