Moments ago the English Premier League announced that they would be suspending the Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez for 8 games for “using insulting words towards” the French Manchester United Defender, Patrice Evra.
At the heart of the matter is the interpretation of the word ‘negro’ or ‘negrito’, which translates as ‘black’ or ‘blackie.’ Suarez apparently used the word to refer to Evra in a confrontation during a game between Liverpool and Manchester United (the Premier League’s foremost rivalry) on October 15th.
Anyone who has lived in Latin America likely feels conflicted about the sentence handed down to Suarez. In much of Latin America, the word ‘negrito’ is commonly used affectionally for both individuals of afro descendancy and those of other ethnic heritages. For example, my brother-in-law, a mestizo(mixed race), is referred to by his father as ‘mi negro,’ and neither of them see anything wrong with it. In Ecuador, everyone you speak to has at least one friend or family member whose nickname is ‘negro’ or ‘negra’. There is even a chain restaurant called “menestros del negro” (the black man’s beans), which you can find all over the country.” If you were to suggest a racial connotation in objecting to the use of ‘mi negro’, it’s likely that both the sender and the receiver of the nickname would dismiss the idea as preposterous.
Therefore, no harm done, right? No, not really. If Suarez can argue that his cultural context needs to be taken into account before passing judgement, we should do just that. First and foremost, political correctness is an idea that simply does not exist in Latin America. The first time I watched a soccer match in Ecuador I was astounded to hear someone yell, “NEGRO HIJUE PUTA!” (son of a bitch blackie) at the television after a prominent afro-Ecuadorian soccer player missed a chance to score. This happens, and we can’t deny it.
Second, many Latin American countries operate as ‘pigmentocarcies’ in which the whiter you are often correlates to social status. Black populations, of which there are many throughout Latin America, often sit at the bottom of highly complex, unspoken but consistently adhered to social hierarchies. One of my students at a prominent private school, for example, was called ‘negro’ by his classmates, and indeed he was darker than anyone else in his class. Despite the denial of the racial overtones, it was impossible for me as a foreigner not to see the pigmentocracy being reinforced every time one of his classmates called him ‘negro’.
So the question comes back to, does Luis Suarez deserve an 8 game ban (almost 1/4 of the season) for referring to Patrice Evra as ‘mi negro’? The truth is, probably not, as it’s unlikely that his intention was to racially abuse the player; otherwise he wouldn’t have been so casual as to use the word ‘over 10 times’ (the case of Sergio Busquets referring to Brazilian Marcelo as a ‘mono’ (monkey) while trying to prevent the camera from reading his lips is a far more obvious case of racial abuse in football). Nevertheless, the case provides us with an opportunity for many in Latin America to begin to understand how the power of words might be undermining good intentions to create harmonious and integrated societies. It is one thing to defend Luis Suarez as a misunderstood victim; it’s another thing to ignore the cultural context of his crime because even if you can excuse the former, there really isn’t any excuse for the latter.