Recently a well known scientist caused a media storm by suggesting that women scientists in laboratories were distractingly sexy and prone to fits of tears. He was rightly lambasted and mocked for having such an old-fashioned attitude.
This incident caused the most interesting recent tea break conversation in the staff room of the college where I work, between myself, two sociology teachers (for whom racism and much else is on the curriculum), a biology teacher and a psychology teacher. We covered sexism, racism, the youth of today – ie our students – and a few other related topics, and the conversation really made me think afterwards, not least about the use of offensive words in literature.
Last year Infinity Plus Books published my surreal, alternate-history fantasy Hairy London, a novel not to be taken at all seriously, but which has a couple of really serious themes – the nature of love, and the treatment afforded by white men of what used to be called the Establishment to non-British people, the “lower” classes and women. As somebody who is appalled by racism and sexism, and who has happily used a full human range of characters in his novels, I wanted to make use of some of the excesses of times gone past in order to allow two of my main characters – both of them men from wealthy English families – to learn from their experiences. To do this, I used the term darkie. I used it to make the point that racism is shameful and inhumane; and for no other reason. I felt my useage was appropriate.
This use of the word was noted in one of the novel’s reviews: … there is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF in the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language…
So, I asked myself: is it ever acceptable to use this term? And if so, what about the N-word?
I recently completed a trilogy set in 1910/11, the first volume of which is called The Girl With Two Souls, whose main character is a fourteen year old of mixed racial descent; technically, a mulatto. This word has its origin somewhere in the sixteenth century and comes from the Spanish mulato. Interestingly, the N-word is not much younger – a few decades perhaps.
You will note I haven’t actually spelled out the N-word here. But I did use it in full in The Girl With Two Souls, to enhance the sensation received by the reader that my main character was being treated with appalling inhumanity. I felt that, because the word was used in an appropriate social context, not to mention an obvious historical context, it was right to use it.
Some people today think the word shouldn’t be used in any context; they say it is always wrong and always inappropriate. I think this is misguided, and often unhelpful. To censor the attitudes of people in the past by not using their dialect is to ignore or conceal their deeds.
I suppose we’re all guilty of unthinking mistakes though. The tea break conversation mentioned above turned to the use of the word ethnic, which I’ve regularly used as an umbrella word – for example to describe my collection of musical instruments – to mean non-British. The sociology teacher pointed out to me that the word was meaningless, since everybody has an ethnicity, a point which had escaped me, even though I’m of Welsh extraction and have received anti-Welsh mockery (from an Indian – oh, the irony). Ethnic… it shows how easily we slip into unhelpful terminology when describing the wider world.
The sociology teacher went on to explain that the acronym BME is used by British police and other organisations to cover black and minority ethnicities, thereby collecting everyone under one label. But it is a meaningless label, and hardly helpful, not least when, for example, non-British refugees (eg from Somalia) are all housed together when they are from groups who in Somalia are at one another’s throats.
As an interesting addendum, none other than President Obama used the N-word during a podcast on 21 June 2015, showing that, in some circumstances, and from some people, there is a place for it.
It turns out we are all human, with individual circumstances of gender, race, culture, background, etc. So I think it would be good if our society reflected that fact.
Stephen Palmer has a new book out called Beautiful Intelligence. Check it out on Amazon