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Stereotypes in action

Posted by R. Berg on January 15, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Swirl baby - a third way posted by TheFallen on January 15, 2003

: : : : : : : : SWIRL BABY - Multiracial. "She's bummed because she isn't a 'swirl baby'- the term at school for being half white and half something else. It is the 'in' thing here - not boring all white!" From an online discussion group, accessed Jan. 13, 2003.

: : : : : : : : I'm guessing it refers to the ice cream swirl of vanilla and chocolate.

: : : : : : : This has all the hallmarks of a phrase that will, in the near future, be roundly condemned by the great and the good and certainly mark any user as a racist of the worst kind. I speak from experience since I find it unwise to openly discuss the activities of my childhood as a wartime evacuee when I roamed the hills and byways with 'nigger', my beautiful black curly haired spaniel, without substituting with the name Rex - they might have waited until I was dead before outlawing that word.

: : : : : : You'd have to be roughly 175 years old to have that make sense.

: : : : : Plainly you didn't major in maths or history given that I was sent to the country in 1941, the war in question was WWII, the country being bomber was the UK, the nice people doing the bombing were the Germans and the city I was evacuated from was London. I can perhaps forgive you if you are an American since I have, over a lifetime, discovered that events happening outside the continental US normally remain a mystery to approximately 80% of Americans: never did figure out why.

: : : : If I might interrupt the xenophobic huffing and puffing for a moment, I am quite aware of the chronology of wars in our century. What you seem to be unaware of (and why you missed my point) is that "that word" did not become offensive in your lifetime. It has been offensive and unacceptable in polite company for far more than a century. Ergo (do I really need to spell this out? Probably...) you are either 150+ years old, or blissfully insensitive. (Perhaps both?)

: : :
: : : I think there is a third way...

: : : "Nigger" did indeed become offensive earlier than the second world war, but it was more commonly appreciated in the United States where race has always been a central issue.

: : : It's possible that many people in the UK were not atuned to this. For one thing, there were very few black people in the UK until the 50's. Prior to that racism in the UK mainly expressed itself in the colonies. There is one famous story of how American comanders in WW II Manchester told local publicans to impose the colour bar because they were concerned about Black GI's dating local girls. The publicans imposed a colour bar, but of white American soldiers.

: : : Today the idea that the word "nigger" is offensive is widely understood in the UK and is not used much except by elderly people who are very out-of-touch or racists. Sadly people have come up with coded ways of expressing racist ideas - not the work "nigger" but the meaning is loud and clear. In my experience this is true on both sides of the pond.

: : There's certainly a difference in the sensitivities to racist imagery and language in the USA and UK. When I visited the US in 1970 I was most surprised to be amongst a cinema audience in Univ. of Wisconsin who booed the 'black sambo' dance sequence in the Marx Brothers Duck Soup. That just wouldn't have happened in England in 1970. I've seen the film again recently in the UK too and it didn't happen then either - although it is a bizarre filmic experience. Not long before that I, like most English kids, collected the gollywog stickers from pots of Robertson's jam. When we got enough we cashed them in for a gollywog badge - proudly worn in the playground. No one at the time thought of this as racist. (see http://www.thisiscollecting.com/features/gollys.shtml). Even the leftwing London council didn't campaign against the use of the image until the mid 1980s and the 'wog' wasn't dropped by Robertson's until as recently as 2001.

: : We also had the 'Black and White Minstel Show' on TV during the 60s and 70s. The show was a troupe of white artists, blacked-up in the full Al Jolson, doing the Swanee River songbook. (see http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/B/htmlB/blackandwhim/blackandwhim.htm). I don't expect many of the peak 18 million (of a population of 50 million) had any thoughts of race when they watched it. Even now I would guess most UK residents would think of it as ludicrous rather than offensive.

: : I don't believe the UK has any more or less racist a population than the US. There are racists here but few people, black or white, take them all that seriously.

: I have to say that I heartily agree with Gary's excellently referenced post above. Looking back only 30 years from today's far more politically correct (or enlightened - choose your own term) standpoint, the examples that Gary quotes would seem, at least superficially, blatantly and even bizarrely racist. The issue is that they simply weren't at the time - there was no question of intent, nor would it have occurred to anybody that black people were being demeaned by a bad TV show or a jam manufacturer's logo.

: I suspect that Ms. Camel has it right also, when she states that the concept of offensive and racial language simply wasn't applicable in the UK until much later for both social and historical reasons - over here, we didn't have anything like such a long-lasting and wide slave trade, and we never had a legal tradition of segregation. We have never had or needed our version of Rosa Parks, for example - and it's only very recently that I've learned who she even was. If anything, Britain's imperialistic days (for all their dubious morality), together with the subsequent establishment of the Commonwealth, afforded some chance of a more natural integration of those from different cultures and backgrounds into the general population. On the above basis, it's altogether unsurprising that the issue of racist language and/or imagery has been far more volatile and relevant in the US for much much longer.

This isn't merely a matter of "political correctness." Yesterday CNN reported on the findings of a field study about employment opportunities. Two academic researchers in the U.S. sent out thousands of resumes. Those with "white" names like Emily and Brett were more likely to get responses than those with "black" names like Aisha and Tyrone.