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.
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.