Sunday, 1 March 2015

Defending Rozanne Duncan

(This post is tagged NLUWDC, for Nobody Likes Us We Don't Care, i.e. it takes a view which is likely to be unpopular.)

Rozanne Duncan, a Thanet councillor for UKIP, was expelled from the party for saying: "The only people I do have problems with are negroes. And I don't know why. I don't know whether there is something in my psyche or whether it's karma from a previous life ... But I really do have a problem with people with negroid features."

So, Mrs Duncan used the words 'negro" and "negroid', and she said she had a problem with people with negroid features. It is not surprising that a party which wants to shake off accusations of racism booted her out. But I am not sure she deserved it.

She did not say, for example, "I have a problem with negroes because they are all violent criminals!" She said she had a problem because of something about herself. That is being honest, not racist. An Asian friend who works for an anti-racism charity in Birmingham told me: "Before I worked here, I used to be really scared of black people". If you think you are better, try taking an Implicit Association Test.

All the ethnic groups of this country have to live together: not just side by side, together. If we attack people who admit - not in public, but while being secretly recorded - that they have feelings about other groups which they think they ought not to, this will not make anyone less racist. But it will lead to pretence and hypocrisy, to a society where everyone wears an anti-racist mask.

Next, is the word "negro" racist? Probably: it is a cognate of, and in many European languages identical to, the N word. Mrs Duncan defended her vocabulary, like the policewoman in the 1990s Lawrence enquiry who used the word "coloured", on the grounds that it was what she knew. The issue is not clearcut. The main African-American civil rights organization, founded in 1909, is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In his I Have A Dream speech, Martin Luther King used the word "negro". The book The Mis-education of the Negro was an early civil rights classic: Lauryn Hill borrowed the phrase for the title of her first album.

Like swearwords, racially derogatory terms are insults just because they are. You probably should not use either of the words "coloured" or "negro", as they might cause offence. But standards change. Unsurprisingly, not all councillors in Thanet are up to date. This looks suspiciously like an old British tradition, word-snobbery. Black is to coloured as lavatory was to toilet for our parents. Again, this may show off one's cultural awareness, but it is unlikely to help fix racial divisions.