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Is 'Negrito' a racial term?

The Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra has thrown up some interesting debates over racism and different cultural aspects. In this particular case, the debate is really over the possible racial connotations of the word ‘negrito’.

There is no question of whether Luis Suarez used the word or not. He himself has admitted using the word, confirming the allegations by Patrice Evra. However, the question is whether ‘negrito’ should be viewed as a racial slur in England.

Firstly, we need to understand a few linguistic points. In Spanish, black translates to the word ‘negro’. A person with black skin, often with an African heritage, would be described as ‘negro’. Adding the –ito onto the end of a word in Spanish turns it into a diminutive version. For example, Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez is known as ‘Chicharito’ or ‘Little Pea’. The Spanish word for pea is chicharo, so by adding the –ito to the end forms the diminutive.

So, on a purely linguistic level, when applied to a person, ‘negrito’ would mean little black man. However, while using the diminutive in Spanish can simply be used as a descriptive term, it is also often used to denigrate a term, potentially turning it into an insult.

Clearly, Luis Suarez used the term in an insulting way toward Patrice Evra in an attempt to wind up the Manchester United full-back and get under his skin – something he has succeeded in.

Using insults to wind opposition players up is not an unusual occurrence on a football pitch. Just watching a football match on TV, it is possible to see players insulting each other with varying degrees of severity.

Indeed, in other sports, it has become a regular part of the game. In cricket, sledging is a tactic that has been used to unsettle opposing players for decades. One of the most famous instances of sledging was between Australia’s Glenn McGrath and Zimbabwean Eddo Brandes. McGrath asked Brandes, “Why are you so fat?” to which the Zimbabwean replied, “Because every time I fuck your wife, she gives me a biscuit.”

I have read a lot of articles talking about how Evra was offended by the term from Suarez. That should not be what the debate should come down to. There are plenty of things that people could say to someone that they would be offended by.

However, if the term did have racial connotations, then the debate takes on a whole new perspective. The problem seems to be differing views on how the term ‘negrito’ should be taken.

The crux of Luis Suarez’s defence is centred on the argument that it is not viewed as a term with racial connotations in Central and South America, including Uruguay where he is from. On the flip side, Patrice Evra has clearly viewed it as a term that to him contains racial significance.

This is the problem that the Football Association faced.

Luis Suarez has been in England for almost a year, plus he spent five years in Holland with Ajax and Groningen. There is therefore an argument that he should have by now realised the negative and racial connotations of such terms in this country. When playing in England under English regulation, he should adapt to follow English conventions.

However, less than a month after the incident at Anfield, we find the former Liverpool youngster, Dani Pacheco, using the term on Twitter. In several tweets to Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara, Pacheco refers to Thiago as ‘negrito’. No complaints or comment was made here, allowing us to see the acceptance of the term in this situation.

An interview with Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez, while he was playing in Mexico, shows us another instance. Referring to his teammate, Omar Esparza, he said, “I liked the goal of the negrito. I think it is a sign that Chivas youth, we are ready to respond in big games.”

Again, it would appear that ‘negrito’ is used in a perfectly acceptable context in this situation.

Clearly, in both of these instances, the term is being used in a friendly context, whereas the use of the term by Luis Suarez was meant in a more confrontational situation.

However, it highlights the difficulty for the FA in this case. It would appear that ‘negrito’ is a fairly commonly used and accepted term in Spanish, but by not taking action, the FA would struggle to argue their case against racism in football.

A ban for Suarez is probably the correct outcome, given the connotations that terms similar to this contain in English, but it is easy to argue that the length of the ban seems a little excessive. Eight matches is a significant period of time – over a fifth of the season – for what would appear to be an error based on cultural misunderstandings.

Naturally, we are unlikely to ever know whether Suarez did mean the comment with racial connotations, but even the panel has admitted that they do not feel that Suarez is racist. It has been one of the most complex cases in memory for the FA to have to deal with and it is easy to understand both sides of the debate in this instance. Liverpool and Suarez will appeal and it seems likely that the ban may well be reduced, although not overturned entirely.

However, it does suggest a need for educating foreign players and setting down clear guidelines to try and clear up these cultural differences. This is a role that the PFA should be getting involved in and it is pleasing to see the head of the organisation, Gordon Taylor, understanding this in a statement today.

Clearly there is no place for racism in football or anywhere in life. However, this case has raised the question of different cultural perceptions of racism and racial terms.

This is unlikely to be the end of the saga and it is likely to continue to run for several weeks still.

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