Thursday, 5 February 2009

Affectionate racism?

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Having flicked on the TV over breakfast this morning, I was subjected to the somewhat absurd spectacle of BBC 1 controller Jay Hunt debating the meaning of the word "golliwog", and whether or not it's racist, with the morning news presenters.

The reason for this, of course, was the row over Carol Thatcher's sacking from The One Show for using the word to describe a black tennis player off-air. Hunt pulled out the dictionary definition, which was similar to this definition I just found online – "A doll fashioned in grotesque caricature of a Black male", so any argument for it not being racist was quickly put to bed (and if you want any further evidence, the fourth Google result for "golliwog" involves the BNP trying to argue that banning golliwog dolls is political correctness gone mad).

So then the debate moved on to whether or not the word was simply used in "jest" (let us remember she was using it to describe a person, not to talk nostalgically about the evolution of the Robertson's jam brand). This reminds me of the debate over Prince Harry's "affectionate" use of the word "Paki" in the army and Prince Charles' "affectionate" use of the nickname "Sooty" for his Asian polo friend (interestingly, in a spot of breaking is-it-racist-or-is-it-not news, a shop on the Queen's Sandringham estate has just removed some golliwog dolls from sale and apologised, saying it "did not intend to offend anyone").

I don't think the Thatcher row, or the two royal examples, demonstrate that the individuals in question are racist per se. What I do think they might demonstrate is the impact privileged backgrounds can have on attitudes to race and racism. Having never been in social situations where use of such terms can be truly damaging, Charles and Harry fail to understand the true implications of "nicknames" like "Paki" and "Sooty", while Carol Thatcher is more likely to think "golliwog" is a jokey reference to an Enid Blighton or jam jar charcter than a "grotesque caricature of a Black male". "Sooty" may seem like an affectionate nickname when you're a Prince playing polo with an enormously wealthy Indian property developer, or "Paki" might seem okay when addressing a member of the Pakistani officer class at Sandhurst, but such words have far more damaging implications when they're used all-too-readily in the multicultural Lancashire town I grew up in. (And we'll save for another time my question of whether, if it is okay for Charles to call his Indian friend "Sooty", the friend is allowed to call Charles "Big Ears"?)

Anyhow, moving on from the debate (if you can call it a debate) over whether such terms are racist, an interesting slant on the story comes from Jo Glanville writing on the Index on Censorship blog. One of the unusual things about Thatcher's sacking is that it comes as a result of remarks she made off-air, in the green room backstage at The One Show. Her fellow presenters, not viewers (who never even heard the comment), were the ones who were offended and complained to BBC bosses. Glanville points out that this raises questions over the lenghths to which the BBC is now willing to go to police offensive comments made by it's presenters, arguing that "it extends the broadcaster’s expectation of its contributors to unacceptable lengths":
"Does this now mean that if someone catches Jonathan Ross making a tasteless comment in the local pub, and reports it, that the BBC will censure him? Or does this only apply when presenters are on BBC premises? If the Beeb wants to ensure that its presenters are gaffe free, it’s not only going to have to police them, but vet them for their political and personal views on sex, race and religion. That’s the implication of their decision to remove Carol Thatcher from The One Show."
It's a fascinating way of looking at this row, especially in light of the fall out from the Ross/Brand controversy. There's no doubt that the word "Golliwog" has enormous racist connotations, but should people be punished on-air for things they do off-air? I think I'll throw that one out to comments.

25 comments:

Andrew Horne said...

I would think that as Carol Thatcher was on her employers premises at the time she made the comment she is bound by the usual terms and conditions of employment which take a dim view of racist or sexist comments.

Paul Sims said...

Yeah, I think that's where you can draw the line as regards the Index argument. If you want to use the word golliwog, that's up to you, but don't expect to keep your job if you use it at work, and don't expect other people to be too fond of you if they hear you (as Thatcher's colleagues on The One Show amply demonstrated by complaining).

Phil said...

Fair enough, but if the G-word is such an offensive, racist term in itself (regardless of context), how come Jay Hunt is allowed to use it ON AIR, on a primetime family TV show? Surely, even if she were only debating someone else's allegedly racist comment, she wouldn't use the N-word in a similar way?

MrHaytch said...

I've often been puzzled by the whole debate, while on the one hand I understand that a large part of changing attitudes is making words like them banned and not acceptable to be used in any circumstances. You stop people using them, stop people seeing them being used, the words then become unacceptable and the social norm is changed. Evidenced by the change in attitude over the past 50 or so years (a change brought about by many things that this is just one of). Another example of this kind of forced change working are seatbelts, I grew up in a world where everyone wears seatbelts in cars as the law was changed not too long after I was born. Now the idea of not wearing a seat belt in a car seems somehow alien to me and everyone i know. Whereas in other countries without the strict policing we had here, this isn't the case (America for one). My point (in this simplistic form) being that you need to go overboard to get the change in place for the next generations.

But on the other hand theres things like the word paki, what context was it used in? Did the pakistani officer himself start using it? Was it the norm to have offensive nicknames for each other there and race was picked on because he wasn't fat/small/ginger/spotty etc? I doubt it but as the above article is alluding to, these were comments made in a semi private setting. I may call my aussie friends convicts or my larger friends fat b****rds in a friendly setting, it doesn't mean that in a different circumstance these insults wouldn't be offensive but in that case they arn't. So are there circumstances when its ok?

My (somewhat convoluted) point being that while race is an insult that is put very high on a pedestal as the ultimate wrong doing at the moment (as it needs to be), at some time in the future it will need to be brought down to the same level with the rest of the insults. People are always going to insult each other on a variety of topics, its the thinking behind this particular insult that is the problem not the insult itself.

Anonymous said...

Can't think where she might have got her intellectually stunted, in-group-bred views of race from. Perhaps some parent with a history of politically incorrect attitudes?

Religion is not tolerant said...

As I understand it, Carol did not say he (the Tennis Player) was a Gilliwog but that he REMINDED her of the Golliwog on the Jam Jar. If indeed he did, then who are Jo Brand or the BBC etc. to argue that she should not be aloud to say this? Just because you are on your employers' premises does not mean you should be policed like this, good grief whatever happened to freedom of speech? This just takes the focus off real racism. We cannot go down the road of banning people every time someone is offended or their feelings hurt. The context IS IMPORTANT not the word.

Joe Hayhurst said...

Maybe if she'd used the abbreviated version 'wog' there wouldn't be so much of the 'political correctness gone mad' nonsense.
Personally I expect the BBC to employ people with higher standards, after all Britain has people of many different backkgrounds and the BBC has to reflect that.
As someone who was called golliwog myself whilst growing up in the 80s, I would have punched Thatcher out if she'd said it in my company.
And by the way, the usual social protocol is to apologise if you have said something offensive and been pulled up on it, her failure to do so means she deserves all she gets.

SilverTiger said...

Oh dear, definitions. I'm tempted to say that the last place you should seek the meaning of a word, rather than its definition (no, they are not the same thing) is in a dictionary.

When I was a child, I had a Golliwog. I asked for it for a long time before I actually got it and I was very fond of it. I never thought of it as a black man, whether caricatured or not. It was just "Golly", my playmate.

Dictionaries, like the Bible, can be made to support any argument. The one thing they do not tell you is the intention behind the use of a word. What would you think if I called you a camel? Not much, probably, but if I were French, my intention would be to insult you. Should the dictionary be brought in to mediate our dispute? I think not.

What matters is the intention behind the use of words and the effect the use of words has on the person they are aimed at, not the words themselves.

I'm all for castigating people who behave in a racist manner, especially where this causes hurt. People like "Big Ears" probably do need to be educated about the meaning of words in the real world and counselled on their often unfortunate attitudes.

But, please, spare me the dictionary and the self-righteous attitude that goes with its use.

Paul Sims said...

Thanks for the comments all. Joe - if we had a comment of the day prize, it'd have to go to you!

Religion is not tolerant said...

Joe, you are forgetting that Carol did not call him a Golliwog; she said he 'reminded' her of the Golliwog and Carol certainly did not invent the Golliwog. How can you call someone a racist if they are reminded of something?? If a guy had a Hitler style moustache and haircut would you all be outraged if I said he reminds me of Hitler if that image came to my mind? If you would be then you are not only trying to control what I say but what images come to my mind, something which even I can't do a lot of the time!

Kevin said...

The Sun had an odd little box-off today, quoting Sunderland striker Djibril Cisse's opinion of the word "gollywog". I think "extremely offensive" were the least of his words.

I thought he was an unusual choice of people to tap for a quote, until it occurred to me that black footballers are forced to endure racist chanting, in public and on television, on a weekly basis.

You could make a pretty strong case that black footballers should be the unimpeachable touchstones when it comes to decided whether a term is racist or not.

Joe Hayhurst said...

Religion is not tolerant: What she said was racist, full stop. After all she was not commenting on a white person was she? What if she said the tennis player reminded her of a monkey, would that be racist?
Maybe it's just a question of how racist the comment was; I would say between 'pretty' and 'very'. Golliwogs became a negative symbol for a reason, you know.

Paul - thanks. I come from a multi-racial Lancashire town too, most people from these parts understand what is acceptable and what is not. It must be different in Carol's world.

Religion is not tolerant said...

Joe, my daughter reminds me of a cheeky monkey, does that make me racist? As I said, it's all about the context, how and why it was said not the word. If it was said in a demeaning or derogatory way then of course it is racist, if it was not, but was said as a fact that she was reminded of the Golliwog, then it is not. She was not calling him a Golliwog. This is a very important difference. Also you have not addressed my comment about Hitler.

Joe Hayhurst said...

Religion is not tolerant: No offence, but if I were to say to you that you remind me of a prick you would smack me one.
However, you are correct, it is all about context. The context is that Thatcher was talking about a black tennis player by referring to a golliwog.

It's perfectly clear to me.

Paul Sims said...

Religion is not tolerant -

What Thatcher actually said hasn't really come out, but according to The Sun, which otherwise has been supportive of her, this is what she said:

"It came as she was discussing the Australian Open and Rafael Nadal’s opponent Fernando Verdasco, describing him as the one who “beat the golliwog” in the previous round. Verdasco had played Tsonga — cousin of Premier League footballer Charles N’Zogbia — in the tournament quarter final."

Now, if this is what she said, then a few points can be made. 1) It wasn't a joke - there's no joke in that.
2)She didn't say he is "like a golliwog", she simply described him as a "golliwog".
3) The fact that she must have assumed the people she was talking to would immediately know which player she meant when she called Tsonga "the golliwog" suggests she views the idea of a black tennis star as unusual and surprising. If she saw it as common for there to be a black player, she would have had to be more specific (and that's leaving aside the connotations of the word itself).

Religion is not tolerant said...

Incidently Joe, it would have been unusual if Carol had indeed said this about a white person since the Golliwog is black and the Tennis Player is black. Then again what if she had said a similar looking but white person reminded her of a white Golliwog, would this be deemed racist?

Religion is not tolerant said...

Paul, thank you for shedding more light on what Carol (allegedly) said: ...one who "beat the golliwog" in the previous round. If she did indeed say this then I do concede that this was a racist remark. From this remark it is obvious that she was calling him a Golliwog and not just saying he remider her of the Golliwog. As a more enlightened society we now accept that to call someone a Golliwog, as opposed to being reminded of one, is a derogatory and demeaning term.

Joe Hayhurst said...

Talk about clutching at straws. There is presumably no such thing as a white golliwog, however if there was and it was a symbol of past imperial and racial injustices, and white people felt extremely strongly about the symbolism, and it had become socially unacceptable or even 'taboo' then yes of course it would be racist.
But it doesn't exist and there is no equivalent in the white experience so you are obviously having trouble comprehending the issue.

Religion is not tolerant said...

Joe Irealise up util Paul clarified Carol's comments that we disagreed but there is no need to resort to trying to belittle me by saying I am having difficulty in comprehending the issue. Surely if your argument is so tight you should be trying to persuade me, like Paul did? I did/do very much understand the issue Joe. I still think if Carol was reminded of a Golliwog when looking at him, like I am sometimes reminded of other things than what I am looking at, then it is not racist, but to call him a Golliwog I completely agree is racist.

Joe Hayhurst said...

Sorry you thought I was belittling you, I apologise (unlike Carol Thatcher).
We now agree that Carol is an arrogant, posh, racist, Tory bigot, let's move on!

Religion is not tolerant said...

No Joe, we do not agree that Carol is an arrogant, posh, racist, Tory bigot, what we agree is that her comments were racist, now let's move on!

Joe Hayhurst said...

Fair enough!

Dannydude said...

I seriously doubt that anyone here who truly believes (there's that word again) Thatcher is a racist has been the victim of true racism, with all the hatred, misery and violence that goes with it...

If you 'do' think Thatcher is a racist for using the Marmalade word, you seriously need to get a life! And Joe, physical violence is not the answer. Deal with your issues before you resort to being a mindless thug (BNP anyone?). You'll end up in prison, and is that really what you want?

And by the way, don't say that any white Tennis players remind you of 'Action Man' because he's... arrrgghhhh.... WHITE! How RACIST!!!!

Anonymous said...

What dictionary defines golliwog as: "A doll fashioned in grotesque caricature of a Black male"? Is it the same one that used to define masturbation as "bodily self-pollution"?

Linda said...

Carol Thatcher comes from a background which probably uses terms which a lot of people would consider racist, a casual johnny foreigner attitude which is not necessarily malicious but is certainly narrow-minded, arrogant and slightly old-fashioned.

The tennis player does occasionally sport hair that looks like a golliwog of the books Carol must have read as a child. What it proves is that CT moves in circles where the casual racist term is acceptable and that on seeing the player she thought of the racist term and made the link to a term most people would not. And it is racist - the term was used to put down one race because of what they look like (occasionally arrogant, sometimes grossly offensive) and it is all the worse because it stems from a time where black people were thought of as less than white people.

For me, the doll itself is interesting and I actually quite like the iconography, but I don't make the link with black people at all. But CT did.

Oh,a nd I think someone had it is for her as she is probably a bit annpying. Apparantly according to Chiles she said that "frog golliwog player"