‘Racists are the real villains here'

This letter sent to the Star was written by J Robin Hughes, Towngate Road, Worrall, S35

By Diana Stannard
Thursday, 02 May, 2019, 10:48
Dam Busters anniversary - the bombs as they made their devastating impact.

I share some of Mr Olsen’s frustration that words that have both offensive and innocent uses become effectively unusable.

He makes some interesting points about what we must call the “N-word”, but then rather spoils his argument by pointing the finger at the mythical “political correctness brigade” and implying that this is just modern foolishness.

The word lost its innocence a long time ago. The first recorded derogatory use is in 1775. By 1948, (seven years before the release of The Dam Busters), it was considered so insulting that it was removed from performances of Gilbert & Sullivan’s opera, The Mikado, after protests from American audiences. The change was also made throughout what was then the British Empire. It is so much a term of abuse that it has even been used against other ethnic groups. Fowler’s Modern English Usage of 1926 condemns this usage. A more recent example is its use against Irish Catholics in the 1970s during the troubles in Northern Ireland, (prefixed by the word “white”). Words sometimes become taboo, and unfortunately this tends to increase their potency. Euphemisms replace them, and these in turn can become sensitive: consider the response to Amber Rudd using the word “coloured”.

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Many, myself included, were surprised at the offence taken, given that only a few years ago it was described as “antiquated but not offensive” by the director of the American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Suppressing a word will not end racism. Racists just find another one, and they are the real villains here.

I am a white English male fortunate enough to live where I do not have to encounter people who are bigoted against me. It is not for me to sit in judgement on the experience of people who do encounter bigotry. Some words are widely used as ethnic slurs and the people who are their targets often feel outraged and threatened by their use.

It is simply good manners not to insist on using such words. Even so, Mr Olsen makes a fair point that bowdlerising history serves no-one’s interests.