UK: Racial Epithets in Cultured Accents

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Mar 15 12:50:05 UTC 2009

February 8, 2009
Racial Epithets in Cultured Accents

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

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.
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