Racism In The Word “Boy”

The word “boy” is not fundamentally racist in any form, but was very clearly used as a racial slur towards African American men. The word “boy” was in no way created in the English language to belittle grown black men; the word was created to refer to younger individuals who are identified as male. The question that needs to be explored is why then has the word taken on a racist connotation? “Boy” has been used as a racial slur towards African American men for years and was present in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film “The Defiant Ones” . Many slurs have come and gone throughout history but this slur remains relevant as it was also used in Percival Everett’s 2009 novel “I Am Not Sidney Poitier”. Both Not Sidney Poitier and Noah Cullen are called “boy” in a derogatory way at some point during their stories. This different meaning of the word “boy” is interesting as it expresses a power struggle between racist white people and oppressed black men.

People all over the world use different vulgar words to oppress other people. Words of oppression are far from new. Words that carry hate have been around for tens of thousands of years. Words in languages are adapted all the time in order to carry new meanings. When a word has multiple meanings it is known as a homonym and provides a different connotation. Connotation in “The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms” by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, is “The association(s) evoked by a word beyond its denotation, or literal meaning” (66). So we know the denotation, or literal meaning, of boy is a young version of a male. However, the connotation of the word suggests that the person is not only young, but also potentially stupid and arrogant. The word is spoken to the African American characters like they are troublemaking childish boys who need to be punished. The power struggle is evident as the white men make themselves out to be older, more intelligent men; while the black men are meant to look like fools. A very similar power struggle can be seen through the words “slave and slave master”. This problem is not a problem of the past because power struggles are even found in peoples’ titles today. For example the NBA (National Basketball Association) recently decided to ban the word “owner” as it could understandably be seen as racially insensitive towards the African American players in the league. Titles and words carry immense amounts of power in society and the term “boy” had been used regularly to oppress African American men. 

In “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” Not Sidney is called “boy” when he and Patrice are on the lam. The two men are running from the police after their bus crashed and they decide to try to escape on foot. The problem that was established while on the bus was the prison officers had shackled a white man to a black man. Patrice was a redneck white man who had been arrested for real crimes, unlike Not Sidney. Not Sidney told Patrice he was arrested for being black while Patrice told Not SIdney that “I stole me a fuckin’ car” (55). Although Patrice is the idiot criminal that acted on his childish impulses, he has the audacity to call Not Sidney “boy” on multiple occasions. Patrice, thinking that he is an empowered shot caller, tells Not Sidney “I sayd we’se going south, boy” (54). Patrice uses the word as an attempt to control Not Sidney and belittle him as a human being. Patrice may not fully understand the gravity of the word that he is using, but it certainly impacts Not Sidney. 

In “The Defiant Ones” a similar scene is created with Noah Cullen and John a.k.a. Joker. Being that Everett drew inspiration from “The Defiant Ones” the story plays out the exact same way where a white and black convict escape because their bus crashed. After the crash Joker asked Noah “You know what I mean, boy?”. Noah responded to Joker with “Joker, don’t call me ‘boy’”. Joker’s name calling created a bit of a dispute that angered Sidney Poitier’s character Noah. Constant fighting and disagreements ensue between the two characters throughout the movie because of the two characters’ power struggle. Eventually the two convicts befriend one another, but it was no easy task due to Joker’s insults. Amazingly, the two men were able to come together despite their differences and preconceived notions of each other.

Differentiation between the empowered and the oppressed has been shown through titles for tens of thousands of years. These titles brand individuals as different from one another. Once the difference has been advertised through the label, whether it be race, gender, sexuality or social class, it will be used as scorn.

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