Wednesday, 4 February 2009

They Still Don't Get It

There is yet more fuss in the UK media about racist vocabulary being used by a public figure. In this case the culprit is Carol Thatcher, journalist and daughter of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. She has fallen foul of the BBC for using the word ‘golliwog’ to refer to an unknown person in a private conversation.

Discussion in the media centres on the question of whether this matters since: (a) this was a private conversation; (b) it was a light-hearted remark made off the cuff and in jest; (c) for someone in their fifites a golliwog was a cuddly creature depicted on the side of a jam jar.

Of course it matters! None of these arguments hold water. So it was a private conversation. So what? Are we to allow a state-funded broadcaster recognised throughout the world as a representative of UK plc to institutionalise hypocrisy? Are we to say, it’s okay to think unpleasant thoughts about people from other cultures or other colours, just don’t give voice to those thoughts on air?

Okay, it probably was an ‘off the cuff’ remark and if Ms Thatcher had been slightly less relaxed, no doubt she would not have allowed us this glimpse of what really goes on inside her mind. What a good job then that Hospitality had done its work in loosening her up enough to show the state of wilful ignorance in which she has been prepared to remain while all around her the world has been changing.

I say wilful ignorance because that’s the only way I can describe the refusal by an articulate individual who works in the media and ought to understand the power of words, to take into account the effect such a term is likely to have on black people. Of course many of them will have have had to put up with a great deal worse in their lives but the fact remains that golliwog has been used as a term of abuse.

Moreover it’s been used as a term of abuse because the image itself derives from caricatures of black people perpetrated by a white slave-owning society which entertained itself with nigger-minstrel shows. Indeed, a version of just such an entertainment, The Black And White Minstrel Show, still survived as a popular television programme when I was growing up in Britain in the nineteen sixties.

Certainly it is the case that to white people in their fifties, the golliwog is a fondly-remembered, soft-hued image of a more innocent time gone by. My wife, Rosie had a golliwog soft-toy when she was growing up, and she loved it greatly. But Rosie now works an Ethnic Minority Achievement Manager. She understands that while the word golliwog brings back delightful memories of her childhood, for black children growing up at the same time, it may only recall the memory of taunts and bullying.

Am I making too much out of this? I don’t think so. Everyone knows the history of slavery; everyone is aware of the struggle of black people to achieve a measure of equality. Is it such a big deal, therefore, to ask that everyone make an effort in private as well as in public to avoid using words that might cause offence?


Paul Lamb said...

In U.S. culture, it is now considered inappropriate to use the word "retarded" to describe a person with a type of mental handicap. Yet in its day that was considered a scientific term, along with words like "imbecile," "moron," and "idiot," each having once signified a given level of mental ability.

I doubt that one American in ten could even tell you what the term "golliwog" referred to, and so its raw force is lost on our benighted ears.

Nonetheless, we have our own racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious slurs. And the excuse that one uses them out of habit or endearment or with the "best intentions" doesn't work any longer. No one in our age, on either side of the Atlantic, can expect to use such words innocently. And when the hue and cry is raised about their use, conscious gets raised as well.

PL said...

conscious = consciousness