The last time I touched on the issue of race in Georgia, I didn’t say anything of substance. So I’m going to try to do that now. In particular, I’d like to discuss the Georgian word zangi (ზანგი).
My Georgian-English dictionary (compiled by Tamar and Isidore Gvarjaladze) translates it as “Negro.” However, I recently talked to a black American in Tbilisi (a fellow itinerant English teacher) who told me that the word means “nigger.” I asked him how he knew that it was the latter and not the former, and he told me that he heard it from a Nigerian (who had come to Georgia, as many have in the past few years, to find work).
But how could the Nigerian know? How could anyone not well-integrated into the Georgian language community really be certain about such a subtlety? Unlike English or Russian, to which people all over the world have easy access, Georgian is fairly esoteric, and so I am somewhat skeptical of any outsider’s opinion about even mundane subtleties, much less such a sensitive case of cross-cultural interpretation.
This is not to say that the Nigerian is wrong. He could be right, since there certainly is racism against blacks in Georgia. Most obviously, there is quite a bit of what we can call “zoo racism.” Black people are rare in Georgia (historically especially, but today too), and so Georgians are often surprised and excited when they see any. A few months ago I visited the ancient rock city of Uplistsikhe with a black friend on the same day that a Georgian class was there on a field trip. The children saw my friend and starting pointing and saying “Zangi! Zangi!” One by one, every student in the class asked to have their picture taken with my friend. From what I’ve heard, this sort of thing is not uncommon.
We can write this off as mere innocent curiosity: Georgians are not usually used to foreigners at all, much less black ones, and their backwater country was behind the Iron Curtain for decades, blah blah blah. And while their isolation and ignorance does exonerate to some extent (compared to, say, white Americans asking to touch black strangers’ hair), it’s still fair to call this behavior racist, since it’s treating black people like zoo exhibits.
[UPDATE 6/14/13 I recently spent a good deal of time travelling around various parts of Georgia with some black Americans. Many Georgians came up and wanted to have their pictures taken with my black friends, as expected, but I have changed my mind and no longer think that this behavior is racist. For consider: what if a seven-foot-tall (2.13 m) white person walked around Georgia (or anywhere else)? People would be curious, and they would definitely want to have their picture taken with them. This was the extent of the Georgians’ interest in my black friends. Nobody tried touching their hair, or pulling any other funny business. It rarely struck me even as impolite, much less nefarious. So I will let them off the hook (though this does not extend to white Americans or other people who ought to know better).]
And, of course, there is good old-fashioned racial disdain. I have had several Georgian tell me, without prompting, that they don’t like black people, that they’re ugly, dumb, and so on. And these were among the relatively cosmopolitan Georgians who know English! I can only imagine what the average Georgian thinks. Again, these feelings can likely be chalked up to sheer ignorance: there is no black intellectual or artistic tradition in Georgia for obvious reasons, and so their only idea of black people comes from the guy who sells flowers outside of the metro station.
It’s easy to imagine why someone might think zangi means “nigger.” If I am black, I might notice that while I am being mistreated, subtly or otherwise, I constantly hear “zangi” said, more or less sneeringly. From that sneer and the fact that the word often accompanies mistreatment, I conclude that it is a slur like “nigger.”
But I don’t think that this is sufficient evidence. To explain why will require a bit of philosophical jargon. Philosophers aften distinguish thick concepts from thin ones. Thin concepts are ideas which are strictly descriptive or strictly evaluative. For example, “table” and “good” and “dog” and “ugly” are all thin concepts. “Table” and “dog” are not evaluative (tables and dogs can be good, bad, ugly, or whatever), while “good” and “ugly” are not descriptive (since if I say “It is ugly,” you have no idea what “it” is, except that I disapprove of its appearance). Thick concepts are ideas which are both descriptive and evaluative at once. The standard example is “courage.” If I describe someone as courageous, I’m teling you that the person faced something dangerous or frightening, but you also know that I approve of them for that. It would make no sense to say “That guy is courageous. What a piece of shit!”, since the very concept of courage entails approval. Slurs are thick concepts too, since their denoting a group is accompanied by disapproval of some sort. It would make no sense to say “That guy is a nigger, and I really admire him.” “Nigger” already entails disapproval, disdain, or whatever. “Negro” is thin, since you can say “That guy is a Negro, and I really admire him,” or at least that’s what someone might have said in the 1940s. Aside from the dated sound it has acquired by now, it is not an offensive word. So while “Negro” and “nigger” denote the same group of people (black people), one is always accompanied by disapproval and the other is not.
You might think at this point that it’s just an issue of figuring out whether zangi is thick or not, but it’s not so simple. This is because it is possible to “thicken” any thin word by altering the tone of one’s voice. I can say “He’s from Florida,” or I can say “He’s from Florida,” as in, “He’s one of those people, from Florida.” Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with being from Florida, I can add disapproval to the word without explicitly indicating it. So we have to consider the possibility that zangi is a thin, non-judgmental word which is always or often thickened. That is, it could be that while zangi has a perfectly acceptable place in non-racist talk, but it is not often used this way because most Georgians are racist.
This possibility is somewhat distressing epistemologically, since it admits of no obvious means of verification or falsification. I’m not saying that’s how it is, but I’m not convinced either way.
Suppose we determined that zangi really is a slur. Why do we suppose that the proper translation is “nigger” rather than some other slur? Why not “coon” or “wog” or something along those lines? Slurs vary considerably in force. Compare:
1) “Look! A colored person!”
2) “Look! A darkie!”
3) “Look! A nigger!”
These exclamations are strictly ordered by increasing offensiveness. The question here is about exactly how offended a black person ought to be at being called zangi. And my feeling is that it is inappropriate to interpret the word as having the force of “nigger.”
Some critical race theorists think that it’s impossible for racial minorities to be racist (in typical contexts). This is not to say that, for instance, black people can’t hate white people. They can, but the difference, so the idea goes, is that their racial prejudice is not accompanied by any kind of institutional power. An average-white-Joe’s dislike of minorities is backed by a whole history of discrimination and violence and the complicity of police, banks, etc. Racism, they say, is prejudice combined with institutional power, and minorities generally lack the latter.
Now there’s not much point in getting into an argument (as many have done) about whether or not this definition is correct. That’s just a matter of terminology. But the important point is that (in America, at least) white prejudice and minority prejudice come from completely different contexts, and should be judged differently. So we need to think about the context of Georgian prejudice. Georgians, as a people, have generally been shit on throughout history. Their country has been ravaged over and over by all kinds of invaders. They are fairly poor, and they have very little effect on anything in the world (the obvious exception here is Joseph Stalin, né Jughashvili, but I’m talking about the people as a whole). Most importantly, they have no history of interacting with black people in a meaningful way.
But the word “nigger” is from America, where things are reversed. “Nigger” comes from a context of slavery, lynchings, and minstrel shows. Georgians (again, as a people) were never involved in these things. They don’t, for instance, have a long and storied tradition of associating black people with watermelons.
If Georgian history has nothing remotely resembling the American situation, how could we fairly impute to them the use of “nigger”? Indeed, it seems to me that the only languages that possibly could have a word like “nigger” (at least as far as anti-black racism goes) are English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, since those were the primary languages involved in the Atlantic slave trade.
By the way, they showed some of Obama‘s inauguration on the news here, and my host family discussed whether Obama is a zangi or a mulati. So evidently Georgians don’t believe in the one-drop rule.
I conclude that while zangi may be a slur of some sort, it does not mean “nigger” in particular.
Discussion Questions: Read the second chapter of WVO Quine’s book Word and Object. 1) How radical is the context of translating zangi into English? 2) Can you think of a way of determining whether zangi is thick or thin? If not, can you conclude anything about the nature of linguistic knowledge? 3) In his essay, Quine uses the example of a rabbit running by to illustrate the indeterminacy of translation. Could he have used the use of zangi as an example just as well? That is, if there is indeterminacy in this case, is it importantly different from indeterminacy more quotidian cases? 4) A popular slogan during the Vietnam War was “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Is this a tautology? Why or why not?
UPDATE (5/18/14): I just now realized that, like a jackass, I misspelled “Insensitivity” as “Insensitivy” in the title and URL. I fixed that title, but I don’t think I can change the URL without screwing up links. Oh well.