Recently there was a quite an argument in certain group of people coming from various countries, each having different English skill and obviously different understanding of things in English.

The argument was about whether the following statement was racist or not:

The coffee is so black it puts Africa to shame.

While we all realized it may be distasteful, only half considered it racist, since it was their understanding that it does not express any discrimination or prejudice against any African people or group of such, and that it's not meant literally, as it had more figurative than literal meaning. Everyone involved would like to know who was actually right.

For the purpose of this serving as a verdict to that group, I am intentionally remaining neutral about it. Thank you for constructive input.

  • in the sense that it appeals to a stereotype it is racist. – Hot Licks Jun 29 '17 at 11:47
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it concerns social attitudes to expressions in terms of subjective concepts (such as racism) and is completely a question of opinion. Indeed the OP asking for a discussion, which is not what SE is about. – David Jun 29 '17 at 12:22
  • @David I'm not asking for an opinion but rather a non-subjective fact. I Disagree that it's a matter of opinion either. – DeDee Jun 29 '17 at 12:45
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    I quote you: "only half considered it racist". This demonstrates we are dealing with something that is a matter of subjective opinion. However you ask "who was actually right", wanting a "non-subjective fact". Now how do you think people on EL&L are going to provide evidence for this non-subjective fact? From a dictionary? From a court ruling in a particular country with a law regarding incitement to racial hatred? From an anouncement on the topic from the NAACP? You are asking for a discussion on a social topic rather than a question of English Language. – David Jun 29 '17 at 13:25
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    The real question is not whether it matches some abstract definition or not, but who it makes uncomfortable, and why it makes those people uncomfortable and not others. That's the question that needs to be explored, and arguing about definitions is not the way to explore it. It's the feelings that need airing. – John Lawler Jun 29 '17 at 14:28

The dictionary describes racism as:

a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.

Using the definition above, merely making a comparison between the color of coffee and the color of skin of the predominant (black) population in Africa is not technically racist if there is no inference that people of black skin color are inferior in any way to people of other skin colors.

However, that said, in recent history (the last few hundred years) there has been so much negative connotation associated with mentioning black skin color that it becomes nearly impossible to mention black skin color without causing any typical listener to immediately recall in his or her subconscious thousands of negative stereotypes or other comments that he or she has heard in the past associated with black skin color. Therefore, one could argue that it is impossible in modern society to mention black skin color without at least some (even unintended) negative association, if merely from the history of negative associations.

Compare, for instance, the strong movement against the team name Washington Redskins. This is really on point to your question. Can the mere mention of a group of people (in this case native Americans) by their skin color (red - ie redder than Europeans but not so black as Africans) be considered racist? There are a lot of people who think so.

You therefore can conclude, factually, that while the strict dictionary definition will not prove that a mere reference to Africans as black is racist, a lot of people will interpret that sort of comment as racist for the reasons I and the articles above have noted. And if you know that many people will interpret a comment as racist, then it becomes hard for you to claim you are able to say it without it being racist, since you know, empirically, that it will likely be interpreted that way by a large number of people. Your own empirical evidence also supports this conclusion.

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