Miles Kington: Yo, take care not to cause accidental offence

'I would give the same answer I give to everyone who asks me for directions in London - Yo soy extranjero'
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The Independent Online

There is a very curious trial going on in the High Court, in which a man stands accused of committing accidental racism. Accidental racism? What's that? Well, let's find out, by joining the case as the defendant takes the stand...

Counsel: Your name is Leonard Stanley?

Man: No.

Counsel: You are not Leonard Stanley?

Man: No. I used to be called Leonard Stanley, but I was always being confused with a village in Gloucestershire of the same name, so I changed it.

Counsel: To?

Man: Stanley Leonard.

Counsel: I see. Now, Mr Leonard, let us cast our minds back to last July, when you went on holiday to America.

Man: I am casting my mind back.

Counsel: You went to a large nature park in the USA, did you not?

Man: Hold on, I've cast my mind too far back. I've gone straight to my holiday in France in 2004... Yes, I'm with you now. It was Yosemite Park.

Counsel: While you were there, did you buy a T-shirt?

Man: Yes, I did.

Counsel: Can you tell us what it said, in large letters?

Man: Yes. It said "YOSEMITE".

Counsel: Very good, Mr Leonard. Now, I want you to cast your mind forward...

Man: Into the future?

Counsel: No. From July last year to September the same year. I believe you were wearing this T shirt in London when a Mr Rosenberg approached you in the street and accused you of being racially offensive to Jews.

Man: He did.

Counsel: On what grounds?

Man: He claimed that the message on my shirt read "YO SEMITE!"

Counsel: Which it does.

Man: Those are the letters. The spacing makes all the difference.

Counsel: Not to Mr Rosenberg. He felt offended.

Man: I cannot see why.

Counsel: Because it smacks of anti-Semitism.

Man: I cannot see why.

Counsel: It looks as if you are addressing him as a Semite.

Man: That is ridiculous. As I understand it, Jewish people never think of themselves particularly as Semites. The Semitic people are not exclusively Jewish. They include all the people in the Middle East. I might just as well have been approached by a Syrian or Egyptian claiming to be offended by my T-shirt.

Counsel: Have you ever been?

Man: I don't know. I do not understand Arabic. So I would not know if any Middle Eastern person talking his own language took exception to my shirt. I would assume he was asking directions, and would give him the same answer I give to everyone who asks me the way in London.

Counsel: Which is what?

Man: "Yo soy extranjero."

Counsel: Which is what?

Man: It is the Spanish for "I am a foreigner".

Counsel: And that generally works?

Man: Yes. Except when the stranger is Spanish. That can be embarrassing. But in any case, I never use the expression "Yo!" when talking to people.

Counsel: But you did just now, when you said: "Yo soy extranjero."

Man: Ah, but that is because "Yo" is the Spanish word for "I".

Counsel: So what would be the reaction of people in Spain if you wore this T-shirt? Would they think "YOSEMITE" meant you were proclaiming: "I, a Semite!"

Man: No.

Counsel: Why not?

Man: Because "Semite" is not the Spanish for "Semite". That is "Semita". In any case, even if someone misread my shirt's message as "Yo! Semite!", why would it be offensive? I am told that "Yo" is a friendly greeting.

Counsel: I believe so.

Man: Though difficult to use to a famous cellist.

Counsel: I don't quite follow...

Man: Well, if you met Yo Yo Ma, and said "Yo Yo Yo!", it might sound a bit odd...

Judge: If I might intervene here, Mr Bannister, I feel we are drifting from the point a bit.

Counsel: Yes, m'lud. This is probably because neither of us wants to say anything that might sound remotely anti-Semitic, so it is safer to drift from the point...

The case continues...