by Daisy Cutter
Pinning down exactly what constitutes racism is sometimes a lot more difficult than initially meets the eye. There are laws in place of course that legally define what is acceptable and what is not; a list of equality acts, discrimination acts and race relations acts that shape our societies morality, speech and actions. Sadly however all-too-often prejudice (or, if you are of an optimistic bent, ignorance) occurs beyond the reaches of the laws that would properly determine whether the comment casually aired in your local pub or the action undertaken before you in your everyday life can absolutely be deemed as being ‘racist’.
That white man you just saw opening the door for a lady but closing it as a black man approached – was that done through malicious bigotry? Or was the man late for an appointment or perhaps distracted and wasn’t aware the other gentleman was close behind?
Here we must use interpretation and often, if you’re like me, rely on blind hope that it was the latter.
Words are usually far easier to gauge as regards to their intent. The bloke standing at the bar for example – unfortunately any bar in any town – who just spouted his Friday night five-pint nonsense about the impending doom of this green and pleasant land due to the horrors of immigration. In itself this is not racism but of course he colours his predictable speech with colour.
As long as he speaks of a race – or an individual or group of individuals deriving from that race – in a derogatory manner then surely he is guilty of racism but the man 99.9% of the time will not be prosecuted for his ill-formed remarks in a court of law. So to fully ascertain his guilt we must broaden the parameters set in place by law and use a new criteria. That criteria is this – were you, or anyone else within earshot of these comments, offended by them?
Because if that’s the case then the man ceases to be just a sad, small-minded bigot scowling at the News At Ten and has become guilty of committing an act of racism.
Yet it is here in the whirls of interpretation that complications can lie.
Personally I always take mortal offence by the use of a word that will never be published in any circumstances in this newspaper that begins with the letter N. Just hearing it spoken aloud makes me shudder and prompts depression that it even exists.
Yet there are some black men – and it is predominantly men – who use it liberally with the intention of reclaiming it as their own and taking away the ethnic slur connotations that people with white skin foisted upon it. After all the word was originally used in a neutral context; a variation of the Spanish for ‘negro’, a descendant of the Latin for ‘niger’ simply meaning ‘black’.
One of my heroes Richard Pryor used the word – a lot – in the 1970s as also do rap artists in present times.
Despite the context in which the word is used in these instances it is still widely considered in our society to be an offensive term and it is a word that deeply offends me.
So am I – a white man from Wales – justified in calling a South Central L.A rapper a racist when I would have to read a hundred books just to get a thousandth of an understanding of the reasoning that is behind this person choosing to use the term? I would say no. In fact I would say even the mere notion is ridiculous. Furthermore I would probably get a cap in my ass.
Did that last sentence make you bristle with indignation? Did you consider it racist? It was after all a casual stereotyping of a man of afro-American origin being a gun-brandishing gangster. Despite your gut instincts hopefully informing you it was written by a liberal person employing a sweeping generalisation in a post-modern sense to make a point at what stage does content cede to context?
Beyond the reaches of the sword and scales of justice what pertains to being racist can sometimes be a complicated, undeterminable and multifaceted conundrum where all we have as our guideline is our own interpretation. And interpretations by their very nature are unreliable.
This week Rio Ferdinand was charged by the F.A for improper conduct after gleefully responding to a tweet that described his international team-mate Ashley Cole as a ‘choc ice’. The implication being that Cole – in defending John Terry in a court case that saw the Chelsea captain cleared of racially abusing Rio Ferdinand’s brother Anton – was black on the inside but white on the inside.
It is a vile term – to my mind the modern-day equivalent of the ‘Uncle Tom’ charge that Muhammad Ali famously scarred Floyd Patterson with after the boxer refused to call him by his Muslim name – that brings with it all manner of alluded accusations namely that Cole is a sell-out to his heritage and race. This is undoubtedly an extremely hurtful thing to suggest to anyone but it additionally carries with it, according to educator and psychologist John Amaechi, ‘racial connotations’.
Amaechi, a former NBA basketball player, told the BBC this week, “It’s a dangerous term because it allows black boys to believe that there is a way of being black that is somehow distinct from being white”.
Last month however Rio Ferdinand had pre-countered such claims. After receiving an avalanche of criticism on his Twitter account for responding to the ‘choc ice’ message with “I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic! hahahahahahha!!” he then retorted the following day with ‘What I said yesterday is not a racist term. It’s a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake.”
A couple of things need to be established here before we proceed. Having been brought up in a mixed-race household in Peckham (attending the same school as murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence) Ferdinand’s personal experiences of racism far exceeds most of our own understanding of it. Furthermore he has always given staunch and public backing to such schemes as Give Racism the Red Card and has generally been a passionate and articulate spokesman on these issues.
Knowing all this makes his tweet all the more startling but does also conversely give some credence to his claims that there was no intent of racism attached. A misinterpretation of the term yes but crucially no intent.
To what degree though does ignorance – surprising ignorance in this case – excuse the man?
Certainly Amaechi was not alone is being offended by Ferdinand’s comments and, as we’ve already discussed, the taking of offence is often all we have in determining whether something is racist beyond the official rulings of the courtroom.
Yet in a similar manner to a rap artist using the N-word how on earth can I – a white Welshman whose only experience of racism is fielding off the odd sheep joke in English company – have the credentials and knowledge of the subject to level such a serious accusation towards a man who once endured monkey chants representing his country against Yugoslavia?
Do I need such credentials and knowledge or is merely the fact that I took offence when I first saw Ferdinand’s tweet enough?
What is your interpretation of this?
There are no definitive answers to be found in this article. Indeed the whole purpose of writing it was to demonstrate there are no easy answers at all in this particular case and it will be interesting to see how the F.A proceed.
There is however one accusation I can level towards Rio Ferdinand that is as close to fact as it’s possible to get. He is a stupid boy for airing such garbage. A very stupid boy indeed.