Saturday, March 11, 2006

Using the term "boy"

A little bit of a squirm has been ignited in the comments of a preceeding point, over the use of the term "boy", in the Congo, to refer to male domestic workers, who more than likely, considering the socio-economical and demographic realities of the Congo, are black. This all started from a reaction of a faithful reader of The Salon, to statements on this post on my new friend Kim's blog. The Salon featured Kim's blog in a post (two posts before this one) on expatriate (and one Congolese) bloggers from the Congo.

Objectively, the term "boy" is definitely problematic and derogatory. It is an inheritance from the demeaning colonial terminology, that the Congo and its people have inherited from the Belgians. Yet, it is widely used in Congo, as a synonym of "male domestic worker", by both White and Black "patrons" (bosses), the general population, and sometimes the workers themsleves. However, in Congolese families, in lingala, parents would generally reprimand kids for refering to the housekeeper/cook as "boyi na biso" (our "boy"), prefering for them to use the terms "mutu ya mosala (pronounced "mutwamosala") na biso" (literally, our worker), regardless of whether the said parents use "boyi" themselves. So, implicitly, the derogatory nature of the term is not lost on most Congolese people. It is simply not made a public issue of. And most people my generation really do not have am issue with it. But this may also be due to the fact that people my generation (20-40) do not have much more than a general knowledge on Congo's colonial history.

It's a bigger deal for the older generation. My mother (in her 50's), for instance, never uses the term "boy", prefering the term "domestique" in french (or housekeeper if she is speaking english), which still conveys the boss/worker relationship, without the negative "inherent inferiority" connotation. See, Mum was raised in colonial Congo, when Belgians could just call any black person on the street "boy", and have them do whatever they happened to desire at the time. This is the era when to get a job as a clerk (the highest any Blacks could reach), one had to be issued the very sparsely delivered "Evolved" ID card, which implied that one had now "evolved" from the savageness of the "negres", to a state closer to the ideal and superior almighty white man...

A conundrum isn't it? The controversy is inevitable. One of the commentators in the other post likened the situation to that of the term "nigger" in the USA, where Black people can use it all day long at each other, but a white person can get in big trouble for doing so towards a Black man. I must say that although I would prefer the word "nigger" to totally disappear from anybody's vocabulary, regardless of skin color, it Black people's prerogative to use the term if they so choose, as they were the recipients of its negative implications, and the corollary actions. For a white person to use it in any other context than that of an explanation, or in other words, use it as a descriptive term, is IMHO obviously harmful. See, in Kongo traditions, we say that the power of the tongue (speech) is every bit as powerful as that of the spear. Words do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of certain historical realities that cannot simply be ignored, lest it potentially ignite a war.

So what of "boy"? Well, I obviously always frown at its use; but as I said before, it has really not been that big of an issue in Congo. Whether it should be or not is for you (reader), and the Congolese people to discuss. A historian I asked (he is Congolese) told me that part of the reason why the term carried over, is that at independance, many of the new elite wanted to assert their place as the new leaders of the country, and tended - sometimes unconsciously - to reappropriate the attributes of the colonizer to ascertain their claim to power, whether it was at the country level with heavy military repressions, or at the house level with the new "bosses" mimicking the Belgian "patrons" (bosses in French, commonly used in Congo) to the tee, including that use of "boy", which was then designed to make it clear who the new boss was, and to assure the so called "boy" that they would not be any more lenient than the "Nokos" (Uncles, as the Belgians are sarcastically known in Congo) did...

I am still wondering...


Fred said...

As a newcomer, I would say the term 'boy' is evidently belittling, particularly when contrasted with the preferred local term of respect for an older man: 'Papa'.

In my opinion it's also preferable to avoid the possessive pronoun when referring to people outside your own family. Someone who exchanges their time and work for your money does not belong to you. Hence 'my boy' is doubly startling and seems a direct throwback to the days of slavery.

TheMalau said...

FRed, I see your point. But the possessive form here has a bit more to do with lingala as a language, which tends to be very group/community based. So many things are refered to as "our this", "our that". And this applies as well to workers, leaders, and especially church ministers. People will say "our pastor said", faster than "The pastor said". So although there is a possessive, a better translation of "mutu ya mosala na biso" is really "the worker that works for us".

Fred said...

Interesting. Thanks for the explanation.

But I think this whole discussion sprang from reactions to an expatriate using the term 'my boy' in English on his blog (referring to an employee). Fairly or unfairly, it was this that I had in mind.

Black River Eagle said...

Thanks for the follow-up re: the use of the term "boy". I see that the dialogue has continued at Kim's blog in a further attempt to explain why his use of the word was within a cultural context and not meant as a racial slur.

You know me well by now Ali and I will address this issue as soon as I can find some time and cool down a bit. Kim presumes that I and perhaps other readers have very little knowledge of Kinshasa and the Congo and the cultural norms practiced there. This, like the use of the term "boy" in a global environment such as the Web and the blogosphere, would be a gross error in judgement on his part.

The boss-worker relationship argument is a load of crap and smacks of the dark colonial past that helped push much of Africa to the edge of total collapse. The ex-pats referenced in your posts wouldn't dare use this term publicly in their own home countries when talking to or speaking of a domestic employee of any race, so what gives them the right and the level of comfort to use it so casually in Kinshasa? Cultural integration in order to gain a level of respect from the locals? Give me a break!

The "boys" back in Kinshasa may not have the means or the self-respect or courage to speakup for themselves, but I'll be damned if I remain silent about it.

michoko said...

I have never lived in Africa but have always been shocked by the term "boy" being used by europeans in Africa. At first, I was even shocked by the idea of having a domestique but my ex husband explained to me that it was normal (if you're rich and you don't have a domestique, you're "un vrai radin").
Fred's interrogations bring me to wonder if the use of the possessive pronouns when referring to "housekeepers" is that innocent. Cases of modern slavery on children from Africa and Asia makes me feel that some "bosses" really consider that their domestiques belong to them.

exMI said...

Never having been in the Congo I can't commnet too much on the situation there except as I already did to refer to what appears to be a norm in the society. (Norms change of course)
I do know that here in the US "Boy" was used extensivly to refer to blacks by most whites and any other person who happened to be lower working class by their bosses, or by any one in a position of authority. In point of fact it still is used in the second way, especially by police officers. And it is highly annoying especially when he is younger than you are.

007 in Africa said...

It's funny you bring this up because I was staying in Kananga in a little hotel that claimed to be "un des premiers grands hotels en Afrique" and saw an old article about how "boys" should not enter guest rooms unless if cleaning. I was also registered by a congolese immigration authority in Kole who asked me if my collegue was a "Nègre" before he quickly changed it to "un Congolais". I was pretty surprised he used the term and insulted on my colleague's behalf.

Congogirl said...

Hm, this issue is quite sensitive. I have to say, although I have heard expats and locals use it, I would really hesitate to use it myself. It sounds wrong coming out of the mouths of people that I know, because even if one can argue that it is part of the culture, one cannot argue that it does not reinforce the inherent power dynamic. This aspect has not adequately been addressed here, and while I agree with Kim's comment (on his blog? or perhaps the previous entry) that it is generally a matter of rich and poor (I see Dorothee's anecdote falling in this category of class, even though race terms were used), which ultimately is no better, race issues and colonial history cannot be swept aside.

In Kim's defense, I will say that I certainly cannot imagine that it was intended as a racial slur, to respond to BRE's comment above. And, I don't know Kim well enough to say, but it is possible that in the US, we tend to think more about issues of racism and entitlement that may be overlooked under other circumstances (such as being European, and living in Africa).

However, this is not to say that anyone is exempt from considering these issues. People in the position of power often don't realize that they have a sense of entitlement, and they don't like to be told so or have people think of them this way.

The main problem is, it is never OK for a person belonging to the group that holds power (and I mean societally, not politically) to use terms that marginalized or minority populations use to describe themselves. It simply is not OK. It is NOT OK for me to even type the "n" word, or say it, to my friends, in casual conversation, anywhere, ever. Even quoting hip hop lyrics of the rich superstars to which Kim referred. And, frankly, I don't care how much of a homeboy Eminem might be, he's white, and it's not OK for him to use it either.

Though this distinction may enhance the "us" and "them" lines, so be it. Using any term that emphazizes and institutionalizes power disparities is not OK.

That is all.

TheMalau said...

And the funny thing here, is that I can understand Kim's attitude and frustration. But that is because I sense how much he has delved into Congolese life, which make him feel - to some degree - entitled to some leeway (correct me if I am wrong, Kim).

But ultimately, I agree with CG. Using the term does perpetuate - immediately or in the long run - an unhealthy power relationship between historically and socially unequal groups, and that is not desirable.

Congogirl said...

As you say, I understand Kim's position. I do. I think he is a cool guy, and no harm was intended.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that anybody in a position of privilege has a choice: reinforce historical and current inequalities when we have the power to do otherwise, or simply do otherwise.

When I talk about power and privilege, it is all relative. I enjoy privilege as an American and as a white person. You, Ali, enjoy it as a man, and as someone who has had the means to travel and get an education. Kim enjoys it as a white man, and in the context of Kinshasa, as someone of comparable means.

In the context of Kim's blog entry and the 'culture' in Kinshasa, I might have put in a qualifier; for example, "a person that some would call their 'boy,'" explaining the responsibilities that someone in this role has.

Just because other people use the term doesn't make it OK, and refusing to use the term is not the same as refusing to admit that Kinshasa and DR Congo is a place full of inequalities.

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