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We Indulge a Dangerous Unconscious Bias When We Say “Black Market”—Here’s WhyJanuary 22, 2019
Perhaps because I identify as black, I have long experienced conflicted feelings regarding the conflation of blackness with the negative or illicit. Though I appreciate the metaphorical beauty of someone saying that they are in a “black mood” or that “black days lie ahead”—and can even appreciate the grimness that comes across so easily when unfortunate historical events like “Black Monday” are described—some part of me cannot help but wonder: do I carry the weight of this negative connotation with me as I navigate the world in this skin I wear?
Black, according to some color theorists, is an absolute lack of color. That lack, they argue, often carries with it the same feelings of uncertainty, danger, and, at least since as far back as the Middle Ages, loss (the higher social classes who mourned “state” figures could afford to wear deeply dyed fabrics and were eager to demonstrate this fact to the rest of the world as they performed their bereavement) that most people associate with darkness. Blackness is without absolute definition or categorization; it is nature beyond human control; it is power unharnessed and unmastered (unless you’re a New Yorker, a population that, by and large, wears the color almost religiously).
Knowing that this conflation of blackness and the illicit or negatively unknown is a load-bearing idiomatic structure in much of Western language and thought, it comes as little surprise that unregulated retail operations where dubiously legal—and sometimes flatly illegal—transactions are made are commonly referred to as “black market.” These spaces exist and operate largely beyond the control of categorizing forces and are frequently the site of sale for items one cannot acquire anywhere else. Sometimes these are largely harmless items that are regulated by the state for revenue or safety reasons, but they can also be extremely dangerous or rare parcels like firearms or animal products originating from protected (and unfortunately endangered) species.
Regardless of why such items are legally forbidden from being exchanged, it is inarguable that the markets they are sold on are illicit. What is questionable is the language that we use to name this market categorization and the broader implications of it. Describing the illicit exchange of goods as “black market” arguably contributes to a broader unconscious project of aligning blackness with negativity, with illegality, and, ultimately, with a need for punishment or conquering by the forces of order. While one can argue either way about whether such order needs to be brought to illicit markets, it should be pointed out that when we suggest that all that is black must be tamed or destroyed, that language may be furthering a (presumably) mostly unconscious bias that ultimately impacts living, breathing people who find this connotation foisted upon them without consideration of their humanity.
To some, the idea that our use of the term “black” to describe a variety of negative realities and feelings is somehow related to the broader Western perception of race might sound absurd, but there is convincing precedent if we consider the cultural cosmology of the Western world as it stands currently. In her work, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Truth/Power/Freedom,” theorist, professor, novelist, and playwright Sylvia Wynter describes this cosmology, pointing out that just as blackness as a concept outside of race is associated with the uncategorized, unharnessed, and thusly “dangerous” elements of the world, so too is blackness as a racial construct. Blackness, Wynter argues, is less about skin color or even about a series of held characteristics and more about a lack of proximity to the culturally comforting (for some), increasingly specific (and selectively expanding or retracting) categorizations and structures of whiteness. To be white is to be known, to be well-defined, to be tame and legal. To be black is to exist in a space of wild and dangerous non-definition that, in the eyes of an expansionist society, must be brought to heel or otherwise destroyed like an animal.
Wynter seeks to unsettle what she refers to as “colonized” thinking about blackness and to liberate it from its negative connotations, suggesting that the unknown, uncategorized aspects of all that is black are not inherently sinister and, instead, are sites of vast possibility. Wynter encourages us to question our allegiance to diametric conceptions of black and white that situate whiteness and lightness as the “vista of human possibility” and blackness or darkness as the “nadir,” which is to participate in a broader cultural project of psychic and physical colonialism that predates most of today’s writers, speakers, and thinkers.
The unknown qualities of blackness—the unconquered, undefined parts of it—are not inherently bad, and, for that reason, it may be a good idea to consciously uncouple blackness and badness in our words and in our minds. How, then, do we continue to describe negative things like the “black market”? The answer to that exists in the underlying definition.
It’s not a “black market.” There is nothing unknown about it. It is an illicit market—its quality as a bad actor, at least through the lens of the law, is known. Rather than relying on dates and possibly destructive cultural symbolism to describe something that has a fairly clear set of qualities, why not simply call it what it is? Moreover, why not describe a sorrowful mood as just that or a particularly costly day on the stock market as something more concrete? Why foist all of our cultural anxiety onto blackness? Has blackness not carried enough for us already?
I am not an emotionally effusive person in search of things to be offended by, but, as I grow older and more aware of how the assumptions so many of the institutions I navigate are built on, I realize that being a little more mindful about language can be liberating for myself and others; it frees us from chains we didn’t know were there until the condition was pointed out. After all—legislation is proof that language has what Peter Bourdieu would describe as institution-and-reality building power. Why not endeavor to make those institutions and realities more equitable?
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