Intent is nine tenths of the law as debate rages on

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The use of the term “boy” by a white man directed towards a black man is considered a racial insult both historically and in modern times.

In Africa, the term “boy” was used as an insult towards black men and slaves by the colonisers. Blacks were viewed across all domains as being physically, intellectually and spiritually inferior to whites, and the term was purposefully used to demean, demoralise and emasculate people of colour.

In the United States during slavery and the Jim Crow era, the term was used against black men and slaves by white racists bent on asserting their white supremacy over black bodies.

In the colonies where black men, women and children were sold as chattel, it was used to control, threaten and intimidate. To survive, black men were forced to mask their masculinity and become invisible. During the Jim Crow era, the mantra “I am a man” became a declaration of civil rights and was coined in direct response to the term “boy” and the process of emasculation. There can be no doubt about the word’s connotations.

With an even earlier history of slavery and segregation than the US, the term “boy” in Bermuda was also used historically as a racial epithet for the very same reasons. Therefore, the use of the term “boy” by a white man, purposely directed towards a black man in a public space carries a great deal of weight, all of it racial.

This leads us to the way the term “boy” was used in the House of Assembly last Friday. That it was taken as a racial epithet by MP Diallo Rabain is unquestioned and was deeply offensive. That MP Trevor Moniz, a lawyer supposedly understanding what constitutes a racial epithet, used the term against Mr Rabain shows his deep sense of privilege that he could do so without recourse.

No doubt there will be the usual discussion about “intent”, but the use of the word has had an extremely negative impact, not only towards Mr Rabain but also to many black Bermudians, if one is to go by the social-media explosion that has followed this exchange.

The US Supreme Court “ruled on an appeal ... that the use of the word ‘boy’ on its own is not enough evidence of racial animus, but that the word is also not benign.”

That means the court is willing to consider the context in which “boy” is used to determine if it is being uttered as a racial epithet. Noticeably, Bermuda’s Human Rights Act also talks about using words in a public place that can incite or promote ill will or hostility against that section [of the public] on grounds of colour. No doubt the Hansard report of this incident will be studied closely. Already the debate is rife on social media with calls of “he said, she said”, and comparisons to other examples of past disrespect, discourtesy and downright rudeness and bad language being displayed on the House of Assembly floor by both sides — as if these previous examples can wipe clean the slate of what was said in the House last Friday.

It is hoped that the new Speaker will be able to control the decorum of the House with a firmer hand under the Standing Order regulations and the Ministerial Code of Conduct that govern the proceedings; either that or serious consideration of inclusion of clauses on what constitutes “appropriate behaviour”.

Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (Curb) is an antiracist, interethnic movement whose mission is to raise awareness of racism in Bermuda and work for its eradication

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Published Oct 11, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 11, 2017 at 8:01 am)

Intent is nine tenths of the law as debate rages on

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