Told  /  Etymology

How the Right Retired “Negrophile”—and Substituted “Woke”

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“Negrophile” sentiment had the power to make Black suffering legible and, as a result, Black American humanity legible too. In the white South, where Black flesh demarcated a non-human species, negrophilia was a deleterious liberal ideology that reimagined the natural (white) order of the world. For White Americans to espouse sympathy towards un-sympathizable Blacks, and acknowledge their suffering, was to blaspheme against a long-held doctrine that justified chattel slavery by excluding Black people from fellow feeling: Black suffering is permissible because it is deserved. The South’s paranoia around negrophilism spurred violent inquisitions that snuffed out traces of “negrophile” doctrines like abolition from the crevices of Southern life. Negrophiles were prosecutedflogged, and ostracized. Negrophile educators were exiled from schools, and “negrophile books” were banned throughout the South or sent to the pyre.

Contemporary supporters of so-called “woke” doctrines have endured the same treatment—but referring to white Americans as negrophiles is unacceptable by today’s social standards, which forbid any suggestion of the “N-word.” The right has supplanted the epithet with what it now derides as “wokeness,” reviving the Southern notion of negrophilia as a righteous fixation on race. As a pejorative, “woke” isn’t too distant from its predecessors: race agitator, nigger-lover, negrophile. A “woke” white person—a negrophile—threatens to indoctrinate fellow whites into liberal obsession with racism. The irony was captured in 1962 by a self-proclaimed “negrophile”: “One wonders whether this term in either its genteel or vulgar form would ever be applied to another human being except by somebody who was, perhaps, subconsciously, a negrophobe.”

Frantz Fanon, a psychologist from the French Antilles, described negrophobia in his Black Skin, White Masks as “a neurosis characterized by the anxious fear” of Black people or, by extension, of Blackness at large. “In the phobic, affect has a priority that defies all rational thinking,” Fanon writes, “For the object, naturally, need not be there. It is enough that somewhere it exists: It is a possibility.” As Fanon suggests, negrophobia is irrational; it must be tirelessly manufactured.

Conservatives’ fanaticism around “wokeness” also has no anchor in logic, no real definition, and must also be fabricated ad nauseam. Like the southern phobia around negrophilism, the phobia of wokeness is malicious, yet sensible—for the anti-woke, who are paranoid that a society saturated with racial sympathy would turn on a “negro axis.” The possibility of a Black sociopolitical orientation, as Fanon said, causes “fear and revulsion.”