Jun Dishes

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The Belgian N-word

In Belgium, a black person is referred to as a neger. This is in general, unless said black person specifies where their family line originated so many generations ago. The first time I heard the term neger used in conversation it was at a friendly bbq, shortly after I moved here, and it stunned me. It sounded so close to the n-word that Americans are so hyper-aware of, and I’d looked around to see if anyone else might have caught neger thrown around out loud. Had I misheard it? Nobody in the vicinity seemed offended by the word. Holy shit, what did these people refer to ME as?

Words

I write about this today because I received an email yesterday from an American reader, C.

C’s a white woman in an inter-racial marriage with beautiful children of mixed race. She happens to work for a company with an office in Belgium and in one particular conversation in a social setting the word neger came up, brought up by C’s Belgian colleague. I can imagine the shock when C first heard the term, because I was her just a couple of years ago. I know now that I’m not alone in the initial shock around that word, but I also know now that I’m more aware of that fact that it’s not a bad word.

Neger is not a racial slur (unless it’s intentionally used as one, which goes for any word). My aversion to the word is based on my own misgivings, and though I rarely admit it…it’s not all about me. The fact of the matter is neger means “negro” here, and not “n*gger” in Dutch. Negro is okay right? Belgians won’t wake up tomorrow and starting calling black Belgians “African-Belgians” like African-American counterparts in the states.

It can be argued that Belgium’s rule over parts of Africa – The Belgian Congo – makes neger a racist term by default. I’m not here to argue that but I can tell you as an American expat in Belgium, no matter how much I don’t like the word “neger” simply because it sounds like “n*gger,” I can’t change that. It’s just a word that’s been a part of the history and social dynamics of this specific country, just like it’s unique for every country. The ironic thing is the word zwarte in Dutch means “black” and it’s a racial slur here in Belgium, while “black” in America is not.

Perhaps this is a case of potato potahto for some, but Black Belgians, by birth, refer to themselves and each other as neger. A word itself can be offensive, but more often than not it’s the person who’s saying the word who’s most offensive. It’s only by malicious intent that the word can be used in racist attack, but this goes for any other seemingly politically-correct term. I remember once that I thought I was complimenting some dude I’d just met here, and told him he must work out a lot because he had the thickest neck I’d ever seen. In Belgium it’s a great insult to tell someone they have a thick neck because it basically means you’ve called them and their whole family line, douchebags. Lesson learned. I’m not saying my “thick neck” faux pas is the equivalent of racism, but each case of misunderstanding holds its own value. There’s no use in looking for racism when it’s truly not there.

Furthermore, gay men are referred to as homos in Belgium. Homo. Again just a word, and a word I thought was used as an insult the first time I heard it here. I remember being so confused because it was a gay man I was talking to, and I actually asked him why he was using homo and not a better word. I was basically laughed at and told that homo was not a bad word at all, but simply short for homosexual and part of the everyday lingo here. I was wrong by being so wrapped up in sensitivity. Gay men refer to each other and themselves as homo in Belgium, and the homo community here is open and welcomed and welcoming. It’s refreshing to live in a country where gay people have all the same rights as I do, because who’s to say when I’m feeling particularly gay some days?! This isn’t to say black people or gay people never face discrimination in Belgium, of course they do like in many parts of the world.

Since moving here I’ve learned more than ever that words are just words, and the meaning behind them is what’s most important. C and I discussed this over back-and-forth emails, and I’m both impressed and grateful that I was able to have such a conversation. I always meant to write about the Belgian n-word, so I’d love to hear from some of you on your thoughts. Personally, I use neither neger nor homo and stick with my sensitive American lingo.

I’m not a black person so it’s been a challenge expressing myself in this particular blog, but I’m hopeful that I haven’t offended anyone…

Always dishing,

Jun

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14 comments

  • I have always hated the American N word. I have black relatives. My daughter is in a relationship with a black man so one day I may have mixed grandkids. I would knock someones head off to use that word toward those I love. I also have a gay son and homo doesn’t elicited the same response to me as the N word. There are others that do. Now to say I have never used any of them would be a lie. In anger against someone I don’t care about I have over the years but try and control myself as I have gotten older. Thank you for sharing because I never knew about the Belgium words and love to learn new things.

    Carrie

  • Jerry Williamson on August 31, 2013 at 4:47 pm said:

    Reply

    I’ve always found it strange that a word can be so offensive that you can’t actually say, or write, the word when discussing it’s uses or meanings. Like no one really knows what the N word is, or what the missing letter is when one writes n*gger.

    The N word is so commonly used here, by the popular hip-hop culture, it has nearly become a synonym for friend, buddy, pal, guy, dog, or any of the other terms used in conversation. Teenagers copy this culture. It is not uncommon to hear white teenagers calling each other the N word, with it having no racial connotation at all.

    Strange thing the English language.

  • vivien howe on August 31, 2013 at 6:28 pm said:

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    yes, correct June…it is not an offensive word in dutch at all (the word swartje is not so good) where as here black is OK…. Asians are called asiaten…plane and simple, unless like june said depends what country or racial back ground . Thanks for reminding me that sometimes people are just hyper sensitive and I for one find this hypersensitivity just crazy…makes people weak and insecure…be all that you can be, be proud of who you are and the hell with what people say… my motto… Oh and I’m not white, so don’t even try to jump on my butt… LOL…

    • I’m pretty sure she’s not going to jump on you for anything you’ve said here, but she might for misspelling her name 😛 It’s Jun, not June!

  • It’s similar in Russian – the word “negr” is considered neutral, polite, and even academic, while the word “chyornii” (the word for the color black) is considered a terrible slur to call a person. However, Russians don’t use the slur for people of African descent (of whom there are very few in Russia), they use it for people of the Caucasus (who are subject to terrible prejudice, discrimination, and even violence from Russians). They think it’s crazy that we call white people “Caucasians” when they call the true Caucasians “blacks.”

    Of course, nobody should call whites “Caucasians” anymore. It’s not only inaccurate, but it has a very ugly history stemming from 18th/19th century racist pseudoscience that was attempting to rationalize white supremacy.

  • The formal terms for people of various ethnicities in France have always struck me as odd when translated literally: it’s “type fill-in-the-blank.” So “type asiatique,” “type slavique,” etc. You wouldn’t ever say that somebody is a “Slavic type” in English! I wouldn’t think.

  • jigglypuff on August 11, 2015 at 3:47 am said:

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    alot of people say it’s not a problem and that they are brought up like this and that… but beleve me it is!!! zwarte piet is a problem and so is the word neger… they still use it but we don’t like it for one bit!!! it’s awefull because België ==> Belgen, China ==> Chinezen, Afrika ==> neger? you see the difference?
    they are a few black people that are brought up like this and refer to themselves as neger (99% adopted) but the majority doesn’t!!! they don’t like this word for one bit!!! They just some how gave up and put up with it… the Black people don’t really stand up here for what they think and their rights. They just follow and try to make due with it. The Moroccans (majority of foreigners) don’t put up with any form or Racism and make sure their voices are heard!!!

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