In the UK, we’re heading into a General Election where immigration, if not straight up racism, will be a bigger factor than it has been for a generation. Most of us, I hope, are worried by the spectre of the Far Right looming over Parliament. In which case, we have to stop the desperation of poor, abandoned parts of the country being whipped up for political gain, and manifesting itself in race hate, xenophobia and a retreat to less tolerant, more hostile times.
This is not easy. The country’s UKIPisation has been a long time coming and its roots are deep and complex. One thing is for sure, though – liberal, metropolitan types that assume everyone shares and understands the importance of their values won’t help the situation, and may well make it worse.
Yesterday the papers and twitterati were falling over themselves taking Benedict Cumberbatch to task for using the word ‘coloured’ on an American talk show. In a time when Nigel Farage is sizing up soft furnishings for his Commons office, this is fiddling while Rome burns.
I know he shouldn’t have said it. You know he shouldn’t have said it. Even Cumberbatch knows he shouldn’t have said it. But given he was making a fundamentally pro racial equality comment, and given the African-American civil rights organisation is called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it is a faux-pas, no more. It was used with good intent, and is sinister only in its hints at a cosseted and privileged upbringing, which if you delve far enough back apparently includes slave owners (another matter entirely).
The word caused offence, and Cumberbatch has apologised, but the media storm about it achieves worse than nothing. It is tittle-tattle that allows well-meaning liberals to pat themselves on the back for knowing better. To the people who really need to be reached, the people who actually harbour violent and disruptive intentions to racial minorities, the incident is irrelevant. To the moderate people, toying with voting UKIP, it is another example of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and hardens their position, not softens it. To far more people than Guardianistas might like, the reaction is less likely to be “oh, Benedict, you silly boy” than “oh, so you can’t say ‘coloured’ now?” The volume of press commentary on Benedict’s Cumbergaffe says more about the chattering classes’ detachment from ordinary folk, than it does about Cumberbatch’s.
Guardian writer Lindy West, for example, condemns Cumberbatch’s use of ‘coloured people’, while, in the same sentence, using the ‘preferred terminology’ of ‘people of colour’. Don’t see the difference? She scoffs at you. “It’s easy,” she says, “If people tell you that a word harms them, just don’t use that word!” What if no-one has ever told you that it harms them? What if you’ve never got close enough to a ‘person of colour’ to have a conversation with them (not necessarily your fault)? What if some people tell you it does and some people tell you it doesn’t? What if a word that used to be politically-correct (as ‘coloured’ undoubtedly was in 70s and 80s Britain) becomes unacceptable? Does someone then knock on your door to tell you the new officially sanctioned term?
Yes, words matter, but intent and context matter more. When people are attacking mosques or abusing Jews in the street, words are the least of it. They come far worse than ‘coloured’ and have a lot more malice behind them than a nice posh boy getting it wrong on the telly. West’s approach reduces racism to linguistic pedantry, which would be fine, if only we weren’t actually faced with arbitrary and systematic hatred of entire groups of people, like Muslims and Eastern Europeans. Debating nuances of language is the luxury of the safe and secure. When someone is telling you to get the **** out of their country, it really doesn’t matter what name they choose to call you.
Yet for some commentators, playing ‘gotcha!’ when someone trips up, is easier than getting their hands dirty dealing with racism’s root causes – poverty, ghettoisation, disillusionment, inequality, globalisation, the speed of societal and technological change. This has a serious side-effect. Shouting ‘racist!’ at anyone who in the heat of the moment uses indelicate language, regardless of their underlying intent, is counter-productive. It stops moderate people from speaking out for fear of saying the wrong thing. It pushes people whose main crime is not understanding towards those with more extreme views.
Not everyone has the pleasure and privilege (and it is a privilege) of growing up in a cosmopolitan, multi-racial environment, where you can take your Indian best friend to your cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, head to your Egyptian next-door neighbours’ pop-up street food bar to celebrate and learn the sensitivities of each culture on the way. Elsewhere, people have the messy business of real life to deal with – fears about jobs, safety and health. If the only encounter you have with a Somalian is walking home afraid through a back alley from a night shift on an industrial estate, the subtle difference between ‘coloured people’ and ‘people of colour’ may be lost on you.
To stop swathes of the country sleep-walking into the arms of UKIP out of fear and poverty, those who have the privilege of experience need to show people that the ‘other’ is not really ‘other’, that Romanians, Poles, Sudanese, Afghans, Bangladeshis are just like White Brits. There’s good ‘uns, there’s bad ‘uns, but mainly they just want to live a peaceful life with loved ones. They are not responsible for joblessness and hardship any more than poor White Brits are.
You don’t start that process of reducing mutual fear and suspicion between racial groups by producing a list of banned words. Like it or not, an old, white, working-class bloke from Barnsley might not have the grasp of world geography that enables him to distinguish between Bangladeshis and Punjabis. To him they are all, and forgive me but I have to use the term here, ‘Pakis’. This is wrong, hideously wrong, in so many ways. But you don’t start addressing the issue by lecturing him on his language, you start by showing him the Pakistani lad at the end of the street isn’t going to knife him for his pension and is, in fact, a Yorkshire cricket fan just like him.
When an elderly white lady at the supermarket tells the girl on the checkout, “Oooh, I was talking to that coloured family the other day, and, you know, they’re ever so lovely”, her intent is good. We need to focus on that now, and correct the language later. The battle against racism in the UK will be won by a million conversations like hers, not by smug Guardian column writers tut-tutting at her use of outdated language.