With the British royal family in the news again for racism, (see here, here and, for a bit of history, here), a national debate is going on over what constitutes ‘banter’, ‘slurs’ and ‘political correctness’.
What dismays me most about such polemics is that attention is focused on whether this person or that organisation is racist or not. The simplistic logic goes, “if they weren’t racist, then they wouldn’t say that”, or “if they say that, then they must be racist” – and off we go in a never-ending polarisation of thought.
But nothing is, to quote a phrase, only black and white. To believe it is, is to hold oneself up as lacking in all knowledge of the world and human beings, to reduce oneself to a two-year-old’s view of how the world works.
It may be that being given a derogatory nickname is part and parcel of being in the British armed forces – indeed, I would go so far as to say that getting and giving derogatory nicknames is part and parcel of being British – but what worries me most is what those nicknames are based on.
Such oft-used (British) epithets as “lofty” (for someone small), “squirt” (for a 6’5”, 200lb-er), “shit-face” (general term of endearment), “slag” (term of endearment, usually among women, similar to “ho”), “ginjar” (term of endearment referring to someone with red hair) and “bastard” are like little private jokes between the people concerned.
But other names are stereotypes: “a generalisation, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that is used to describe or distinguish a group.” (American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy). To wit:
- “Paddy” – a name for a person of Irish origin, associated with potato-eating, hard-liquor drinking, race-horse gambling and stupidity
- “Jock” – a name for a person of Scottish origin, associated with penny pinching, hard-liquor drinking and generally belligerent behaviour
- “Taffy” – a name for a person of Welsh origin, associated with coal-mining and backwardness
- “Paki” – a name for a person of any South Asian origin, associated with smelly-curry-eating, corner-store-managing, taxi-driving and parenting large numbers of children
- “Chink” – a name for a person of any East Asian origin, associated with deviousness, take-home catering and cowardliness
- “Sooty”, “Sambo”, “Black bastard” – all names for people whose skin-colour is dark brown, associated with laziness, belligerence and stupidity
Note that there is no epithet for the English, those that live in England and have held the power since the Act of Union in the early 1700s and, with that, the greatest privilege; those that are represented most by the royal family.
Note also that, unlike such fond nicknames as “shit-face”, stereotypes aim to erase individuality, to reduce the members of a group to a few roughly-drawn characteristics that are, supposedly different from those that are found in the main group. They aim, in fact, to exclude.
In addition, the controlling images embodied in the stereotypes are perpetuated by the media, making it more difficult for anyone unfamiliar with individual members of the group in question to put things in perspective.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t. However, it seems to me that so-called political correctness has got everyone so worried about being convicted or, in fact, convicting people of racism, that we are all losing sight of what we are really capable of understanding and believing, and actually doing something about.