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The n-word, the g-word and the hidden perils of travel

n-word, Ice-TLiving in Spain, I get a lot of questions about the United States. One of the most common, and certainly the most disturbing, is if it's OK to use the N-word.

Let me just say from the outset that I think the term "N-word" is silly. By using it you immediately think of the word I'm trying not to say so, in a sense, I've actually said it. On the other hand, if I actually used the word n-----, Gadling would fire my ass, and they'd be right to.

N----- is getting more and more common on American TV shows that get broadcast here. The Wire uses it in almost every scene. Most Spaniards realize it's a bad word, but are confused to hear it used on TV by whites and blacks alike. I've had to explain on more than one occasion that it hasn't become OK. At least it isn't OK with this white boy. I don't think it's OK for black people to use either, but they're probably not interested in my opinion.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows TV isn't reality, but if you've never been to a country before, TV is probably the main way you know about it. The average European has spent far more time watching American TV than talking to actual Americans. Like the guy I met in a bar who was about to go to the U.S. for the first time and used n------ during our conversation. He wasn't a racist, he just thought the word was OK now. I'm glad I got to talk to him before he got his butt kicked.

I had a similar experience when I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia. I was researching a book on Ethiopian history and kept coming across a name for a tribe called the G----. This word appears in many English-language books about Ethiopia, including many modern ones. One day I was chewing qat with my friend Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) a local guide and historian, in a small village near Harar. Casually I asked him, "Who are the G----?"

Mohammed gave me a look like I had just farted in a mosque.
"Where did you hear that word?" he asked in a low voice.

"It's in a lot of books. Some mentioned that the G---- live around Harar."

"We're in an Oromo village!" he said, eyes wide.

"So?" I said, confused.

Mohammed shook his head and explained, "It's an old term for Oromo given to them by the Emperor Menelik. Don't use it. It's very insulting. It's the most insulting thing you can say."

So insulting, in fact, that I'm not writing it here. Of course, Gadling wouldn't fire me for using the G-word because the Oromo don't have any political power in the United States, but respect is respect.

Menelik conquered Harar in 1887 and proceeded to starve the surrounding Oromo clans into submission. About half the population died. Needless to say, the Oromo don't think very highly of Menelik, even though he's a hero to many other Ethiopians because he smashed the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Different people see history differently because they experienced it differently. Something to remember the next time Black History Month rolls by.

So when preparing for a trip, it's important to do your homework and understand the different ethnic groups in that country, otherwise you may inadvertently cause offense by saying something you heard on television, or in my case read in a bunch of history books written by people who should have known better!

If you're going to Ethiopia and are worried about the G-word, drop me a line privately and I'll fill you in on the word you can't say. And if you write out the full word for n----- or G---- in the comments section, I'll delete it as soon as I see it.


[Photo of Ice-T, who uses the n-word waaaaay too much, is courtesy Steve Rapport]

Filed under: Arts and Culture, History, Learning, Africa, North America, Ethiopia, United States, Travel Security

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