Racist in speech but not action

Via Helen Dale on Twitter, this excellent article on the working class. It’s well worth reading in full, but this bit leaped out at me:

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.)

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18 thoughts on “Racist in speech but not action

  1. I’d recommend Annecy to my daughter as a place to live. Except, y’know, …….

  2. Your post, Mr Tim, was pretty much what I have come to expect from people ‘in the lower orders.’ Generally, they don’t have much time for fancy theory or approved niceties but when push comes to shove (or if you prefer when brown stuff starts flying) they tend to jump to action. This is not romanticising anyone, but practical people do practical things. To my mind a lot of lefties fall into the non-action category: they talk the talk and do it very well but can’t actually do much when urgency is needed.

    I am reminded of someone I knew who sat in a pub and casually overheard two women of the left-leaning side of society who endlessly talked about how they would deal firmly with right-wingers (who they detested) and how they would in the style of Wonder Woman or some other female comic hero, effortlessly smack the right wing male around to make their point about the moral certainty of love, not hate. As this man finished his pint he stood up and walked past these aggressive-but-caring women and said, truthfully: “Bullshit, ladies. You’d run a fucking mile if anyone even vaguely threatened you.”

    The two hens clucked in protest but he thinks the message would have got home.

  3. I thought the most interesting bit quoted was: “I regarded him as a lowlife brute, and he regarded me as rule-following sissy. We were both right.”

    And isn’t that’s exactly the same sort of thing as Ricky’s racism? It’s so interesting because you don’t notice it in the same way.

  4. Love the story you included here. It describes my Dad very well, and even me, honestly. My Dad did quite his share of derogatory remarks toward minorities, including telling me not to marry a Jew or a black woman. However, he would never, ever act against anyone. I was involved in sports a lot, so yes (cliche’ warning), there would be blacks playing. He always held them in great esteem for their talents and would frequently approach them and compliment them, talk to their parents, etc.. One black kid I played baseball with wound up in the NFL. He was a god as far as my dad was concerned.
    So what is he exactly? Is he a racist? I can’t go that far. Did he prefer whites? Yep. Is he a bad person for that? I don’t think so. In fact, I think he was quite normal.

  5. My parents were very non-racist in speech but I suspect that they struggled a little in private when I announced my engagement to my non white fiance.

    And you had better hope that the Trump coup doesn’t unfold whist you are on leave.

  6. The whole race baiting industry is based on the principle that preferring to live nextdoor to someone similar to oneself is precisely and exactly the same as wanting to kill brown people.

  7. I’m on holiday in Annecy again.

    I’m starting to think the guidance counsellors might’ve had a point about doing engineering at uni

  8. Generally, they don’t have much time for fancy theory or approved niceties but when push comes to shove (or if you prefer when brown stuff starts flying) they tend to jump to action. This is not romanticising anyone, but practical people do practical things. To my mind a lot of lefties fall into the non-action category: they talk the talk and do it very well but can’t actually do much when urgency is needed.

    Absolutely.

  9. Banjo?

    Yes, I have an unhealthy obsession with bluegrass. The latest manifestation is me trying to play the banjo. I’ve been playing the guitar and singing – badly – for years.

  10. I’m starting to think the guidance counsellors might’ve had a point about doing engineering at uni

    And stumbling into an oil boom.

  11. And isn’t that’s exactly the same sort of thing as Ricky’s racism? It’s so interesting because you don’t notice it in the same way.

    Exactly.

  12. “In the working-class context”

    I work a working class job but few people I work with would suggest “working class” as an identifier. I’ll grant that they have a different set of shibboleths than those who see themselves as the New Gentry (and less focused on the importance of the shibboleths) but this pseudo anthropological approach of the other rubs me wrong. If they added some introspection to their critique so it seemed less like self flattery then it’d irritate me less.

    https://hbr.org/2016/11/what-so-many-people-dont-get-about-the-u-s-working-class

    Condescension, invidious stereotypes and a lot of explanations from books but since the working class are strange and mysterious creatures who are rarely seen in the wild she couldn’t ask any of them if her assertions were correct.

  13. Racism is complicated and takes many forms. I’m an older working class scouser and would I guess be judged by anybody who heard me talk about various topics as a dyed in the wool racist. The Chinese/Viet wife and kids however tend to complicate things….I’m happy to be considered racist and also to be found rather a failure as one given my family circle.

  14. “Racism is complicated and takes many forms.”

    So does anti-racism.

    Some people are only bothered about the actiions-and-words sort of racism, but regard the words-only type as a matter of free speech. Some are concerned only by racist words if they are potentially frightening or threatening (not everyone can tell the difference between a words-only and an action-and-words racist). Some oppose words that directly give offence, but don’t care about people’s thoughts or words used in private. And some don’t think you should even be allowed to have those thoughts.

    And some use it only as an excuse to gain power over other people, to control their thoughts, words, and actions. They use issues with popular support like anti-racism as the thin end of the wedge to set the precedent. And then when everyone has accepted the principle in a case they agree with, start extending it to control everything else. They don’t actually give a damn about racism – it’s just a lever with which to manipulate people.

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