I was surprised last week to hear the word ‘nigger’ more than once on Radio 4. It was used in an historical context, and so was understandable, but usually people go to some lengths to use substitute terms like ‘n-word’ to avoid criticism.
Of course I accept that to use it as a direct term of contempt is indeed offensive. But are we being hypocritical? After all words like dago, or paddy or, even stretching it, wog do not raise hackles in the same way.
Yet, leaving aside the actual words, I suspect that most of us have little caricatures in our minds when we think of different categories of people. We might think of the French, or the Italians, or the German, or the Chinese and in our minds have a little uncomplimentary picture of a typical member. You may remember the P.G. Wodehouse quote ‘’It has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.’ Very witty – but not very kind. Add to that Gypsy or Jew – and we are in difficult territory.
In fact I suspect that all of us have a racialist element somewhere hiding inside us. Perhaps it comes through evolution: homo sapiens learnt early that strangers (that is, not people like us) are dangerous. But we may not be aware of it. A study was carried out sending in applications for advertised medical posts. The CVs were identical but in half the cases the name of the applicant was foreign; the other half were given English-sounding names. Surprise, surprise – it was those with English names who for the most part were invited to an interview. I don’t suppose those who selected the interviewees would have been aware of their racialist choices – or, if pointed out, would have produced rationalisations to excuse themselves.
If we add to our innate distrust of strangers our evolved capacity to make lightning decisions in the face of danger (those who delayed got eaten) and we have to acknowledge that racialism is hardwired into our systems.
We may not like to think of ourselves as racialist. Heavens, we are Christians aren’t we – everyone is equal in God’s eyes. Yes, but we are better off recognising our bad tendencies so that we can work at reducing them, than to remain blind to our faults.
So let’s cheer ourselves up with the story of the public official in Washington – who used the word ‘niggardly’ in a speech. What an upset! No explanation would suffice, and the official found himself obliged to resign.