[This article was published on Friday 14 September in my column on political website www.tmponline.org]
This week Trevor McDonald was cleared of racism after he described the late comedian Bernard Manning as a “fat, white, bastard” on his television show ‘News Knight’. Ofcom said that within the context of usage, such language – although strong – was “clearly intended to parody Manning’s own comedy” and was “justified in the context”.
I am glad that Ofcom came to this ruling. It evidently used its discretion and common sense – unlike most when discussing racism – and an understanding that context plays a defining role in the meaning and significance of words. I’m pleased that Ofcom did not fall into the naive political correctness trap which deems that any mention of skin colour is racist.
In a year when a white contestant was removed from the Big Brother house for calling a fellow (black) housemate a ‘n****r’ (following the racist bullying of Indian actress Shilpa Shetty in the previous series), and the American radio presenter Don Imus committed career suicide when he was overheard calling a group of black female basketball players ‘nappy headed ho’s’, the debate continues to rage – and opinions are strongly divided – when it comes to deciding what constitutes racism.
Over 100 complaints were made by viewers to Ofcom and ITV about Trevor McDonald’s words. The comedian Jim Bowen was said to be ‘appalled’ and Manning’s partner ‘shocked’. I am rather amused that in a clearly satirical piece of television – please note that the actual segment was entitled ‘Racist and Dead’ – about a highly controversial comedian who would have used the very same language himself, some were unable to understand the irony behind what was being said.
However, I am not surprised that complaints were made. I am not surprised because whether we’re talking about Don Imus, Big Brother or Trevor McDonald, it has become virtually impossible to have a sensible, honest debate or discussion about anything to do with race without hysterical public reactions. The issue is further complicated in the public’s minds by an apparent double standard where it is believed that people of colour can use any language they choose, but white people are called racists if they use the very same language. The ‘N word’ debate, for example, is centered around this complexity.
People ask if a white talk show host would have got off so lightly if he had called Trevor McDonald a “fat, black bastard”. It’s an interesting question, but one that misses the point. If it were the case that a white talk show host had made such comments, one would have to find out the context in which it was said, and the intention behind it first before judging it to be racist.
It is dangerously simplistic to couch race issues in a polarized view that says it’s ok if a black person says it but it’s racist if a white person says it. Unfortunately racism is more sophisticated than that, and we must be able to be comfortable with the multi-faceted nature of race and race issues if we are to deal with them in any depth.
Since the McPherson report into the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, in which the British police force were condemned as institutionally racist, the UK has become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, racism. I believe that these days most Brits would be deeply offended by being called racist.
On the other hand, however, the discussion about racism has become progressively more confused to the point where many simply appear to not understand what racism actually is anymore. Any mention of skin colour sparks cries of racism – on both sides of the colour line. Discretion, sound judgement and the understanding of nuances of language have been lost in the fray, and the term itself is becoming increasingly undermined and undervalued.
Race issues are intricate and multifaceted. The PC brigade would have us simplify them, but this cannot be done. And doing so only makes any related discussions more difficult.
Furthermore, I believe that when people are unable to discuss their views on racism openly, their real thoughts and feelings about race are transferred onto other issues such as immigration, asylum and even Islam.
This country needs to be able to discuss race and racism openly and as objectively as possible. This can only be done when we understand that we cannot simplify the debate. There are contradictions, and double standards – but we must be able to discuss these too. Cases must be judged on an individual basis because there is no one-size-fits-all yardstick on these issues.
Ofcom’s well-considered decision to clear Trevor McDonald was an acknowledgement of that. I whole heartedly support their decision and hope that we can all take a leaf from their book.