'Racist' is the new black: let’s only call it racism when it really is racist

We shouldn't be offended by talking about race, only when people are actually being offensive.
  • @johnhenrywalsh

In a perverse way, we should be grateful to the Serbian football fans who rained abuse on the black England defender Danny Rose at the under-21s championship match in Krusevac on Tuesday night.

They made monkey noises when he ran on to the pitch and whenever he touched the ball. When he picked it up for a throw-in, they hurled stones at his head. At the final whistle, the defeated Serbian players surrounded Rose, pushed and slapped him, while the Epsilon-minus semi-morons in the stands continued their brainless simian chorus. 

We should, I say, be grateful to them because, for once, they allowed us to see the thing itself: racism, impure and simple. There was no danger of confusing it with sport-fan partisanship or damaged national pride. The Serbian fans targeted the black guy and made monkey chants simply because they don’t like black people. It was oddly bracing to watch and listen to their display of hatred because the world is filled with so many claims and counter-claims of racism, we can no longer, with any confidence, identify it. 

The Serbian Football Association retaliated to British protests by going on the offensive. They said Rose had behaved in an “inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar manner” to fans because he’d kicked a football in the chanters’ direction and gestured at them with his hands under his armpits. See what the Serbian FA did there? They made Rose the culprit, the insulter. Just as John Terry tried to pretend that when he called Anton Ferdinand a black c-word, he was only mouthing what he’d heard Ferdinand saying that he’d said. These are both versions of a not-very-clever defence tactic: I didn’t insult you – you were the one insulting me.

Alleged racism is the issue at work in the case of Frankie Boyle vs the Daily Mirror. The Scottish comedian is suing the newspaper for calling him “racist.”

In support of his case, Boyle’s legal team cited in court a moment in the BBC2 comedy panel-show Mock the Week when the comedian was commenting on Britain’s involvement in foreign wars. Impersonating a stereotypical British civil servant, he lifted an imaginary telephone and said, “Department of N***** Bombing…”.

They insist that anyone could see that his target was old-fashioned British Imperial prejudice and that he was obviously making a joke, not gratuitously trotting out the N-word aloud to offend black people. His lawyer, David Sherborne, told jurors that “context is everything”, adding, “We say the use of the word is clear. The defendants have misunderstood it.” The Daily Mirror does not agree.

It’s a good and socially cleansing impulse that, when we use words, we’re sensitive to our neighbours’ feelings. Thank goodness we’ve evolved since the days when white children in the playground could cheerily address a black kid as, “Oi, suntan…” (although Silvio Berlusconi routinely refers to Barack Obama’s “suntan”; this does not make him a racist, however – just a nincompoop.)

Drawing attention to someone’s colour at all has become offensive.


But our sensitivity has started to go haywire. We no longer know which words are acceptable in referring to non-whites. While writing this piece, I’ve felt a twinge of guilt about writing the word “black”. Last year, the football commentator Alan Hansen got into hot water for using the word “coloured” – which was the word my parents’ generation used as a polite substitute for “black”. Noah Stewart, however, the black opera singer, referred to himself on last Sunday’s Desert Island Discs as a “person of colour”. Mentioning that someone is “Asian” is now socially frowned on, just as the supposedly descriptive terms “Arab” and “Jew” have become freighted with pejorative associations. The phrase “mixed race” was acceptable for a period – but a friend who applied to an adoption agency was ticked off for using it about a child she was hoping to adopt. “I think ‘dual heritage’ is the phrase you’re looking for,” she was told.           

Drawing attention to someone’s colour at all has become offensive. Sometimes this leads to farcical complications. I left a party the other evening and shared a taxi with two women, one of whom was trying to describe to the other the chap she’d been talking to. “He had this, er, blue shirt… and, er – you must have seen him – an earring and, um, his hair was very dark…” She tied herself up in nets of circumlocution rather than be so vulgar as to say “the black guy”. 

We are not fundamentalists. We do not want to be a society that can feel mortally offended by words, nor mortally frightened of giving offence in casual conversation. 

Sometimes, as this week, we can see racism in plain view, and feel a righteous loathing for the ignorant scum who shout the insults and utter the chants.

But let us stop writhing with self-condemnation when talking about people of other races and skin colour, and cease the finger-pointing and name-calling that has so muddied our swim in the multicultural pond.