Writing on the evils of racism is fairly easy – one can assume with relative certainty that most of those who read it will agree with it, whilst there is little risk involved socially or professionally to those who do so. Which is good, since racism is wrong, and must forever be denounced, lest it creep back in through lack of watchfulness on the part of those who thought they had defeated it.
However, writing in defence of those who have been wholesale denounced as racist is a little trickier. In what follows, I hope folk take this as it is intended to be – an honest attempt at trying to grapple with the difficult questions we must all face, on an issue that is in one sense very clear cut (racism is wrong) but at other times rather more difficult to disentangle (people who say x are racist).
This blog first took seed when I noticed this post by @Samfr on Twitter:
In Cornwall. At a cafe in which people are actually debating whether saying “chinky” is racist. This doesn’t happen in North London.
— Sam Freedman (@Samfr) December 21, 2014
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Sam was falling for the temptation, into which so many fall prey, to point mockingly at the rustics whilst lauding the perceived multicultural and tolerant London. Rather, he was identifying an occurrence that neatly illustrates the grey area over which so many in the commentariat would blithely march in their single-minded determination to head for the moral high ground – in reality, where certainty exists for some, debate and disagreement exists for others.
Not that certainty, and strong denunciation, is always a bad thing – after all, shame and social censorship is a long established way of ensuring members of a society uphold its moral norms. However it is tinged with danger as ratcheting up the rhetoric can entrench attitudes, leading one side to think it monopolises tolerance whilst the other grows more and more resentful and willing to contravene precisely those codes in response. It is one thing to tell Joe Bloggs we ought not use certain words because of the harm they can cause – it is quite another to tell him that his mother and father, grandparents and siblings are all racists, because they use a word Joe thought everybody used, and certainly not with any intended racist connotation. If our recent political history tells us anything, it is that such an approach drives essentially good folk away from the mainstream and toward those with more malign intent.
Besides which, allowing one side to think they own this debate might just mean we miss the evils of racism when it lurks in precisely those places where we would last expect to find it. Liberals might think their noisy denunciations make them impervious to accusations of racism – in reality they have their own charges to answer.
And now for the difficult bit.
My childhood was split between army camps all over Britain, old Lancashire (Salford) and North Yorkshire/County Durham (Stockton-on-Tees). Speaking to a teacher colleague, who grew up in an entirely different part of the country, we were discussing the latest UKIP fiasco and went through the words we used as kids which we would never consider using, or endorsing, or condoning today. And, in truth, it was appalling. Words long since abandoned, and thankfully so, were just a normal part of our lives. They may make us wince now, but not then. They were the norm, used by adults and kids alike. Part of this might have merely reflected our backgrounds (‘northern, respectable working class’) but more likely it spoke of our time as children of the 80s and 90s. And I’d wager that, if we felt able to be honest, most of us would admit to the same.
Some examples. Well, when I was a kid, it was standard for any show of tears to be greeted with the phrase ‘don’t be a poofter,’ meaning stop showing emotion and being ‘soft.’ I vividly remember being in junior school, where a group of us were perplexed as to why one of our number had just been told off for calling someone a ‘spas[tic].’ I remember a colleague of my father’s in the army was called ‘Midnight’ and introduced himself as such. I remember the word ‘paki’ was common currency, less so as an insult, but more often to refer to the ‘paki shop’. Indeed, when I took my Indian heritage then-girlfriend (now wife) to first meet the family, one older relative (whose identity I shall keep concealed) asked us ‘would you nip to the paki shop [in which this relative worked] and get us some flyers?’ Flyers, for those unaware, were tubes of liquorice with sherbert in the middle. About thirty seconds later, the blood drained from this person’s face as they realised what they had said and apologised profusely – the language was racist, but the person really was not.
And I could go on, and on, and on. Granddads and generally older male relatives are particularly rich sources for examples – perhaps unsurprising, certainly according to this article here, painting older, northern males as being particular culprits – but I could include examples from male and female, teachers and professionals, sports clubs and public figures, tv shows and celebrities. Indeed, recent years have been particularly plentiful in the ‘gaffe’ department, particularly from football culture (itself often associated with the working class male) – be it Joey Barton’s apparent sexism, or Robbie Fowler’s taunting of Graeme le Saux, or Alan Hansen referring to ‘coloured’ players, or Jose Mourinho’s use of homophobic language (though, to illustrate the point I am trying to make, using a word that still features in one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time).
The easy response here would be the ahistorical and hysterical – to denounce everyone as bigoted and refuse to try and understand what is going on here. But in reality, what is actually playing out is time itself, and the ways in which conventions and etiquette shift with it. And that change is rarely universal, let alone uniform. In other words, times change, and oftentimes for the better, but it changes at different paces in different places, and sometimes folk get caught on the wrong side of that step change. Nigel Farage may well get be greeted with howls of disgust when ruminating on use of the word ‘chinky’, but the awkward truth is that until very recently, certainly well into my adulthood, that was (and in some places no doubt still is) the standard word used to describe a Chinese take-away (though in Lancashire it tended to sway between that and ‘chinee’). If Dave Whelan’s comments show anything, it is (probably) not that he is racist, but that he was formed in a society that used racist language – perhaps some of it with racist intent, but for the vast majority not so. Racism did and in places does exist, and must be challenged forcefully – but we need a more nuanced litmus test than what words somebody chooses to use, which makes it easy for racists to escape detection and non-racists to be unwittingly caught up in something they had neither intended nor suspected. Or, as Simon Danczuk has said:
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsAnd this is the thing – despite all those terrible examples I cited earlier, I always knew racism was wrong. We all did. And can honestly say that we did not see those with a different colour skin as essentially different. And yet we used racist language. And were not at all unusual in that. We were children (and adults) of the time, in a country that was changing and in many ways has changed for the better (except for derogatory terms for the traveller community, attitudes and language toward whom are terrible but which we rarely challenge with the same gusto).
Maybe, then, hidden away amongst the angry words and insults is actually a social and political reality of two nations, ‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.’ When those two cultures collide, they see things about each other they don’t like. The outrage of the culture industry at use of certain terms demonstrates a lack of awareness that, for many people, these are common currency. What is obvious in Haringey might not be so obvious Hartlepool. And if the two nations theory is true, then why would it be obvious? Lack of awareness and understanding at the attitudes and thoughts of the other can clearly swing both ways.
The story here, then, is as much one of a dominant culture being appalled by the habits and attitudes still ingrained (and long thought erased) in the less dominant. Those attitudes and that language will, in time, change – lest those who would expunge succeed in only entrenching them further.