In the working-class context, in particular, it’s what you physically do, what you make—the observable physical impression—that counts. That is the native language, the one they are fluent in and the one they trust. And that language often conflicts with working-class speech or attitudes.
I worked in a recycling centre for some years. One of my workmates was a kid (we were all kids) called Ricky. I regarded him as a lowlife brute, and he regarded me as rule-following sissy. We were both right.
Every week an elderly Chinese man brought his bottles and cans to us. He couldn’t speak English, which tends to frustrate racists, and Ricky was duly irritated. One morning the man—who had difficulty walking—accidentally put his car into gear while he was half out the door and still tangled in his seatbelt. His legs went sideways and dragged on the ground as the car took off, and he struggled hopelessly to pull them in, or to reach the brakes, or to loosen his seatbelt to escape. The car was only a few feet away from me, but all I managed was an incoherent shout and an uncertain jog as it picked up speed and headed for the main road.
Ricky dashed past me, jumped into the man’s lap, grabbed the steering wheel, and quickly found the brakes. Then he helped the man out of the car, checked that he was uninjured, and knelt with his arm around him as he cried and shook on the ground. When the man was calm enough to stand, Ricky pulled him to his feet, told him to take care, then walked away, muttering, ‘Fucken Asian drivers’. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it got the job done.
My parents were racists in private speech but not in action. Did that make them secret racists who hid their racism from the wider world? Or were they non-racists who played with racist speech? Or a bit of both? Who can possibly say? My worry is that by conflating racist or offensive speech or attitudes with racist or offensive actions or activism we push people like my parents and Ricky (who represent large chunks of every dominant ethnicity or tribe in every country on earth) over to the wrong side of the political fence. By setting unnegotiated limits on attitudes and speech as well as actions, we claim too much territory and thereby risk losing it all.
The “racists in speech but not in action” was exactly the point I made in this post last January:
If it comes to a choice between privately held prejudices in a polite society and different, approved prejudices in a society where abusing people in public is accepted and normal, I know which one I’d prefer.
Go read the whole article.
(Apologies if posting seems light over the next couple of weeks: I’m on holiday in Annecy again.)