Cornish surfers and their white-on-white racism – is that even possible?

Racist remarks and jokes depend on historic power imbalances

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The Independent Online

It must be a touch bemusing to be told to get back to your own country when you’re already in it. This is what happened to surfer Phil Brown, when riding a wave at Bude in Cornwall which another surfer said was his. It seems weird to me to stake a territorial claim on a transient hill of water shot through with kinetic energy, but apparently there’s an etiquette about these things, and transgressions can lead to outbreaks of surf rage.

The other man paddled up to Brown and told him to, “F*ck off back to England” – to which Brown reasonably replied, “I am English.” The rights and wrongs of the situation are complicated by the fact that the man telling Brown to return whence he came did so with a distinctly Liverpudlian accent. Yet when this apparent discrepancy was pointed out, he responded: “I was born in Cornwall.” To complicate things even further, so was Brown.

In the 2001 census, 7 per cent of respondents identified themselves as “Cornish” rather than English or British, although other surveys suggest that possibly half of locals think of themselves that way. As fellow Celts, many Cornishmen and women feel that if the Welsh and the Scots can have devolution, why not them?

Meanwhile, Phil Brown’s altercation was reported as an incident of racist abuse. But I’m not so sure. Is it possible for one white person to be racist about another? Racism has a couple of strands: firstly, there’s the visceral component that lies in the irrational hatred of another race, which often hinges on skin colour or some other physical trait and for which social psychologists can provide plenty of explanation; then there’s the idea that each race has specific characteristics that each member of that group will exhibit.

Yet I believe strongly – call me a simplistic Lancastrian idiot, if you must – that unless there’s a history of oppression between two peoples, as with the British and the Irish, by and large skin colour has to be involved for an incident or remark to be labelled racist.

If I call the French “frogs” or the Germans “krauts”, am I being racist? I’m being insulting, certainly, because those terms originated in the desire to offend those people. But is that the same as racism? Possibly, technically – but if a Frenchman called me a “rosbif” or a Scotsman called me a “Sassenach” I’d think it quaint. If a black person called me a “white bastard”, I’d think that it was a case of white people reaping what was sown by our ancestors.

But the law has no truck with white-on-white racism. In 2011 a postman, Darren Swain, was convicted of racially aggravated criminal damage when he defaced a poster of tennis player Andy Murray in the sorting office toilets with the words “useless Jock”. And in 2009 a British Airways pilot took his employers to a tribunal claiming he was victimised by colleagues using the “J” word (though he lost his case).

Interestingly, back in 1997 The Independent reported on the new offence of “Scousism”, quoting an academic, Shelagh Coleman, who had gone to Parliament for a meeting about the Hillsborough disaster. When policemen outside heard her accent, one of them said, “Lock up the silver, the scousers are in the house.”

It was a joke, of course, or at least it was presumably intended as such. But the whole point about racist remarks and jokes is that they depend on historic power imbalances: white people can’t joke about black people because they enslaved them.

Most whites should grin and bear it – they don’t, generally (again, the Irish excluded), have centuries of oppression from the yoke of which we must escape. We’re fine. Don’t worry about us. The point about the surfing incident is not that the “victim” was told to get back to England but that the perpetrator was unpleasant, aggressive and intimidating, clearly a nasty piece of work. But racist? No.

Let’s face it, pandas aren’t worth the effort

Despite mankind’s best efforts, pandas seemed doomed to go the way of the carrier pigeon, the great auk and the short-haired bumblebee. The naturalist Chris Packham has risked the wrath of the panda lobby by suggesting that we should let them get on with dying out. “Perhaps it is time to stop wasting money,” he says, pointing out that not a single panda bred in captivity has been successfully released into the wild.

Should we conduct a triage operation  for endangered species and cut the no-hopers loose? I imagine that happens anyway without any centralised planning, simply by dint of decision-making by funding committees.

It seems obscene to think of letting any type of animal die out, but Packham is probably right. When a species won’t help itself, we must ask ourselves how much money and resources we should expend before bowing to the inevitable. It’s only Chinese panda diplomacy that has kept them going this long.