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Geographic Genteelisms: How We Use Geography to Hide Our Prejudice

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi The place of euphemism or genteelism, that is, intentionally indirect expression...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The place of euphemism or genteelism, that is, intentionally indirect expressions that help us avoid causing offense or saying uncomfortable facts, is well-established in language use. But scholars of language have ignored a more subtle sort of genteelism, which is the use of geographic labels to give cover to our prejudices, to help us make willfully opaque references to ethnicity and race. I call this geographic or cartographic genteelisms.

In this week’s column I call attention to both international and Nigerian geographic genteelisms.

1. “West”: Although the term “West” is a cartographic referent and is one of the four cardinal directions in English, it really isn’t a strictly geographic referent when it’s used in international relations. It’s simply a word that helps people to avoid saying white, (culturally) Christian or post-Christian, industrialized or post-industrialized societies.

A society that is advanced, industrialized or post-industrialized, but isn’t racially “white” or culturally Christian or post-Christian is never referred to as being part of the “West.” Japan, for instance, isn’t in the "West." Nor is South Korea. Turkey is white, developed, geographically in Europe but isn’t in the “West” because it’s Muslim. The United States and Canada are in the North American continent, and they are in the “West,” but Mexico, another North American country, isn’t in the “West.” Apartheid South Africa, meanwhile, was regarded as being in the “West” (see “sub-Saharan Africa” below).

 I think President Bill Clinton came close to admitting the terminological inexactitude of the notion of “the West” when he said, in a November 15, 1999 speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, “…a community we loosely refer to as 'the West' is an idea, it has no fixed frontiers. It stretches as far as the frontiers of freedom can go.”

Clinton was right that the “West” isn’t a faithful geographic referent, but he was wrong that it is delimited by “freedom,” which is an empty signifier, as semioticians (i.e., people who study the function and meaning of signs and symbols) call words that denote things or concepts that have no fixed, stable meaning or that “may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean,” to quote Jeffrey Mehlman who wrote a seminal treatise on empty signifiers in 1972.

2. “Sub-Saharan Africa”: “Sub-Sahara” literally means “below the Sahara,” “sub” being a Latin prefix that means “below,” “under,” “lower,” etc.  But “sub” also means “inferior,” as in “substandard,” “subaltern,” “subpar,” etc.—a reason some Africanists resent the term “sub-Saharan Africa.” They say it slyly connotes that black people are sub-human.

“Sub-Saharan Africa” is merely a geographic gentilism for “Black Africa,” that is, the part of Africa demographically dominated by and under the majority rule of black people. It’s a less racist-sounding way to distinguish “white” North Africa from the rest of Africa. Interestingly, South Africa wasn’t considered a part of “sub-Saharan Africa” until white minority rule ended in the early 1990s.

Out of Africa’s UN-recognized 54 countries, 46 are designated as “sub-Saharan” African countries by the UN Development Program, although four of the “sub-Saharan” countries—Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad— are actually not below the Sahara. But they are “black.”

A Wake Forest University scholar by the name of Tatenda Mashanda didn’t mince words about the racist underpinnings of the term: “[It] is a way of saying ‘Black Africa’ and talking about black Africans without sounding overtly racist,” he wrote.

3. “Inner city”: In the United States and Britain (particularly in London), black neighborhoods in big cities are called inner cities. The expression insulates white people from the guilt of saying “poor black neighborhoods.”

4. “Hood”: The short form of “neighborhood,” it’s a euphemism in American English to denote “inner city,” that is, a place where poor black people live.

5. “Ghetto”: This technically means a restricted part of a city where socially disaffiliated people live. It initially referred to the secluded settlements of Jewish people in Europe. Now it’s a synonym for “inner city,” and “hood.”

6. “Urban”:  Although this term literally means concerned with or about a city, “urban” now means, at least in American English, “black” or “African American.” People who want to avoid saying “black” or “inner city” or, worse, “ghetto” now say “urban.” “Urban culture” now simply means black culture. “Urban violence” now means black-on-black violence. “Urban music” is now a synonym for hip-hop music. This is because most African Americans now live in urban areas.

7. “Rural”: This is now routinely used for poor, working-class white Americans. So the expression “rural folks” has now become a convenient shorthand for poor white people. This is an interesting reversal. Generations ago, black people were associated with rural America. They were sharecroppers in rural areas. After slavery ended, they moved to urban areas in droves and changed the demographics and culture of American cities forever.  This instigated what has been called “white flight,” that is, it led white people to flee urban areas. Poor whites went to rural areas and financially secure ones went to the outskirts of the city. See next point.

8. “Suburban”: A suburb is a place affluent white (and a few black, Asian and Hispanic) people live. The word “suburb” and its inflection, “suburban,” are now linguistic markers of wealth and prosperity. To say someone lives in a suburb is a linguistic cue to say they are wealthy or at least middle class. I know this sounds counter-intuitive to Nigerian English speakers who know suburban dwellers to be mostly poor people who can’t afford to live in the city center.

9. “Global South”/Global North”: In international relations, “Global South” refers to developing countries while “Global North” denotes wealthy nations, but these are actually geographically meaningless expressions because it’s impossible to impose a cartographic order on the distribution of wealth and poverty. That’s why although the United States, the world’s most prosperous nation, is considered a part of the “Global North,” it’s geographically close to poor South American countries that are in the “Global South”—in common with African and Middle Eastern countries.

Synonyms for “Global North” and “Global South” are “First World” and “Third World.” These terms started out as ideological constructs during the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. “The First World” consisted of the capitalist bloc led by the US, and the “Second World” was the communist bloc led by the USSR. The “Third World,” also called the Non-Aligned Nations, identified neither with the USA nor with the USSR.

Over the years, however, these terms acquired approbatory and pejorative connotations. The “First World” has come to mean “white,” industrialized and post-industrialized “Western” societies, and the “Third World” has come to mean societies that are not the “West.” Second World is now barely used, but when it is, it’s used to refer to societies that are thought to be more economically prosperous than the “Third World” but nonetheless behind the “First World” in developmental terms. Because of the imprecision of the terms, the Associated Press Stylebook discourages the use of “Third World.” It recommends “developing countries” instead.

10. “Middle East”: This simply means Arabs or Arab-speaking people. Although Israel is geographically in the Middle East, Israelis aren’t often thought of, or even referred to, as Middle Easterners in popular discourse. That’s why Donald Trump told Israeli leaders (in Israel!) on May 22, 2017 that he “Just got back from the Middle East,” referring to his trip to Saudi Arabia.

But Berbers who are in North Africa are easily identified as Middle Easterners. Even Egypt, which is geographically in Africa, is considered “Middle East” because it’s predominantly Arab and Muslim. There is even a “Greater Middle East,” which includes countries like Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and predominantly Muslim Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In other words, “the Middle East” is almost becoming synonymous with “the Muslim world.”

11. “Core Northerners”: In Nigerian English, this term basically means culturally/ethnically Hausa or Hausa-speaking Muslims. An ethnically Hausa Christian isn’t a “core northerner.” Nor is a non-Hausa Muslim northerner. Initially a neologism of the Lagos press, it has been embraced by Hausa Muslim northerners since at least the year 2000 in response to President Obasanjo’s apparent preferential treatment of non-Hausa, non-Muslim Northerners in political appointments between 1999 and 2007.

Hausa Muslim Northern elites, who had dismissed the notion of a “core North” as a Southern media rhetorical strategy to “divide” the North, appear to have now accepted the marginality of other Northerners when it comes to the tokenistic benefits of “northernerness.”

12. “Middle Belters”: On the surface, the term appears to refer to Nigerians who are caught in the mid region of the country. But that’s deceptively misleading. It actually means Northern Christians who are not ethnically Hausa. It excludes non-Hausa northern Muslims and Hausa Muslims in Nigeria’s central states. It also excludes Hausa Christians, although they are more welcome to this identity marker than Hausa Muslims. That’s why a non-Hausa Christian from southern Borno, or from southern Kebbi, which is as far north as you can get, is considered a “Middle Belter,” but a Hausa Muslim from the central state of Niger isn’t.

Middle Belt intellectuals try to explain away this contradiction by drawing a distinction between the “geographical Middle Belt” and the “cultural Middle Belt.” But this is merely a tediously roundabout way to say a Middle Belter is a non-Muslim, non-Hausa northerner.

In other words, just like “core north” is a geographic genteelism for “Hausa Muslim North,” “Middle Belt” is a geographic genteelism for a Christian ethnic minority from what colonial cartographers designated as the “north” since the early 1900s.

13: “South-southerners”: This basically means southerners who are neither Igbo nor Yoruba. In other words, it means southern ethnic minorities.

Related Articles:
"Core North," "In the Social Media": Q and A on Nigerian English Usage
Why the Nigerian English Phrase "South-South" is Bad English
Politics of Grammar Column

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