Is nightstand racist expression? Understand the controversy and mystery behind the term

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The term bedside table for some time has generated many controversies and doubts about its use or not in the Portuguese language today.

Last Wednesday (18), the subject took over social networks after the singer Marvilla, from BBB 23, criticized her colleague Gabriel during a conversation.

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“You said nightstand, right?”, asked the singer. “So, that term is no longer used, because it is racist. I know you spoke of innocence, but I better tell you”, said the singer. Gabriel apologized.

Linguists, researchers and historians interviewed by the CNN are divided on the racist origin of the term used to identify the bedside furniture that is usually placed in the bedrooms of millions of Brazilians.

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“From the field of History and, within the racial context, we cannot categorically state that nightstand is a word with racial motivation”, he explains to CNN Thiago André, creator and presenter of the História Preta podcast, which tells the historical memory of the black population in Brazil and in the world.

What circulates through the timelines of social networks –until then– is that “nightstand” would be a reference to an enslaved person who stood beside his “owner’s” bed at night without being able to speak. But it is precisely the story behind the story that divides opinions.

“This story seems like a story that doesn’t reflect a reality. The language metaphorizes the black condition in the way we look at things that are not valuable, from a political point of view”, explains Gabriel Nascimento, author of the book “Linguistic Racism: the undergrounds of language and racism”.

Nascimento exemplifies other expressions, such as “black market” and “the dark side of the thing”, for example, which are used as a way of correlating with situations that are not valued.

“These uses serve to understand that the language metaphorizes social, racial, political conditions. This is more important than feeding a story that we don’t know the source of,” he adds.

For the linguist, the controversy surrounding the terms is interesting because it raises the discussion about the slave regime in our language.

“More than saying whether this term is racist or not is saying that the term is linked to the structural racism of Brazilian society”.

History master Guilherme Oliveira believes in the racist context of the term and says that this reflects the legacies of the country’s slavery past.

“Reproducing that word today is a racist expression because it is part of the process that dehumanized black people. Today, we seek to bring new perspectives that reframe racist expressions that do not perpetuate current behavior.”

The historian adds: “Our current society still has a great legacy of slavery. We have to break this to have an anti-racist society.”

Translation of the term in English

“We need to walk a path to rebuild the past. We try to reconstruct the past with the traces it leaves us. However, at the time of slavery, there is no evidence that nightstands were used for that purpose”, explains Thiago, who resorted to historical research to understand more about the origin of the word.

Based on the etymology, it is also believed that the term “dumbwaiter” is a literal translation of the English “dumbwaiter” and would have been a literal translation into the Portuguese language, but which, at the time of British hegemony, would have correlated with the furniture of Elevator to go up and down cutlery.

The master in linguistics from UnB Gabriel Nascimento also believes in the analogy with the word in English.

“The fact of metaphorizing things with people does not come from Brazil. The term created gained a strong connotation in the change in the slavery period, with the use of the word to refer to domestic workers, from the nobility”, he explains.

“In Machado de Assis’s books, one can see the exacerbated use of the word ‘created’ for workers and not slaves by the nineteenth-century elite. It would be someone who did a job picking things up, opening doors… he was called a servant”, he adds.

Still according to Thiago André, based on a search in the Portuguese Language Dictionary of 1890, the piece of furniture used for the bedroom was called “maiden” and there is no such word in the 19th century dictionary.

Regardless of the racial motivation for using the term, Thiago André evaluates the discussion generated about the term in a very positive and constructive way.

“It is positive that people want to know more. Black people are looking for more tools to read this racist world around us and bring literacy to white people.”

He also points out that racial hierarchies were created by whites and not by blacks or indigenous people.

“The role people play in bringing literacy to white people is paramount. It’s good to exchange ideas, contribute, make small corrections.”

Thiago also reinforces that, “even though there is no historical proof of the racial use of the term, it is worth noting that the idea is not to deny the horrors of slavery, but the role is to contribute to the debate taking shape”.

“If today we have this unequal society that still denies the black population access to spaces, it is still a reflection of a society that reproduces structural racism with the use of expressions and words with the history of slavery in our society”, completes historian Guilherme Oliveira.

Source: CNN Brasil

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