Sunday, February 8, 2009

New York Times on British reaction to racist comments

Racial Epithets in Cultured Accents
New York Times
February 8, 2009

LONDON — Britons generally agree — or say they do — that being racist is bad and that making racist remarks is wrong. But there is no national consensus on what that means, exactly.

Take references to “golliwogs,” which are Little Black Sambo-style dolls, or to “Pakis,” a slur referring to people of Pakistani descent. Both terms have been used in Britain recently by famous people in infamous incidents. But though public condemnation followed each time, so did condemnation of the condemnation, the gist of which was that no offense had been meant, so no offense should have been taken.

Perhaps these mixed-up responses come in part because Britain, while deeply cherishing its tradition of free speech, also has laws against using language that incites racial hatred, said Robert Ford, a postdoctoral research fellow in sociology at the University of Manchester who studies racial attitudes in Britain.

“There’s a debate over whether these laws are acceptable in a free-speech society,” Mr. Ford said. “Some people say that freedom of speech is a fundamental birthright and that to condemn people for their language is ‘political correctness gone mad.’ ”

Last week the country was consumed by the offensiveness (or not) of the term golliwog after Carol Thatcher, the 55-year-old daughter of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, used it in an off-air comment at the BBC.

The term derives from the character, inspired by black minstrel rag dolls, in Florence Kate Upton’s children’s books of the late 1800s. The golliwog was a popular toy before it became an offensive term to describe black Britons.

Chatting as she sat in a BBC green room after recording “The One Show,” a television magazine program, Ms. Thatcher, it later emerged, said something to the effect that the French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has a white French mother and a black Congolese father, reminded her of a golliwog. Several people there complained and word got out to BBC officials, who said the remark was “highly offensive.”

The BBC fired Ms. Thatcher from her slot as a regular contributor to the program after, it said, she dismissed her comment as a “light remark” and failed to make an appropriate apology.

As a result, the BBC was deluged by thousands of angry complaints accusing it of overreacting. Many made the argument that there is nothing so horribly wrong with “golliwog,” anyway.

“She was making a friendly joke, rather as someone of the same generation might say, ‘Ooh, he looks just like Rupert Bear,’ ” the columnist Charles Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph. Alluding to a postwar group of Conservatives who responded to a description of the party as “vermin” by forming the Vermin Club, Mr. Moore suggested that Ms. Thatcher “start a Golliwog Club.”

Britain was a different place when children routinely played with golliwogs. The popular children’s author Enid Blyton used them as characters in her books, and many whites thought nothing of using ethnic slurs against other groups, a holdover from the days of the British Empire, when the ruling classes generally said what they liked. The original title of Agatha Christie’s 1939 book “And Then There Were None” used the most pervasive racial epithet for blacks, and the book’s cover showed a golliwog swinging on a noose.

But golliwog dolls are still sold in some stores in Britain, including, until last week, the gift shop at Sandringham, one of Queen Elizabeth’s estates. The shop yanked them when the news got out. Buckingham Palace said that the estate managers “did not mean to offend anyone.”

Then there is the matter of the queen’s grandson Prince Harry and the “Paki” video. The video, made by Harry himself, showed him blithely calling a fellow Army officer his “little Paki friend.” Since Harry had once demonstrated a certain insensitivity to nuance by appearing at a costume party in a Nazi outfit, the incident was perhaps not so surprising.

Harry apologized; the army apologized; everyone fell all over themselves to denounce the use of “Paki.” Even his friends said that Harry had used poor judgment and bad taste.

Then, again, came the backlash against the backlash.

In The Daily Telegraph, the columnist Simon Heffer said that, sure, the incident was unfortunate but that “the barely concealed, self-righteous glee with which solemn, boot-faced toadies of the politically correct establishment queued up to condemn the Prince” was nearly as bad.

By way of defending Prince Harry, an Indian friend of the family named Kolin Dhillun, who plays polo with Prince Charles, revealed that Charles calls him “Sooty,” and that he doesn’t mind at all.

Perhaps it is a generational phenomenon, or an upper-class one, or a bit of both.

“What is disappointing is that lately all this vitriol and condescension seems to be all generated from the upper echelons of society, people who you would imagine would view themselves as being cosmopolitan and having a global outlook on the world,” said Jonathan Thomas, the secretary of 100 Black Men of London, a group that mentors young people.

He has a point. Prince Philip, the queen’s husband (and Harry’s grandfather) and the epitome of the old-school upper classes, has a famous history of insulting groups of all kinds around the world, from Scotland to Australia.

“Deaf? If you are near there, no wonder you are deaf,” he barked at a group of young deaf people in Wales, referring to a loud band playing nearby. In 1986 he warned British students in Beijing that “if you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”

Meanwhile, the Eton- and Oxford-educated Conservative politician Boris Johnson once referred to “flag-waving piccaninnies” in a column for The Daily Telegraph. In 2006, he managed to offend an entire country when he wrote about “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.”

Mr. Johnson then promised to “add Papua New Guinea to my global itinerary of apology.”

Last year, he was elected mayor of London.

Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers

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