Saturday, February 6, 2010

Negro or Negão?

Does the fact that an event has not occurred for some time exponentially increase the probability of that event happening again? Is the reverse true? Should one be grateful when a plane crashes because it decreases the chances of the one we are about to fly on from nosediving from the skies? No doubt books have been written on the subject. I have just gotten my head around the fact that when throwing dice there are increased chances of getting certain numbers over others (and here was I thinking mathematics was the last bastion of equality).

On the subject of equality and probability, I wondered how long it would be following the election of The First Black President that the Administration in the U.S. would make its first racial faux pas and - sure enough - word reaches me this week that Question 9 on the U.S. Census 2010 is causing a bit of a stir in the northern parts of these Americas. One doesn't need to be Jessie Jackson to get a sense of the moral outrage caused by being asked whether one considers oneself a "negro" by the State itself. I mean, what were they thinking?

A Brazilian would have no problem being called negão. In fact, it's a popular mode of expression here to get someone's attention (as in "Oi, Negão!"). It applies to anyone not of a pearly white complexion (they are simply called Alemão - literally meaning "German"). The contrary, though, is not true. Call a Brazilian preto (black) and it would be considered a racial slur.

I have been living in São Paulo for almost a year now, but grappling with the language (or lack of) emphasises daily just how powerful individual words can be. Introducing Open Book the other day, Mariella Frostrup was asked how she was and she replied "I am OK, considering." She didn't elaborate. Didn't explain why. It was just one word, tacked onto the end of a generic response, but how powerful, how evocative that word is when left hanging.

As I concentrate intently on what I am saying, I often take it for granted that what the kids might be saying is actually wrong half the time. We have a laugh when when one of the boys goes to correct me (with an I-know-more-than-you-even-though-I'm-a-child attitude), only to be corrected themselves by an adult native speaker. Furthermore, as a novice, one becomes so distracted by the semantics, that one misses the dialect, style and rhythm of the language which can so often be used to prejudge a person's background and upbringing. This, of course, is a blessing.

Often it is not what is said, but what is left unsaid which is most powerful.

Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.
(St. Francis of Assisi)

For this, I am grateful.

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