A Diverse Dilemma? – A Guest Post By Stephen Palmer
A few years ago, the well known scientist Tim Hunt caused a media storm by suggesting that women scientists in laboratories were distractingly sexy and prone to fits of tears. He was rightly lambasted and mocked for having such an old-fashioned attitude. This incident caused a particularly interesting tea break conversation in the staff room of the college where I used to work, between myself, two sociology teachers (for whom racism and much else is on the curriculum), a biology teacher and a psychology teacher. We covered sexism, racism, the youth of today – ie our students – and a few other related topics, and the conversation really made me think afterwards, not least about the use of offensive words in literature.
In 2014, Keith Brooke at Infinity Plus Books published my surreal, alternate-history fantasy Hairy London, a novel not to be taken seriously, but which has a couple of really serious themes – the nature of love, and the treatment afforded by white men of what used to be called the Establishment to non-British people, the “lower” classes and women. As somebody who is appalled by racism and sexism, and who has happily used a full human range of characters in his novels, I wanted to make use of some of the excesses of times gone past in order to allow two of my main characters – both of them men from wealthy English families – to learn from their experiences. To do this, I used the term darkie. I used it for no other reason than to make the point that the racism of the time was shameful and inhumane. I felt my use was appropriate.
This use of the word was noted in one of the novel’s reviews: … there is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF in the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language…
So, I asked myself: is it ever acceptable to use this term? And if so, what about the N-word?
In 2016, the first volume of my ‘Factory Girl’ trilogy, The Girl With Two Souls, whose main character Kora is a fourteen year old of mixed racial descent, was published. Technically, Kora is a mulatto. This word has its origin somewhere in the sixteenth century and comes from the Spanish mulato, meaning mule (the offspring of a donkey and a horse, ie mixed heritage). Interestingly, the N-word is not much younger – a few decades perhaps.
You will note I haven’t actually spelled out the N-word here. But I did use it in full in The Girl With Two Souls to enhance the sensation received by the reader that my main character was being treated with crude inhumanity. I felt that, because the word was used in an appropriate social context, not to mention an obvious historical context, it was right to use it.
Some people today think the word shouldn’t be used in any context; they say it is always wrong and always inappropriate. I think this is misguided, and often unhelpful. To censor the attitudes of people in the past by not using their dialect is to ignore or conceal their deeds.
Recently I finished reading Discoveries, Nicholas Thomas’ excellent survey of Captain Cook’s three voyages of discovery in the late 1700s. What was particularly interesting was the attitude of the British sailors to various Polynesian races. In fact, at this very early stage, Cook at least was comparatively enlightened, though in a particular way; he had a concept of peaceful interaction with “natives,” though only for the purpose of trade. And he used his own metaphor to describe them, not the Polynesians’ metaphors. He and other officers also used the difference in status of women to judge Polynesian societies, assuming that polygamy was primitive and monogamy the norm, ie the Christian norm. And of course Cook and others distinguished between the “European” straighter hair of the Australian Aborigines and the “woolly” hair of what they called Negroes, presuming that “woolly” hair was like animal hair. In this manner, and in others, they were able to present themselves with justifications for slavery.
I suppose we’re all guilty of making unthinking mistakes though, mistakes based in the norms of our own culture. The tea break conversation mentioned above turned to the use of the word ethnic, which I’ve regularly used as an umbrella word – for example to describe my collection of musical instruments – to mean non-British. The sociology teacher pointed out to me that the word was meaningless, since everybody has an ethnicity, a point which had escaped me, even though I’m of Welsh extraction and have received anti-Welsh mockery (from an Indian – oh, the irony). Ethnic… it shows how we accidentally slip into unhelpful terminology sometimes when describing the wider world.
The sociology teacher went on to explain that the acronym BME is used by British police and other organisations to cover black and minority ethnicities, thereby collecting everyone under one label. But it is a meaningless label, and hardly helpful, not least when for example non-British refugees (eg from Somalia) are all housed together when they are from groups who in Somalia are at one another’s throats.
One other issue we have is of making blanket identities, for example that of “African.” In my novel Muezzinland I wanted to write about the intricate and sophisticated cultures of Western and Northern Africa, which I did via folklore. It was a novel with racism as a theme – eg that of people from Northern Africa upon Western Africans – which did not mention race.
As an interesting addendum, none other than President Obama used the N-word during a podcast on 21 June 2015, showing that, in some circumstances, and from some people, there is a place for it.
And in a thought-provoking piece in today’s Independent, Ben Elton describes what he learned, much later, from his use of the epithet “spasmo” in 1982 in ‘The Young Ones,’ which went on to become a playground taunt. He regrets it deeply now, and has greatly contributed to disabled charities such as Scope, but the fact remains: the word was of its time. We can see that it’s wrong, but we have to use that word now in order to examine the sociological context of 37 years ago.
It turns out we are all human, with individual circumstances of gender, race, culture, background etc. I think it would be good if our society reflected that fact.
Many thanks for this thought provoking guest post Stephen. You can find Stephen’s blog here:
And the first book in his Factory Girl series here: