[Please note that words or phrases that may cause offence (offense) will appear throughout this article. If the reader is likely to be offended and might become upset at being offended, then read no further!]
Yesterday The Indy newspaper asked what one called food from a Chinese restaurant, as apparently a populist politician had justified one of his party's prospective candidates use of the word "chinky". Below is a link to the article and the headline, followed by my comment and various folks' response before I sum up at the end.
I was born in 1964. When growing up in north-west Cheshire there were no Indian take-aways (take-outs), no pizza parlours, no Thai restaurants, no McDonalds, KFCs nor Subways; there was however a Chinese restaurant, The Lantern, run by the father of my school-chum, Soo Yeung. In a sea of white faces, she was the only child of any other ethnicity in the school, until the arrival of some Vietnamese refugees. As I grew older my father began to work with and became friends with a black man, with a very posh RP accent. His son would occasionally come round to play with us or would join us for outings. There were no folk of any colour other than white living in our lower middle-class neighbourhood.
Back in the nineties, when one of my siblings was discussing which school to send my nephews to, out of a choice of three - a lack-lustre lower middle-class predominantly white school; a very pushy academic middle-middle-class predominantly white school; or, a mixed-class, mixed-race school - I suggested the one that would allow the children to encounter the most diverse range of potential chums. And I am glad to say, my advice was taken and acted upon.
Nowadays, I live on a middle-class housing estate on National Trust land not far from the parental home. I have Anglican, Agnostic, Atheist, Chinese, Church of South India, Hindu, Humanist, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Sikh neighbours. We get together for occasions like Bonfire Night, Hallowe'en, Christmas Carols, World Cup, the Olympics, BBQ's, Children in Need and so on. Folk share their baking, their garden produce and look out for one another's children.
I honestly cannot say that I do not see the shades of their respective skins - but only in the same way I observe anyone for new hairstyle, clothes, make-up, spectacles and so forth. In my neighbourhood there is only one person with whom I do not really get along, but that is due to personality clash - she is however white.
Am I racist? I often question whether I am. If I find I am judging a whole race - such as Jews after some atrocity committed by the Israeli armed forces - I remind myself that not all Jews are war-mongers, that many folk in Israel demonstrate for peace. I calm myself. I bring to mind the lovely Jewish people I have known and those with whom I am still acquainted. I ponder the warmest of welcomes at various synagogues I have had the privilege to visit. I turn my thoughts to the personal, to the individual and then it is impossible to feel anger, just a flowing of love for friends, for fellow humans. I suspect many folk occasionally re-act in an emotional knee-jerk fashion complaining about a whole race; but then, as they calm down, permit reason to take over. I do not think this is racism. The reader may - and is quite entitled to - think the opposite.
Readers of this blog are aware that I have health issues and impairments, I am disabled. It is obvious I do not have an issue with describing myself as crippled. Yes cripple can be pejorative; yes it can be a term of pity; but for me it is merely descriptive, for I am de facto crippled. I am also queer - gay, a poof or poofter, a shirt-lifter, a fudge-packer,…. These terms and many others have been thrown at me since I was a young lad. I am non-conformist and rarely succumb to peer-pressure: I like to think for myself and will not have my decisions made for me. Straight friends occasionally will use one or other terms in jest. I know from their facial expression, their body-language, the inflection and tone used and by the delivery. Occasionally - very rarely I must admit - I have had these terms launched at me in the street with anger, hate and vitriol. I can tell the difference. As I stated in my initial comment to the newspaper item, "Context is all."
I consider that words are neutral: it is how they are used that makes words good or bad. Even the phrase "I love you" can be filled with malevolence - ask someone who has been domestically abused.
So now then, do I ever get offended myself. I have been rattling my brain to think of an occasion when I have been and I genuinely cannot recall such. No doubt I must have been at some point in my past, but it must have been so slight as to make no lasting impression.
Of course some folk go out of their way to cause offence: this can be seen at its extreme in US shock-jocks, but also in the UK in commentary pieces in some newspapers or even on television.
However, whether someone has the intention to try to cause offence or not, it is within ourselves whether we actually become offended.
The use of the words "penis" and "vagina" are seldom heard on television programmes. They are anatomical words used by medics, biologists and so forth. So what is the issue? Perhaps some folk are discomfited by reference to toileting habits; others to the fact these body parts are involved in sex; for still others they have been told by those who raised them that these words are "dirty" and not to be used in polite society; and so on… The point I am trying to make is that one's own discomfort at the use of any given word can be quite personal, bringing emotional resonance to the fore and causing embarrassment &/or fear, which in turn is transmuted into taking offence. It is a form of deflection from acknowledging something which we do not wish to fully address or grapple with. We fear we may be racist, sexist, whatever, so we don a veneer of outrage to disguise what we truly think and feel or what we might think or feel. This is why many artists/writers try to shock and cause offence, to help us look deeper or in a different way at matters.
Language usage, naturally, does change over time. The term "gay" was included in reading-scheme books when I was at school: it meant happy, cheerful and carefree. Now of course the first thing that comes to mind is "homosexual". In the mid-1990's the GayWay reading scheme books were replaced with the name NewWay to take account of this fundamental change. Though my grandparents' generation still use the former meaning.
[Image description: one of the GayWay front covers]
When I use the term "chinky" it is affectionate: it brings to mind birthday parties and wedding anniversaries celebrated in my home town's solitary Chinese restaurant; it makes me recall all the occasions I have passed the time of day with the person out front whilst awaiting my take-aways to be cooked; I remember gifts presented to me for Chinese New Year given for loyalty to the eatery; and most of all it brings back family and friends no longer with us, who shared a chinky with me, especially my maternal grandmother.
Please don't judge me harshly for not wanting to let go of the term! %)