Wednesday, 14 January 2009

It's The Sub-Text, Your Majesty

The news in the UK recently has been full of two stories about members of the royal family. In a video diary which he made himself while serving in the army Prince Harry is heard to call one of his fellow officers, ‘our little Paki friend’. It has also been revealed that Prince Charles calls an Asian man with whom he plays polo by the nickname, ‘Sooty’. Both princes have been accused of racism.

Actually I don’t believe that either of them is really guilty of racism. They are just guilty of being insensitive, patronising, and totally oblivious to the historical and social context in which so-called friendly banter like this takes place.

Writers for children couldn’t get away with such behaviour. We have to be acutely aware of the messages that our writing conveys because we have a responsibility to our readers. That is why authors like Enid Blyton, whose books feature evil golliwogs, tend to be shied away from in schools these days. Nobody is saying that Enid Blyton was a racist; it’s just that we no longer feel comfortable with such images. They were a product of a time when attitudes in Britain towards black people were quite different to those which prevail nowadays.

It’s a simple point, really, a matter of politeness as much as anything else. As someone of Irish descent, I am angered when people make jokes predicated upon the notion that Irish people are somehow more stupid than people from other countries. Fortunately, such jokes are dying out nowadays. You don’t hear them on the tv or radio like you used to. But I can recall how frequent they once were and I can recall how much offence they gave to my mother and father – hard-working, decent, honest people who quite reasonably resented such a slur.

When defending such humour, people are fond of pointing out that it's universal. Over in Ireland they make similar jokes about people from Kerry, they argue. That may be true but it’s neither here nor there. You cannot justify your bad behaviour by pointing at someone else’s. My parents came from a culture that had been oppressed for hundreds of years. They knew, as I did, that Irish jokes began as a justification for such oppression since if you think people are inferior to you in intelligence or culture, then it’s easier to justify taking over their country, making them all speak your language and forcing them to do what you tell them.

A similar set of historical associations come into play when nicknames are used by members of the mainstream white population for black people. When I was growing up it was not uncommon for gangs of white youths to go out on the streets paki-bashing. Indeed, Asian people were killed in such attacks. It’s no good, therefore, Prince Harry saying that his comment was only meant in jest. The use of such a term evokes the memory of those atrocities.

The defenders of such royal crassness will say that this is just another example of political correctness gone mad but it isn’t; it’s sensitivity to language. I regularly get sent manuscripts to read in which would-be children’s authors display the same lack of awareness as the Princes Harry and Charles. Not long ago, I recall someone sending me a manuscript in which a group of children who were having a series of adventures on an island frequently referred to the inhabitants of that island as ‘abos’ (short for aborigines). I pointed out, in my reply, that, though I certainly wasn’t accusing the author of racism, he ought to be aware that ‘abos’ had been regularly used as a term of abuse for black people in the past. He responded with a furious tirade in which he fulminated against me for calling him a racist when he was nothing of the kind.

If a black boy or girl walked into the room you are in now, would you want to be gratuitously rude to them? Of course not. Would the writer of the book about the children and the ‘abos’ want to be rude to them? Of course not. Would Prince Charles or Prince Harry? Of course not. So, it’s quite simple really. People whose words will inevitably be repeated need to think about what they say. That goes for writers and princes in equal measure.


Paul Lamb said...

Well said. I've often asserted that a white person growing up in the United States (and, well, the Western world) can't help but have some racist thoughts/tendencies, even if he/she doesn't want to have them. We must be ever vigilant about this kind of thing and purge it when we find it.

Many people disparage the idea of "political correctness" but to me it is really no more than being respectful. Here in the U.S. whites are expected to begin being a minority group within the next 40 years. I think we would do well to show respect for the current minorities so that they will have a template for how they will treat us.

Catherine Johnson said...

I agree. As someone who has benefitted from political correctness (I prefer to call it politeness) it is now years since I have been called any of the following to my face - common in primary and secondary school and out of school. The first two were used extensively by cheery shopkeepers and older men who thought they were being pleasant.
chocolate drop

What gets me is all those people on the radio saying - It's no different from being called jock - don't realise is it IS different. It's the years of abuse implied in the name.
There I feel better.