Sunday, 25 October 2009

Racism and language

So, Mark Easton at the BBC (warning: the comments are generally worse than the article) complains about the difficulties in talking about race. Now, I admit, that it's a complex subject, and it's one that I know far less about than I should. On the other hand, he seems far too willing to give up on it.

Discussing race in this country is to walk on egg-shells. When even an experienced signed-up multiculturalist like Mr Straw gets caught out, it becomes obvious how difficult it is even to find the language in which to conduct a grown-up debate about it.

I have talked to ordinary voters about the subject, there is often discomfort over terminology. Some fear that using the word "black" might be construed as evidence of racism, so they opt for an even more contentious term - "coloured" - in the belief that this will soften their argument.

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from a Chinese viewer who told me he had been offended by my use of the word "Asian" when what I really meant was people who hailed from the Indian sub-continent. On another occasion I was taken to task for the phrase "non-white" - a shorthand for all ethnic minorities which was deemed insulting.

People generally don't want to offend and the shifting sands of acceptable racial vocabulary mean that many dare not even step into the territory. It is a dangerous domain - one false move and you are branded a bigot.

That really depends what you've just said. There are two types of wrong descriptions of races, ethnicities and nationalities.

  • Those which people are just expected to know are insulting. (Non-bigoted equivalent example: "arsehole")
  • Those which are archaic or inaccurate. In general, the first time you get this wrong, you'll get a polite correction. The bigot brand comes when you refuse the correction and loudly insist on using it anyway. Conversely, if you have a reputation for politely accepting and implementing corrections, you're more likely to get the benefit of the doubt for different mistakes in future

For either individuals or groups there's a responsibility to make an effort to find out when it becomes relevant what they identify themselves as. In other contexts, people have no problem with this at all - I identify, in terms of nationality, as British, English, Northern, and Yorkshire.

  • I don't identify as European, despite this being geographically true, and despite being on balance pro-EU, but I don't mind being described as such.
  • I don't identify as from County Durham, despite having lived there for several years, but I might say I'm "from Durham" if asked where I was from.
  • Someone from Scotland might want to be pedantic about my identification as Northern, based on the fact that there's about as much of Britain north of here as there is south, but if they called me Southern based on that I would not be happy.

Similarly, someone from Scotland wouldn't identify as English (or even necessarily British), and the archaic term "Scotch" would also be insulting because of its history of use.

Identifying people as they wish to be identified (and noting that this might change over time as previously innocuous terms get used as insults) really isn't that difficult a principle to stick to.

As regards his examples:

  • Afro-Caribbean vs African-Caribbean: the woman in the audience said explicitly which one she preferred, including pronunciation. You don't even need to research any of the history behind the two terms at that point.
  • Black vs Coloured: a quick glance at the names of various organisations makes this really obvious.
  • Asian/Chinese/Indian sub-continent: in the UK, "Asian", as a description of people, tends to mean "South Asian". In the US, it tends to mean "East Asian". So, using a term to mean something other than the obvious meaning of "from the continent of Asia" is going to be insulting to the people you didn't refer to: in the same way that saying "American" to mean "from the USA" gives some Canadians offence (and the entire South American continent even more), and using "European" to refer only to the Iberian peninsula would be considered strange. Even without the insult and disappearance of entire countries, it's an imprecise term that a journalist has no business using to mean "Indian sub-continent".
  • non-white: describing people, extremely broadly, as "not in the privileged group" makes the various differences between those people disappear, and problematically sets "white" as a default. There are relatively few cases where this sort of term is needed: in the UK, BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic[ities]) can be used instead as a more positive identifier (like LGBTQIA, variants with fewer letters also appear).

I can't help feeling that Mr Easton using the corrections as a learning experience, and doing some research, might have been more useful than complaining about how difficult it was to talk about race nowadays.