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?
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…