Comparative racism part 2: What’s it like in Britain?

After writing a guest post about American racism I don’t seem to be ready to leave the topic. My mind keeps circling back to something I’ve avoided writing about until now: British racism.

Why am I avoiding this? Tact? Nah. I have the occasional moment of tact, but as a rule I’m not paralyzed by it. That it’s a hard topic to be funny about? In part, but I hope to manage a bright spot here and there. Ignorance? Well, yeah, there is that. I’ve lived in the U.K. for nine years. That doesn’t make me an expert. It’s a huge, sprawling topic. Plus I live in an absurdly white part of the country. Although my friends and family are a multi-hued (and multi-many other thinged) group, my friends in this country, for the most part, are not.

But still, I listen. I hear things.

Beyond irrelevant photo: grasses after an autumn rain

Beyond irrelevant photo: grasses after an autumn rain

Before I go on, though, I need to explain something. I appreciate it that a lot of people say things like “he used the N-word” in order to avoid using a deeply offensive word. I’m about to use the word, though—not because I think it’s okay, but because I’m writing about people who do, and to dance around the word itself is to dance around the racism it embodies. You know the phrase she wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful? Well, we’ve got a mouthful here, and I am going to say shit.

Since I moved to the U.K., I’ve been in a couple of situations where people used the word nigger, not as I’m using it here, to discuss racism, but as a way of talking about black people, and I’ve argued with them about it. If you don’t say something, you become complicit. Besides, I’m not constructed for shutting up about things that matter to me.

Argued makes the interactions sound more reasoned than they were. What I’ve found myself saying is variations on You can’t say that in front of me. Because screw the reasoned argument, people already know why I’m objecting and why explain it one more time? What might make some difference is putting as high an emotional price as I can on using the word.

I won’t argue that it’s the best way to respond, but it’s the one I can manage.

So why am I talking particularly about Britain? It’s not that no one uses the word in the U.S., although I can’t remember the last time anybody in the U.S. crossed that particular line with me. I didn’t live in such a white area, and I’d guess that makes a difference. Or maybe it needs to be explained some other way. I’m not sure. But I’d be surprised if, in a similar situation, anyone in the U.S. would react the way people do here, and if I’m wrong, tell me, because I’m interested. What happens here is that people regularly respond by saying things like, “I like the word,” or, “I don’t mean anything offensive by it,”  which seems to say that nobody should be offended and presumably the argument can then turn to what’s wrong with people who are offended when they shouldn’t be.

Insert a brief incoherent shriek here if you would. I don’t know how to spell one convincingly or I’d insert it myself.

I’ve heard the same argument made about golliwogs—Little Black Sambo-like dolls that make my flesh crawl. I never saw one until I came to Britain, but they have a history here and I’ve met any number of whites who tell they had golliwogs when they were kids and they loved their golliwogs; to them, the dolls aren’t racist. Never mind that they’re caricatures right out of the 1920s-style School of Shameless Racism.

A few of these comments have come from people who are clueless and/or racist, but more of them come from people of genuine goodwill—people who’d be horrified to be thought of as racist. And yet the compass that tells them what’s racist resides inside themselves, not out in the world, among the people most affected by it.

Admittedly, to at least some extent we all have to trust our instincts. But we also have to listen to people who are closer to the front lines on this. Being part of the group in question give you an intense apprenticeship in tuning yourself to racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-WhatHaveYouIsm. And those of us who aren’t part of the group? We might want to listen. And think about what we hear. Because if we’ve lived in a society full of anti-WhatHaveYouIsm, we can’t help but be affected by it. We breathe it in. The spores settle in our lungs and they want to multiply. Hearing from the outside world is a sort of antibiotic. And I’m going to bail out of that metaphor before it goes out of control. I only passed high school biology because the teacher wasn’t what you’d call rigorous.

That’s far from a full report on the differences between American and British racism. (Did I really need to say that?) But it’s an aspect that fascinates and baffles me. I’ll be interested to hear what you can add.

123 thoughts on “Comparative racism part 2: What’s it like in Britain?

  1. What I find scary and very, very sad is how often the word Nazi is still used in reference to anything German (along with the terrible accents and the goose-stepping). My husband’s German. My children are half-German. It’s not funny and I find it highly offensive in this day and age. And in light of the differences between Germany’s and Britain’s managing of the refugee situation, I’m glad I am living elsewhere right now. There’s still a huge ‘we were once the grand empire’ cloud hanging over Britain for which people should feel no pride. I sometimes feel ashamed to be British.

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  2. Wow – that is shocking to me that people in your part of the UK use words like that so casually. I never have and I don’t know anyone that would. I am very pleased to live in a happily multi-cultural part of the country where such things are viewed as archaic and without place in modern society. I can honestly say that no one I have ever come across would respond with ‘I like the word’ or ‘I don’t mean any offence by it’. It is a vile word and can cause nothing other than offence. When I have heard such things in use is has been by openly racist people who know exactly what they are saying. I guess I must be very lucky not to have to confront such casual racism, I as I surely would (and do) if it arises.

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  3. there is a very strange culture of “acceptable” racism in this country! I hasten to add that I don’t actually think it is acceptable but there are somethings that are so much part of culture that it almost gets forgotten about.

    I am not (for the moment…i fear this might be a long one…) talking about the racism based on colour or religion but the casual way that people in britain consider it perfectly acceptable to be derogatory about the french, or people in england are derogatory about the welsh, people make jokes about it and don’t realise it is on the same spectrum as telling immigrants to leave out country because they are lazy and taking our jobs.

    One other growing form of racism in the country is that directed towards immigrants, there is a growing sector of people (mostly daily mail readers and those that would vote UKIP and think Britain First as a sensible organisation) who actually think that this country should close its borders and throw out anyone who isn’t from here. Although they probably actually mean anyone who doesn’t have english as their first language.

    Picking up on your comments about the N-word I once, when I was 15, hung up on my friend during a telephone conversation when she used that word. She was parroting her dads extremely racist (and hypocritical as his wife was Norwegian) views that anyone foriegn should be sent back home (for foreign read black). I went on to have many an argument with him about it too much to the shock of my friend who wasn’t really expecting me to tell her dad point blank that he was wrong and racist!
    I was quite an outspoken teenager…which has lead me to be quite an outspoken adult! Like you I won’t accept people being racist around me (or at all if possible) I will pull them up on it no matter who they are!

    It amazes and worries me that there is still so much of it around. I was raised to believe that everyone was equal, no matter what their colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, even hair colour was (when I was a child I classified people by hair colour…often to my mums embarrassment..) and it shocks me that other people can’t see it. It amazes me that we live in a world where we can judge people on anything other than their actions!
    Especially in a country that has practically no natives any way! we are a melting pot country which for its entire existence has accepted other cultures and made them part of our own. You would have to go back a very long way indeed before you found a pure indigenous Briton. (pre viking invasion, pre roman, pre 1066 and all that!!)

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    • also…about Golliwogs…I was quite old before I knew they were racist, and for years I clung to the belief that they weren’t as they had nothing to do with reality. Even now the first thing they conjure up in my mind is jam. I have now accepted that just because to me they mean Jam doesn’t mean they started somewhere else and have quite different associations! I no longer have any of the “golly” little badges you get from jam for collecting tokens. the more I think about it the less ok it is…

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    • Wild Thing holds that the native Britons were the Neanderthals. I think that’s questionable, but it’s also thought provoking. That came up because a Native American friend asked who the Indians were in Cornwall, and the question threw us. The quick answer was, the Cornish, but before them? Was there a before them? I don’t know. Maybe the question doesn’t fit here, but it was an interesting way to look at it.


      • I think there was an evolutionary step beyond the neanderthals…but it wasn’t that long after that that we started being colonised by all and sundry!
        The cornish are (I think and I may be wrong) a mash up of a lot of earlier people like the rest of the country. Although I think there is a lot of celtic-ness (not the right term) around there in a similar way to the welsh and breton french but my knowledge of it is sketchy.
        in a strange quirk of coincidence…the friends dad who i was talking about earlier was actually cornish. and very cornish to the point of wanting independence…

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        • My impression is that the Neanderthals died out or left before the next wave of immigrants came in, but what do I know? I wasn’t there and they didn’t leave records. On top of which, I haven’t really followed the best guesses of people who know more about it than I do. People of European descent have roughly 2% Neanderthal DNA, so clearly they overlapped with our ancestors somewhere along the line.

          There’s still some Cornish nationalism about, including an independence party, Mebyon Kernow. I agree with a lot of their practical positions on things like housing and the NHS, but I’m not convinced on independence. There’s talk of some devolution of power to Cornwall, and the county council’s running around holding meetings to tell us how wonderful it’ll be. Since as an American I’ve been screwed over by local government s surely as I have by national, I’m less than starry eyed.

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          • I don’t know enough about it to know whether devolution of power is a good idea, but my gut says not really.
            However I say that from a happily centralised middle england position!
            I think you are right about the Neanderthals, I think the original Ancient Britons out evolved them but as you say, I am sure there was some over lap. People colonised this country pretty much as soon as they could make boats so it is really hard to tell!
            (this country that is so proud of never having been invaded…apart from all the hundreds of invasions that we forget about…)

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    • And even pre-celtic, since they came in after the so-called beaker people.

      How long does it take for people to be considered British? How many generations? I had colleagues with parents from Poland, Germany, France. India, Republic of Ireland etc. They were born here and had British passports. Everyone thought of them as British. Now, I think it depends to some extent on what you are trying to prove. Many anti-royalists complain that our Royal family is German. How many generations have there been since George 1st? It must be getting on for 10.

      This is getting to be a blog in itself so I’ll save some comments and write a blog on it Interested parties can visit I’ll post on Tuesday. [Edit, from E.H.: Other versions of this comment suggest checking out the blog on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday.]

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      • From where I’m sitting, it looks like your comments–at least some of them–made it through. I have three overlapping ones and since this is the longest, so I’ll dump the others. And I’ll check out your blog later today.


  4. I have not heard the N word used in the UK in a long, long time (since I was a child). I have lived in various parts of the country – from a very multi-racial part of London to a fairly white town in the West country. I have always thought we are a lot less obsessed with skin colour than the Americans – and that the Afro Caribbean and Indian cultures are such a massive part of the British culture now (especially youth culture) that sometimes I forget there was a time when they weren’t there. However that is not to say we are not racist. As with so many cultures, our racism tends to be directed at the latest wave of immigrants to arrive in the country which, at the moment, happens to be eastern Europeans. That is where I have seen and heard the most racism directed in the past 5-10 years. That and towards “muslims” (not to do with skin colour but to do with religion and culture). And then there is our real achilles heel which is the gypsys. If you want to REALLY hear racism, ask people what they think about the travellers….

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      • Interesting comments. I know that when the American South was still segregated, Britain was a comparatively free place. But I don’t have anything like a real grasp of what impact skin color has on the lives and minds of people of all colors here. I have sure heard an earful, though, about Eastern European immigrants and Muslims–and to a lesser extent Travelers. The U.S. also has a history of going hysterical about the latest wave of immigrants: The Chinese, the Swedes (yes, the Swedes), the Jews, now the Mexicans and other Latinos. With each one, it’s the end of civilization as we know it.


        • At least from my viewpoint over here on the west coast of the U.S…. northern California.. it’s probably just Mexican immigration that concerns those who care. We had our bad treatment towards the Japanese during WW2, of course, and now there’s been plenty of isolated incidents of angst toward Sikh or Muslims (the misplaced angst comes from the same people who wouldn’t know the difference from one turban-wearing person to another… so unfortunately, there does tend to be some lame assumptive lumping-together. )

          But I think Clara’s correct when she says that it has to do with the latest wave of immigrants. Right now we’re like, “Whoa! Who are all of these refugees coming in? How do we know that some of them aren’t secretly Isis?”. I imagine that some of them probably are, but that the vast majority aren’t… but that the ones who have no ties to terrorism may well face semi-harsh to unfairly-harsh treatment.

          Not justifying it.. just stating common thoughts.

          This just happens to be the “flavor of the decade” for us, though. Your own countries’ mileage may vary.

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  5. I have never been to the UK, but I hear that the UK is far more progressive when it comes to multiculturalism than Australia. I do agree with you that there may be some of us who might be racist and not even know it – when we laugh at stereotypes, are we really insulting another’s culture? Perhaps, perhaps not but I suppose it depends on context. Once I went to a job interview in Australia. This was a group interview for a number of customer service positions and there were about twenty of us interviewees in a room, of Anglo and non-Anglo backgrounds. Very diverse. At one point during the interview, someone made the remark, “Chinese restaurants. They all burn down” and everyone in the room laughed, except for me. I didn’t feel like it was insulting, neither felt it was funny. It was a stereotypical remark, yes, but racist…well that’s up in the air I suppose.

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    • Since I moved here, I’ve heard comments that fall into the Chinese restaurant joke category: not truly racist (as in not spoken out of hate), but ignorant. I do think they grow out of our history of racism, and I find them harder to deal with than the more overt racism because there’s something amorphous about them. Since I’m not happy with my response, they infuriate me.

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  6. Thanks again for writing the American racism guest blog for me, Ellen! I really enjoyed reading this post. As you spoke about living in quite a small, white area, it made me think of my own town. I live in a small place too and the attitudes of many people who live here definitely reflect that (small town, small mind).

    My grandparents, for example, sometimes use language that would be considered racist but they usually get away with it because of the generation they are and that they still think it’s okay because they were raised around it. But I always call them out on it when they use those words and explain that while it might have seemed “okay” years ago, it is not okay now. While they’re not trying to be racist in an extremely offensive, hurtly way, I know myself that they still have within them those “stay away from those people” reservations that their parents taught them about black people, which is sad. Hopefully one day, natural selection will just weed out racism – if only it were that simple.

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    • I left a reply which seems to have disappeared, so if I’m repeating myself, that’s why.

      I wish it were that simple too. But when different groups of people brush up against each other as equals, it does seem to diminish the fear and stereotypes. Let’s take hope from that and continue to make pests of ourselves. It’s for the greater good.

      Thanks for asking me to do that guest post. I like the direction it pushed me in.

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    • I absolutely agree with you 100%. I want to type three paragraphs to basically say the same thing and that is that I hope that racism: 1: can be clearly defined… and then 2: can be dismantled completely. And I want to have at least three paragraphs in order to convey the weight of that viewpoint in this comment. Because then I also want to say one other thing in a short little one-line type weight of thing so that you see that it only accounts for a much smaller area … so that the reader doesn’t read it and consider it to be the main point of my comment… and that is: I hope that we all develop thicker skin and realize when to push back and when to ignore. When to fight and when to rest.

      Some folks cover their own pain by fighting unendingly. All they’ve learned how to do is to fight. When they win a battle, they are lost and only find themselves when they’ve located another enemy.

      To a person whose meaning in life is in fighting the good fight… victory is the scariest outcome… because no one ever taught them how to rest the good rest.

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      • I don’t agree, but I do appreciate it that you’ve weighed in on this. I’m not arguing for anger–among other things, it takes too much away from the fighter. The older I get, the more I look for gentler ways (whenever possible; and I don’t think it always is) of fighting the good fight. When I can manage it, even loving ways.

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  7. First off – I love your posts, they always make me stop and think which is a darned good thing. I was a child in the days of the little golliwog on the jam jars that you could collect and send off for a badge – too young at that stage to realise the offence but now makes me ponder my parent’s viewpoint. I was also, back then, subjected to a very popular tv show called the Black & White Minstrel show which featured white men made up to look like black minstrels which confused me greatly! There were tv shows back in the 1970’s that we watched which today are horrifically offensive and I’ve no idea how they were ever aired. There are two words I abhor and one is the N word – as far as I’m concerned it’s only ever used to offend so by stringing “I don’t mean anything offensive by it’ at the front is no get out clause. I worked in a multi-cultural call centre which was an education in what may or may not cause offence. I managed a meeting to hear a complaint at which one witness proclaimed ‘ask the Asian guy, he was there’. The ‘Asian’ guy asked why he hadn’t been referred to by name instead of the ‘Asian’ guy. He was quite right, others had either been called by name or some other description e.g. where they sat but none by where they may have originated from. It hadn’t been meant as a derogatory comment but was all too easy to see the colour/culture and indicate that rather than the person. If someone perceives they have been offended, then they have whether we feel it was the case or not.
    We have a lot of history to answer for in Britain but at some point everyone needs to let it go and see this new World we belong in. I’m not sure what we are still trying to hang on to, as like you say, you have to go back a long way to find an original Brit. I think fear is at the root of current concerns, we’ve seen what very motivated cultures/beliefs can do and we’ve had a recent taste (again) on British streets. If we felt everyone was willing to live and let live we may feel more comfortable – not much indication of this being the case in current times and it’s getting closer to home …

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    • It’s a funny thing about offense. I’d bet that a lot of people who construct arguments about how no one should be offended by their use of racist language would have no problem apologizing if, say, they’d told a neighbor they didn’t like heather and then found out the neighbor grew them. But racism? Nope. They didn’t mean anything by it and no one should be offended.


      In the U.S., we had a couple of food brands that featured racist caricatures on the boxes. At some point–I’m guessing the 70s–they changed them to respectful pictures. You could see the relationship to the original, but the poison had drained away. Having grown up in a household that wouldn’t buy Uncle Ben’s rice, though, I still found myself uneasy about buying it.

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      • It makes me wonder though… is the new “rule” that we’re going with in this era:
        “If there is anything about a(n) object/word/situation/thing that is offensive, then there is nothing redeemable or acceptable about the object/word/situation/thing.”


        Take the swastika. There was a time before the Nazi party… before they had “coined” the symbol and stole the majority reference of what that symbol meant. For a long time, the swastika was only a religious symbol. One example from the wikipedia page ( includes:

        “In Chinese, Japanese, and Korean the swastika is also a homonym of the number 10,000, and is commonly used to represent the whole of Creation, e.g. ‘the myriad things’ in the Dao De Jing. During the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Empress Wu Zetian (684-704) decreed that the swastika would also be used as an alternative symbol of the Sun.”


        So my question isn’t specifically about the swastika itself, but in anything that has meaning and can change over time. (pretty much includes anything) The Nazi party comes in, adopts the symbol as their own, does all the violent things that they did.. and now the symbol is tarnished and has no redeemable goodness? (redeemable… not the acts of violence, of course… but the symbol itself, having meant a great deal of positive things to a great many people)

        Or … even Uncle Ben’s rice… sure, the image you’re conjuring up is of Uncle Ben being a slave on a plantation… and although slavery is unilaterally seen as wrong in this era, there were good people in those times, too. For all we know, Uncle Ben could just be a happy man of African descent who made some kick-ass rice! Actually, the internet has provided us some info! ( Talks about Rastus Cream of Wheat, Uncle Ben’s, and Aunt Jemima all in one!


        • The original swastika, if I remember right, faced the other way, but by now, at least in European and American consciousness, I doubt many people make that distinction. In another few hundred years, maybe the poison will have drained out of the symbol and people will see it dispassionately. Who can tell? The question is, however sad that the symbol was contaminated in people’s minds, is there any point now in trying to reclaim it? I’m not saying forget the history, simply that we acknowledge the meaning it’s taken on. Meanings do change over time. Symbols and sounds are themselves neutral, but the meanings that attach to them are not.

          Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima pancakes, as I remember them, originally had racist caricatures on the boxes. There was nothing neutral about them. They rode on they mythology that slavery (and the post-slavery times of black servants and whites being served) was a comforting time.

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          • The swastika went both directions even pre-Nazi times. I’m no scholar… I read it on the wiki page… just making sure everyone knows I’m not claiming expertise here. But it says one is “left hand” the other “right” … or clockwise vs counter clockwise.

            There is certainly still innocuous religious significance to the symbol (as there always was!) for Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and potentially other groups. Here in the west, it is too stigmatized and doesn’t seem to matter enough to enough people to try to reclaim. (For example, I have no relationship with the symbol personally. I am in my early 30’s and only knew of it as a Nazi symbol for most of my life.)

            I’m not trying to make the swastika into a sword that I’m planning on falling on… but my point is that it sucks that complex and positive symbols / words / contexts.. so easily get diverted, deranged, and polluted and then even the people using something in good faith get overly criticized / marginalized / categorized for doing what they’ve always done in good faith.

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            • I’ll agree with you about positive symbols getting poisoned, but that’s a very different issue from the one we started with–or the one I did at any rate–which was toxic symbols that some people, in all innocence, didn’t see as toxic. The golliwog, despite the innocence of some children who loved them, added from the start to the sum total of racism in the world. Different issue.

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  8. I must report that I have never once heard someone in the UK use the word “nigger” but I have definitely encountered other racist vocabulary. Some of those people probably would have identified themselves as racist – justifying it somehow, of course – whereas others would bristle when I pointed out they had said something racist. They would claim to not be racist. “It’s just a word!” or “It’s just a joke!” But it’s not. And it’s not acceptable. And I don’t tolerate it in my earshot or within earshot of my kids. Ditto homophobia. It’s unacceptable language or stereotyping and to claim otherwise is just to continue to feed the poisonous beast of racism and inequality. To set up any sort of trope that furthers a “them and us” dynamic, that makes one group of people the norm and turns others into, well, “other” is to deny equivalency and perpetuate injustice and inequality, to fuel hatred and bigotry. It’s not acceptable and anyone in this century claiming otherwise is absolutely a racist because there can not possibly be any claim made for ignorance. It’s the golliwog defence to say “But in my day they were just cute dolls” or “But in my day they were just adverts for jam”. It’s not your day, it never should have been your day, accept progress and improve your world view.

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        • What do you mean by “it never should have been your day” ? Even as riled up as you get about a thing, doesn’t mean that that time in history is any worse/better or less/more important.

          We are where we are because of the things we’ve been through. We wouldn’t be who we are today if not for having gone through what we went through yesterday. (as individuals and the world, as a whole)

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          • I hope Laura will come back to respond. As for me, I’d agree that we are where we are because of what we’ve been through, but some of our history, in both countries, has been deeply damaging. We can’t change that, and I’m not calling on anyone to feel guilty about it–guilt never did anyone any good–but we can acknowledge it as we move ahead.

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          • What I meant by that was that just because something was that way and was considered acceptable does not mean it was ever right. Ignorance is not a defense. I happen to agree with you that history – personal, national, global – is what shapes us into who we are today and where we are today as a society. That is one of the reasons why I disagree with glossing over unsavory parts of history. We have to embrace and accept that these things were in order to move on to what should be. I can, for example, accept that slavery was the method of labour that helped countries develop their economies but that does not mean that I have to say that slavery was ever right, that it could ever have been justified by its context. To close, my opinion is also my opinion and I am as entitled to hold it and to express it as any other person.

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            • Absolutely agree. Thanks for responding. :)

              And as a further cautionary action, and to hopefully set any defensive tendencies at ease, I’m saying this next part in response to other folks, not specifically towards you, Laura. :)

              I find it somewhat silly when folks use the “I am shocked/flabbergasted/in a state of disbelief that we are still dealing with X in this day in age.” .. where X equals some popular mindset that isn’t popular anymore.

              Everyone has valid thoughts and feelings (even those we find to be “hateful”) and while it is important to know what people think/feel, it is almost more important to understand WHY they think/feel that way and WHERE they developed those thoughts/feelings. (It’s important that we learn these things about ourselves, too!!)

              But to return to the “how we are today is based on who we were before” topic, I think some of the largest growth that I have done in becoming more mature… have been the points in my life when I realized how much of an ***hole I have been in certain areas of my life. To be clear, I’m actually a very kind-hearted, benevolent person, easy-going and outgoing, and easy to get along with because I generally think more highly of other people and give others more credit than myself….. but all of us, absolutely including myself, have the capacity to be arseholes and operate selfishly. The more we realize this about ourselves, the more we can improve (because we see our imperfection and can begin to refine those areas of ourselves)… AND… the more we realize how mean/selfish we can be(and are, covertly or overtly) the less SHOCKED we will be when we hear about other people’s mean-spiritedness or archaic “old fashioned” viewpoints. We aren’t better or worse people than our ancestors. We are just working under different rules over time in this game of life.

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              • Haha, all good. Agreeing with parts and disagreeing with other parts. That’s what it’s all about, anyways, right? If we all agreed with everything, nothing would change. If we all disagreed with everything, we’d kill each other. Thanks for the responses!

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              • I agree with you about analysis and change having to start with ourselves and with the people we have an immediate influence over. I would also add that we all have to deal with the baggage that has been handed to us and decide what baggage to hand on to the next generation. We are all flawed. I’m pretty sure every one of us has been at least an arsehole, as you say. That also feeds into our own perspective of things too though which is why I think it’s acceptable for someone to be shocked or dumbstruck by the way things are. The shock can be borne of overwhelming disappointment rather than ignorance or naïveté too. I know that I, for instance, am undergoing an adjustment as an immigrant just because I’ve moved from one cultural context to another. I think, therefore, to be perplexed is valid because it’s a personal perspective just as each individual has their perspective, whether it’s one we agree with or not. Furthermore, we are all capable of having an experience or epiphany that leads us to adjust our perspective and sometimes the catalyst for that is shock or being dumbstruck at the reality of a situation. I hope that makes some semblance of sense. My brain is scrambled from overseeing four sets of homework. It’s been a really interesting discussion. Thanks.

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              • As an immigrant in the opposite direction, I’ve had a similar experience. The racism in our two countries is different, an at times I’ve been left with my jaw hanging open and too slow to respond because I wasn’t able to take in what I’d heard quickly enough.

                Liked by 1 person

  9. I think the only way these “traditions” stop is when people do argue, or at least make it known that the word(s) and practices is/are unacceptable. When our daughter was very young, we found ourselves pointing put to people words they could not say in our house. We didn’t want words that were somehow acceptable int he 50s and 60s being passed onto another generation. My daughter remembers those moments, but she remembers that the words are not to be used and the fact that we stood up for that point. It’s a very slow process but I believe that we have the power to end racism along with all the other -isms if we just don’t remain silent all the time. We don’t have to be on a soapbox, but we have to speak up at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. We are all the same, we all evolved the same way, but we continue to deny our “one-ness” and look for ways to express our superiority over “the other.”. It’s ludicrous. My daughter had a DNA analysis and found that we have both native American and sub-Sahara African in our genetic history. I grew up in an area where 47 % of the population was African American. The word nigger was never used. When young white boys in the 2000’s began calling each other “my nigga” as a term of friendship and affection, I was appalled. They needed to learn the painful history of that word, a lesson I was proud to quickly provide. A very thought-provoking post, Ellen. Thanks

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Of course, The Boffin and I talk about this one a lot too.

    Here is another gray issue that you would find fascinating, even though you are allergic to sports. Tottenham Hotspur football club. It’s legion of fans go by the Yid Army or the Yiddos. Why? Jewish immigrants were a huge part of their fanbase starting in the 1890s and 1900s because of its location in East London. The slur eventually became a word of pride, especially against Oswald Mosely and his lot in the 1930s, and the fans, Jews and non-Jews, did fight against his insanity as the Yid Army. Many English Jews have no issue with the term including the former team chairman, Alan Sugar, and current one, Daniel Levy because of its history and its connection. The team still has a sizable Jewish fanbase. However, there are other Jews who find the use of the word unacceptable. A slur is a slur is a slur, and with so much racism and discrimination in football, why invite more of it?

    I know how I feel about it. I am interested in your take.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My immediate reaction? Oy vey. Which isn’t very helpful. It makes me wince. And then I hear (or re-hear, since this was in the news not all that long ago) the history and think, Well, maybe. It is a history to be proud of. But all told, there have got to be other ways to honor it that don’t help convince a new generation that the word’s okay.

      What’s your reaction?

      And just to confuse the question a bit more, a generation of gay etc. people younger than me reclaimed the word queer and talk about queer studies as a subject or use the abbreviation LGBTQ. I’ll admit, queer‘s neater than gay etc., and it doesn’t make me wince, but I don’t use it either.

      Have you noticed how much my judgments on these issues rely on my physical responses? They do seem to come first, then my mind trots along behind, explaining it to me.


      • Oh, yeah. Wince central. Especially since I grew up in a Catholic family that had no issue using the word freely and never positively. It’s amazing how things turn around when the “others” become real people who marry into the family and create the next generation.

        Regarding words, context is key. David Baddiel, the Jewish comedian, wrote numerous pieces about the problems he has with “Yid Army”. And he certainly is right to be upset with a slur against his own people, but there is a flip slide. He is a Chelsea fan. Chelsea (West Ham too) has a small subgroup of one of the worst anti-Semitic fans in the nation. They are the ones who are making gas chamber noises and chanting “Adolf Hitler is coming for you” at the matches. Baddiel is saying nothing against them. He is basically telling the Spurs to suppress their own identity with their Jewish fanbase, and the problems he would have with his fellow Chelsea fans would go away. He is gutless, as far as I am concerned.

        And that was what the Government was doing. For a time, they were arresting Spurs fans for chanting “Yid Army”. (The charges were dropped.) What about the fans who are actually committing the real hate speech?

        In other words, I think football has bigger issues than fussing over the word, “Yid”.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I have never understood racism in the UK, anyone claiming to be 100% British or English/Scottish/Welsh are lying. We have such a mixture of European blood going through all our veins before 1066 and then not to mention all the other cultures that have been melded together. I mean the English Patron ST George was born in either Cappadocia or Syria Palaestina and in most likelyhood never visited England. Malta has a better claim to him then we do.

    As for the N word, I have not heard it for years and certainly would not tolerate it, my son is from a proud mixed heritage of many different cultures and to have a hint of racisim near him is unaccetable

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The British are, and always have been, racist and classist (much the same thing). There were, of course, times when, for example in British India, in the 18th century and early 19th century, many white traders married, yes, married, Indian girls and had legitimate families of Anglo-Indians. Victorian snobbery put a sharp stop to that as did a large number of memsahibs arriving in India from Britain seeking a rich marriage.

    But classism in India was well-entrenched by the time Britain arrived and melded neatly into the British view of who was superior to whom. In the 19th century, of course, with so many deprived British soldiers arriving, the only people they could feel superior to were Indians. Whiter skinned Indians felt and still feel superior to darker skinned Indians and this is also prevalent throughout Asia and South East Asia. Filipina ladies of the middle class and higher, for example, taking great pains to stay out of the sun. The same in Japan.

    Back to Britain, however, racism extended traditionally to anyone not of your own local birth place. Witness Geordies, like myself, and people from Sunderland (Mackems)! Racism is essentially tribal and possibly an instinctive defensive mechanism hard-wired into all of us. Be suspicious of anyone not of our tribe!

    History also dealt a blow to black people when the ancient Egyptians, followed by the Romans, Arabs and then by everybody else, found wealth and convenience in enslaving easily caught black people who were militarily unable to defend themselves.

    Human nature, sadly, despises inferiority in those unable to empathise. Thus, racism was born and will remain with us as long as greed and inequality, ignorance and intolerance, and just downright selfishness persist in our species.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Much of this history is familiar, but when we moved to the U.K. I was surprised by the strength of local rivalries. I’ve seen similar things in the U.S., but in paler hues. Minnesotans make fun of people from the Dakotas when they have nothing better to do, and without much passion–or at least that’s my sense of it. Here the rivalries seem to be more serious. A lifelong village resident told us once that when she was a kid, the boys from our village and the neighboring one used to throw rocks at each other. Since it’s a long walk between the two, I’m not sure exactly what brought them together to do that. They’d have gone to different primary schools. Maybe they had to wait for secondary school before they could get into a satisfactory fight.


    • A couple of things–and I’m a white American so I hesitate to enter into this discussion, but I feel compelled to point out that racism and classism are not the same thing. And I’m not sure what you mean by this statement: “Human nature, sadly, despises inferiority in those unable to empathise.” There are other issues with your comment–enslavement has not been exclusive to “easily caught” black people. The Romans enslaved (easily caught?) Britons, for example.

      Because I’m a fan of American musical theater, I’m tempted to post a link to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” but instead I’ll suggest that anyone who believes humans are “hard-wired” to be racists should watch small children play together.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Good points, and John will, I hope, respond for himself. Where my mind went, though, on the “easily caught” comment was that in the absence of a protective government a single person or small group of people are easy targets for the well-armed and predatory, geography be damned.

        As for classism and racism, I agree that they’re different, but the English class system did build up a strong cultural habit of one group of people looking down on another. Introduce skin color into that and the transfer must have been easy.

        I don’t think we’re hard-wired to be racist, and I know what you’re saying about children, but as a species we do seem to fall back all too easily into wanting to protect our territory, our family, our group, and to hell with everyone else. I don’t know that we can unscramble what parts of that are taught–many, I’m sure–and what parts aren’t. Maybe, sometime in the future, a more peaceful world can prove it’s not built in.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry, I could have worded my final paragraph’s first sentence better, perhaps as follows:

      Those who, sadly, are unwilling or unable to empathise with people they regard as different and/or inferior to themselves, tend to despise such people.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. A great post that is generating a lot of conversation! I wonder if a lot of the British ingrained racism is from the class system. Even within white society there was and from what I hear still is a hierarchy.

    Your comments about the golliwogs made me think.

    “I’ve heard the same argument made about golliwogs—Little Black Sambo-like dolls that make my flesh crawl. I never saw one until I came to Britain, but they have a history here and I’ve met any number of whites who tell they had golliwogs when they were kids and they loved their golliwogs; to them, the dolls aren’t racist. Never mind that they’re caricatures right out of the 1920s-style School of Shameless Racism.”

    I am not sure if I had one but did grow up in the age of Enid Blyton, Noddy, Big Ears and Golly. I had the book Little Black Sambo read to me as a child. Nowadays there is a lot of talk of Noddy and Big Ears being in a homosexual relationship and the racist facet to Golly.

    I look at them now as part of history. They were what they were back in the day, a child’s toy, a child’s book but the thank goodness we have made progress and they are now no longer the accepted norm. Thank goodness people are willing to say they are derogatory and demeaning and don’t have a place in the modern classroom. I would say, let people remember a childhood toy with fondness BUT I would like to think that now people would realise these dolls originated from the colonial era of class system that put people down and would chose not to make or purchase them although I suspect they are still out there.

    There is the blatant nasty in your face rascism which at least decent people can try and stand up too but it is that ingrained rascism that becomes part of a culture that is so hard to combat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The link you make between racism and the ingrained class system would be well worth exploring. Interesting addition to the conversation.

      You also make me realize that I left a connecting thought out of my post when I wrote about golliwogs. It’s not people’s fond memories I was taking issue with, it’s when they assume that their memories justify public use of the little horrors. A charity shop in a nearby town set up a window display recently, using golliwogs to celebrate the local jazz festival. A flap ensued, online and in person, with some people asking for them to be taken down and others saying, “What’s you’re problem? They’re fine.” The store did, fairly quickly, change the display, but the flap had quite a bitter edge. I should add a short post explaining that. Many thanks.


      • oooh yes that is very uncomfortable. I also remember from way back a group called the Black and white minstrals . Absolutely cringe worthy in this day and age.
        your post is really thought provoking. The other thing that came to mind was Barbie dolls. as a kid I had one and loved making clothes for it. I never saw her as ridiculous big breasted, narrow waisted totally out of proportioned female figure. Again now days I don’t particularly see her as a suitable toy that I would want to buy for friends kids but I believe she may have been Mattel’s biggest seller?

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Ok, so I’ve been thinking about this post, and I’m not sure what the takeaway is. I think I understand you as you being shocked by what I’ll call the “casual racism” you’ve seen in the UK where people make insensitive comments without being aware that the comments are racist–is that correct? I got the feeling that you felt a little bit like you were thrown back in time as you encountered people using the N-word and golliwogs–these are things you had not seen in the US, or had not seen for many years.

    I know you don’t like math but here’s something to consider: the UK is 87% white according to 2011 data. The last time the US was 87% white? 1970 (according to the Census).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting point about demographics. I’m sure that has an impact.

      As for takeaway, I’m not sure I want to narrow this down to something neatly packaged. I wrote about it in part because this is a form of racism I’m not used to and it’s taken me a while to find a way I can respond to it. Beyond that, I’m happy to have people talking and commenting about the issue and contributing what they know.


  16. I was brought up to respect everyone, however, racism and sexism was rampant in my extended family. I’m not one who judges a book by the cover, we all bleed red and that’s why I never felt anything but kinship with my fellow man. There are bad seeds in every culture and racism doesn’t stop with whites. Hell one of my girlfriends got into trouble when I went to meet her dad, she was black and I’m white, and he never spoke to me the entire time I was in his house. Shame really as I truly wanted to get along with the parents who had turned out such a beautiful young girl. I have never used the n word and never will because of its racist overtones.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I am an American who has been living in the UK for 29 years. I agree that I very seldom here the N-word being used. Most racist Brits’ racism is focused towards those of Indian-Pakistani origin. Therefore I hear the P-word (Paki) used a lot. Its still very racist and it’s used seems to have gotten worse after 9/11 and this is wrong. However, I have had to combat many incorrect stereotypes about Americans during these 29 years. One of those is a widely held belief that the vast majority of white Americans are racist. A reason for this is that the media here seems to focus largely on events like the recent police shooting of a black teenager and Travon Martin and the nutcase with the Confederate flag who shot all of those African Americans inside a church. They were all terrible events and don’t paint a glowing picture of Americans but it doesn’t mean that all white people there are racist.
    Another thing I sometimes find frustrating here in the UK is I have people have gotten away with or even praised for saying things about Americans when such utterances against those of other ethnic groups would have been stamped on and the person who said it gotten in loads of trouble for saying something even less derogatory. A recent example is one ignorant British news columnist blames America for the explosion of the aircraft in Las Vegas. There was no evidence of that.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Pingback: Golliwogs: in public and in private memory | Notes from the U.K.

  19. It seems that it will take several generations and a concerted effort to reduce racism in America or anywhere else in the world. It takes a long time to change perceptions and ingrained traditions and cultural viewpoints. I think there is still very much a tribal, self-preservation aspect of racism. As people age their cultural and traditional values become as much of their personal identity as their brown hair or blue eyes. I don’t believe we are born racist, however, as we age those cultural and traditional “values” change our perceptions. Life changes our perceptions and the desire to find our place. People gather with those that think most like them, that is human nature. When there are quick, rapid changes to that they feel threatened and unsure. When a person feels threatened and unsure they lash out and don’t always think logically. I see this happening in areas with a large, rapid influx of refugee’s. People are terrified that their way of life will be wiped out, their culture and values lost. A part of themselves lost. Who will they be then? What will they do then? It is a very complex problem. And it seems the more threatened the more racist people become. It is a shame to see it happening in America when we had thought we had made so much progress. Our race relations are the worst they have been since the 70’s. However, for us to progress as a nation and as people, as human beings we need these times of upheaval. Hopefully to move forward, not backward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting comment. I wonder if race relations in the US are at the worst point since the 70s or if what’s been under the surface all this time is finally becoming known by the whole country, so it looks like a step backward but may actually lead to improvement. Is that hopelessly naive? I’m living a long way away these days, so all I can do is ask the question.

      I don’t know how inevitable the process you describe is. It does, at a minimum, seem to be a strong strand of human possibility–and one that politicians out to create a base for themselves are happy to play to and encourage.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is an unfortunate reality that politicians use race, religion, geographic locations, cultural differences etc. to get people to follow them. They promote the Us vs Them mentality and stoke the fears of the populace that those that are different will take what you have, they will over run you, etc., etc. There are race baiters well entrenched in our politics. Al Sharpton, Farrakahn, etc. And there are white race baiters as well, they are just not as vocal because of the “you’re racist” pointing of fingers.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Stirring up hatred is a cheap and easy way for a politician to get a following–and it keeps them from having to confront the difficult issues, like how to run the country. But I’m not at all convinced that white racists aren’t vocal. Just punch white power (a random choice; you could find a dozen other phrases) into Google and in addition to some serious journalism you get a variety of dedicated racist websites.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I can testify that that’s true. I’ve heard it tossed off with a complete sense that this doesn’t hurt anybody. It still surprises me enough that I don’t respond–by the time I’ve gathered my thoughts, then minutes have gone by. But I will get to the point where I can respond in time. I swear I will.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Great piece. From my experiences living in Britain (I’m afraid I’ve never lived in the States, so my comparison can’t be full) I have seen racial abuse on the streets from time to time. But what really worries me is the kind of deeply entrenched racism that lies just behind the veneer of “tradition” and some people think it’s acceptable. I remember when I first moved to the North East I saw a shop window display full of Golliwogs and I was completely appalled. When I went in to question the shop owner, she just shrugged and said they were “traditional British toys” and I was rounded on by the other people in the shop. Last year I went into a vintage shop in the same area, and I was appalled by how half their stock was Nazi memorabilia or replica items, and I was again told that it was “for traditional re-enactment”. Unfortunately my Jewish friend was intimidated in that same shop, and no action was taken by the police. Grim times!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Great piece! The N word is heavily used in America, and not just by white people. Blacks, Mexicans, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, plenty of races use the word.

    There’s a double standard though. These people think they’ve changed the meaning to one of friendship ignoring the N word’s roots. Let a white person say it and it’s time to fight.

    I actually had a guy tell me I was ignorant because I said we need to eradicate use of the word. It’s deeply rooted in our culture
    Very ugly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I’ve known one or two whites who thought they had permission to use it because black people did–and couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. It’s hard to learn much when you already know everything. Reclaiming words strikes me as a dangerous business. See This British-American Life’s comment (in this post somewhere) on a British football team that calls itself the Yid Army. It’s an interesting, uneasy, thought-provoking comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Pingback: Bonus post: link to a response about racism | Notes from the U.K.

  23. How in the world did I miss this wonderful, thought-provoking post? I guess I’ve been a tad distracted lately… :) Just wanted to thank you for actually using The Word. “N-word” and “K-word” (in South Africa, Kaffir is equivalent to Nigger) are just so damn mealy-mouthed. Everyone knows what you’re actually saying – so say it already. Or don’t. But don’t pussyfoot around. It’s a word, an ugly word with a clump of ugly dingleberries, and I think we need to confront it in all its ugliness, because otherwise we’re just painting it beige.

    Saw “N-word” in a headline recently and it made me want to kick the magazine rack clear across the supermarket. If you can’t say it, DON’T SAY IT! Say something else! Say that So-and-so Celebrity is a racist, and quote what they said in all its ugliness, or … I dunno … was that really news anyway?

    And then we have the folk who want to remove racial slurs from “Huckleberry Finn” and “Jock of the Bushveld” … and while we’re about it, let’s clean the anti-Semitic nastiness out of “The Merchant of Venice”. Does that make sense to you? Because all it makes me feel is WTF. (I am using the abbreviation because I wouldn’t dream of saying fuck on your blog.)

    I have absolutely no idea if I’m making any sense here, so I’m going to stop ranting and go off and grumble in my corner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, heavens, I’d never allow anyone to say fuck on my blog. I’m so appreciate your delicacy.

      And with that out of the way, I have mixed feelings about cleaning up racist books–and part of my response comes from the fact that when I was a kid my mother read Huck Finn to me, editing it as she went, so that I was much older before I knew Jim was called anything but Jim. (Whether or not she edited anything else out I don’t know.) Given how young I was, that strikes me as a reasonable way to handle it. Older kids and adults, though, are surely able to discuss the context, the impact, the times, the meaning, and Twain’s use of irony. We need to read books in the context of their times, acknowledging the racism, the sexism, the anti-Semitism, the whatever, and taking what we can from it.

      On the other hand, I’m not eager to see a production of Merchant of Venice. I might, if urged, but I’d need some urging. And I sure as hell wish I could get edited versions of some of the Marx Brothers’ movies–the ones that include 700% irrelevant racist scenes. Unlike Twain, who knew what he was doing in portraying the racism of his day and was I think trying to undercut it (it’s every reader’s right to judge whether he succeeds), the Marx Brothers were falling for it hopelessly and those scenes are skin-crawlingly awful and have a way of wrecking to movies they’re part of.

      So for me it’s not a yes/no question. Yes, we need to confront out history rather than clean it up. But in some cases? Maybe a quick snip with the editing scissors might not be such a bad idea.


  24. I think how your mom handled it was entirely appropriate for a young child. She probably also skipped long chunks of descriptive writing (I haven’t read Huck Finn in a while but I presume there are some of those, that a young child would find slow going … at any rate, that’s what I did when I read “The Hobbit” to my daughter!) But it’s just not right to clean up a classic of historic, social and literary significance – any more than it was right to desecrate artistic masterpieces with fig leaves!

    I do take your point regarding the Marx Brothers movies … although I question whether those are masterpieces of art. Are they? I haven’t seen any in full – just snippets. I wouldn’t want to watch them if they were nasty … I guess I feel as you do about “Merchant” (which is a marvelous play, provided it’s taken within the context of the time, but yeah, the anti-Semitism is horrible – as is the sexism in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Taming of the Shrew”. Maybe the way to tell whether or not something’s a masterpiece worth saving is to leave it alone … If people are still finding treasures in the muck over the years as social values change, then it has the essential beauty and rightness it needs to survive. If not, let it die.

    I had a parallel experience quite recently. I used to be a BIG fan of the TV series “WKRP in Cincinnati”. I thought it was absolutely hilarious – and I was an older teen or young adult when I watched it, already old enough to have strong opinions about social issues like racism. So when I found some of the shows on YouTube I was delighted. Started to play one that I vaguely remembered as very funny … and it was HORRIBLE! The “humor” was all about whether someone was male or female, and sex changes, and limp wrists, and … UGH. Just ugh – to an extent that made me feel dirty and ashamed. So I won’t ever watch it again. That kind of message may have social significance – but I’d just as soon forget that I was ever ignorant enough to find it funny.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which leads me to think that there’s a wide gray zone in all this–room for discussion, preferably, rather than argument. Or in addition to argument. I don’t want to align myself with the censors and Bowdlerizers, but I would like to watch the Marx Brothers unimpeded by the crap. Because–well, I don’t know if they’re masterpieces but at their best they are funny. And very much a part of film history.

      Liked by 1 person

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