The recent furore as to what the Springbok hooker Bongi Mbongeni called the England flanker Tom Curry during the Rugby World Cup semi-final raises very interesting questions as to how we use and respond to certain words, both singularly and when used in tandem. The accusation – as clearly picked up on the referee’s microphone – is that Curry was called a “white cunt”. Mbongeni is a black South African and Curry is a white Englishman so the first word could be understood to be a descriptor of the colour of Curry’s skin. Our question is whether it is ‘white’ or ‘cunt’ that causes the most offense – and why?
The word ‘cunt’ is a vulgar word for the female genitals and The Oxford English Dictionary records that it dates back to the 1200s. While ‘cunt’ has recently been reclaimed by feminists, it is often a term of abuse between men, in effect to disparage, demean or feminize them. To be called a ‘cunt’ is different to being called a ‘prick’ or a ‘cock’. Yes ‘prick’ and ‘cock’ can be used to dismiss or disparage someone, but neither carry the force of being called a ‘cunt’ and so gender and the use of words in a patriarchal society and here, in a homosocial context, does come into play. Yet the use of ‘cunt’ then gets complicated by relationship and context; men who are friends can and do call each other a ‘cunt’, but both tone of voice and what comes before ‘cunt’ become important. It could be ‘crazy cunt’ or ‘old cunt’ or ‘lucky cunt’ or ‘silly cunt’ where in all of this it is a term of acceptance and mateship, whereas ‘lazy cunt’ or ‘stupid cunt’ are often more dismissive. Context and tone matter. Usually, to call someone a ‘cunt’ outright is to disparage them as both analagous to a vagina, that is, to feminize them, but also to state that are a deeply unlikeable and offensive person.
Now, if Mbongeni had merely called Curry a ‘cunt’ it is extremely unlikely Curry would have complained to the referee. He could or would either have ignored it, or called Mbongeni a ‘cunt’ in return or used some other term of abuse. This may or may not have led to a further exchange of terms of abuse and dismissal, and perhaps then resulted in some act of physical response. And that would have been that. If Mbongeni had called Curry a ‘stupid cunt’ or ‘dumb cunt’ again it is highly unlikely a complaint would have been laid. Similarly, if Curry had been called a ‘motherfucker’ or ‘prick’ or ‘arsehole’ or a ‘bastard’ or a ‘tit’ or ‘shit’ or even ‘twat’ then it’s highly unlikely a complaint would have been made. However, if Curry had been called a ‘poof’ or a ‘homo’ or a ‘nancy boy’ or a ‘faggot’ I wonder how he would have responded? Would he have complained? This seems more likely. In fact, to use such terms as homophobic slurs would in themselves probably have resulted in a similar furore and then if they had been coupled with ‘white’ (or ‘black’) would that have been the ultimate sporting and societal transgression?
Consider the addition of the word’ white’ to the abuse. Suddenly a word, ‘cunt’, that is I would suggest vulgar but usually acceptable on the rugby field, becomes a part of what we can term a phrase of controversy. So let’s approach it from another angle. If Mbongeni had called one of the non-white England players a ‘black cunt’ would there have been a complaint and what would the wider response be? Similarly, if a white South African player had called Curry a ‘white cunt’ would there have been such a response and a controversy? Or, if a non-white England player had called one of the non-white Springboks a ‘black cunt’, or a white England player had called a white Springbok a ‘white cunt’?
But if a non-white England player had called a white Springbok a ‘white cunt’ or a white England player had called a non-white Springbok a ‘black cunt’ then perhaps we would be in the same situation. But ‘cunt’ is not the issue, at most it intensifies it.
So we are in a context where the addition of a skin colour descriptor ‘white’ or ‘black’ is what turns a vulgar word ’cunt’ into a politically loaded phrase. Because let’s be honest, no one would be facing a sanction for the use of ‘cunt’ or ‘motherfucker’ or fucker’ or even ‘fuckface’ on their own. Yet as I noted, homophobic slurs would result in a sanction.
What if the term used was ‘white prick’ or ‘white bastard’ or even ‘white fucker’, would that also result in such an uproar and possible sanction? Probably so, it seems. Therefore the most offensive term to use on the rugby field (excluding homophobic slurs) is actually to add the descriptor of a skin colour to any vulgar or offensive word when the articulator and the recipient are of two different skin colours. That is, we enter the word of racial politics (knowing full well that ‘race’ is an invented term and there are no races as distinct genetic peoples), a context in which we are dealing with societal responses, politics and classifications. This means we are entering the context of power relations and the ongoing impact of history. In this, I would suggest that in a historical-sociological-political context, given the weight of socio-cultural power dynamics involved and invoked, it is far, far worse for a white player to call a black player a ‘black cunt’ than it is for a black player to call a white player a ‘white cunt’. The first is what can be termed ‘punching down’, while the latter is perhaps an example of ‘punching up’. This is why the use of homophobic slurs is also sanctioned because they too are an example of ‘punching down’ when used in such a fashion.
Is Curry a ‘white cunt’? Socio-politically, both historically and today, a case could be made that this is an apt, if vulgar description of the England flanker who, like all flankers, seeks to play to and past ‘the letter of the law’; and aims, like all good flankers, to annoy and impede and rile the opposition; and in playing rugby, is involved in a game with a very vexed political, social, ethnic and gendered history. But should he have complained…or just taken the ‘punching up’…and waited for the next ruck?