‘White Widow’: Language as terrorism

Last night, coincidentally as the newsroom was on deadline, a debate raged at the Mail & Guardian over the use of the term "White Widow" to refer to Samantha Lewthwaite. Lewthwaite, as you'll all know by now, is (and here I use the already tired media formula) "the British-born widow of Jermaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 suicide bombers".

The discussion was started by an inveterate troublemaker from the iPad team, who posed the question: "How about we don't call Samantha Lewthwaite by her British-given name of 'White Widow'? I think it's incredibly racist and we shouldn't blindly be using a term the foreign media is using. And before you say it's a play on Black Widow: the female spider kills her mate. In the case of Samatha Lewthwaite, her husband blew himself up. She didn't blow up her husband. So that makes it not even a witty racist name."

Several people disagreed with this, on two grounds. The first was on the issue of racism, and the second on the valid point of news imperatives (I'll deal with the latter later). Both are probably summed up in this mail: "Jeez, sometimes you have to allow the pizzaz of news a bit of room to breathe. How is this racist? It may be unfair to her, given that there is not a great deal of evidence so far that she is a killer, but she is allegedly wanted by Interpol, sought by the Kenyans in connection with a bomb factory in Mombasa, travelling on a false passport under a false name, which is a pretty serious combination if it's true, never mind the unsubstantiated suggestion that she took part in the Westgate massacre.

"We are not scared of Black Widows because they kill their mates, we are scared of them because they are deadly. She is a white woman whose husband was indeed responsible for deaths and she has allegedly taken on a combat role in war where white women do not typically feature on the side she has chosen. The title demonises her – perhaps unjustifiably, perhaps justifiably – but to call it racist is really a stretch."

Another person (I could use their real names here, but it's just too funny to be able to quote M&G writers as "sources who asked not to be named") weighed in with: "It cannot be racist to simply state what colour people are, can it? In South Africa, I reckon, we always want to know, and if we don't know, or aren't told by the story, we wonder why. Is that racist?"

My take on this – and apparently, as editor-in-chief, I have some sort of useful ubër-veto which allows us to stop arguing and actually get on with the job of putting together South Africa's, ahem, finest investigative newspaper – is this. It is racist to use the term "White Widow". A bald statement, and one that is relatively meaningless without a definition of how we're using the word "racist". I'll attempt one in a moment.

Some people have made the error of believing that the racism resides in highlighting the fact that Samantha Lewthwaite is white. This is of course not the case. The racism is in the fact of highlighting that she is non-black. By foregrounding her condition of whiteness as an anomaly we, or at least the language we're using, are implying that all terrorists are black. Now while it may be true that the overwhelming majority of the terrorists involved, for example, in the Kenya Westgate mall tragedy are black, it serves no useful purpose (well, unless you're pro-racism) to allow readers the unconscious assumption that terrorists will always be black. And here the terms "black" and "white" actually lose any fixed meaning, and become mere counters in a game of checkers.

The language of some of the stories about Lewthwaite is replete with this kind of imposed binary. My favourite headline of the moment is courtesy of the Daily Mail’s Google search results: "Samantha Lewthwaite: White Widow got hooked on Islam at school". Ah, Islam. The British school's gateway drug to terrorism. There's also the startling inference in this Mirror story that Lewthwaite's real crime is that she is "apparently tarnishing both [her father's] reputation and his country's reputation".

So yes, the term "White Widow" is racist. But here I am using racist to mean "has an effect that can foreground race to the possible detriment of one or more racial groupings", rather than the official dictionary definition, "the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others". My definition is only applicable to this sort of example. I don't propose it as a replacement for the official definition, but as a contingent tool for understanding the impact of using the term "White Widow".

But all this analysis, while worthy, is hardly going to be news to an M&G reader. The really interesting question is contained in “news imperatives”, the second of the two arguments that people have advanced in defence of using the term: why would the Mail & Guardian still use "White Widow", even if we (okay, I) believe that it is capable of a racist interpretation? The answer lies in the contested territory that is language, and the even more contested arena of newsworthiness.

Simply, the news-reading world has now adopted the term. Our task is not to refuse to take part in this discourse, but to make sure we interrogate it while we partake of its blessings. And those blessings include great search engine optimisation, and shorter headlines. In some cases, it's futile to attempt to change the words that language compels us to use, but we can change the way people understand them.

I have no way to prove what percentage of readers will imbibe an unconscious racist message from "White Widow", and what percentage will be able to understand that it’s a loaded term. And we haven't even started to look at the gender implications (I can't see a man ever being named as the "White Widower"). There are also important implications for setting news agendas – I’m willing to bet that many South Africans can talk about the "White Widow", but very few about Ahmed Abdi Godane.

So we'll carry on using "White Widow", but avoid White Widow. We're going to "allow the pizzaz of news a bit of room to breathe".

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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