What counts as racism?

The recent Royal racism row – I mean of course Meghan Markle’s revelation that Harry was asked by a senior Royal about the likely skin colour of the couple’s forthcoming child – has got me hot under the collar. Not because of any suggestion that the remarks of the senior Royal in question may have been motivated by racial prejudice – how can we possibly know whether that’s the case? we weren’t present when the remarks were made – but rather because of the media’s unwholesome relish in immediately placing such a construction upon those remarks.

In language, context is everything. Exactly the same form of words may have two entirely different meanings depending on the situation or the tone of voice in which they’re expressed. Hence irony. Hence sarcasm. For all we know, the subtext of the senior Royal’s remarks may have been: ‘we hope, for your child’s sake, that he or she won’t be too dark-skinned because otherwise they’re likely to encounter the most shameful and deplorable racism’. Or maybe even: ‘we hope your son or daughter is dark-skinned because we don’t want another ginger minger in the family’.

It’s still borderline acceptable today to make jokes about people with red hair, but for how long? How long before it’s considered taboo to make jokes about, or even simply to criticise, anyone from a minority background, whatever that minority happens to be?

But hang on a minute, isn’t everyone from a minority background of one kind or another? Take me for example: an elderly white heterosexual man. Aren’t we also in a minority? Shouldn’t it therefore be taboo to make jokes about people like me? Surely, in the interests of fairness, there should be no difference between one minority and another.

Typically, the response to this will be: ah, but people of colour are routinely discriminated against, whereas white people aren’t. To which I would reply: actually, the minority to which I belong (white heterosexual male writers – hey, we’re all allowed to self-identify these days) is also discriminated against. Look at the editorial board of any publishers, look at the judging panel of any literary prize, look at the shortlist for those literary prizes, look at any book programme on TV – they’re all dominated by women and people of colour. Occasionally you will spot a white male but usually they’re gay.

No doubt many people who might read this post – fortunately perhaps, very few people will read it and most of those are friends – will have me down as a racist or sexist or homophobe because of the comments above. Which is just another version of the ‘I was offended by your words, therefore you are in the wrong’ argument. In other words, everyone has a right not to be offended. Well, in my world we don’t have that right. Offence can sometimes be a positive and necessary thing. Do you imagine that slave traders weren’t offended by the arguments of the early abolitionists? Do you imagine that vegetarians (another minority I belong to) aren’t offended by adverts for McDonald’s and Burger King? Do you imagine that Christians weren’t offended by evolutionists?

Sadly, that world is vanishing before our eyes. Even as we speak, Orwell’s Thought Police are donning their riot gear in preparation for the battle ahead, batons at the ready.

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