The Yellow and White Minstrel Show
So Jim Naughtie accidentally renamed the Culture Secretary Jeremy Cunt. And an hour after Naughtie did it so did Andrew Marr. It was the broadcasting equivalent of a motorway pile up. As I heard the word pass Naughtie’s lips I really felt for him. Jeremy Hunt, to his credit, took the whole episode with good grace and saw the funny side. It was news for a day and then we moved on.
But suppose for a moment that Naughtie and Marr hadn’t used the C-word (I’ve spelled it out once and for anyone other than Irvine Welsh that should be enough) but equally inadvertently had used the N-word, a word I don’t want to spell out. Would there have been any coming back from that? Quite possibly not. Last year Carole Thatcher used the term ‘golliwog’, off-air, to describe a French tennis player. In fact she’s reported to have called him ‘that froggy golliwog guy.’ The BBC then apparently, to use what feels like a rather inappropriate phrase, blacklisted her.
There is an argument, albeit one I won’t labour, that where one finds the N-word used in a historic context (The Dam Busters where Barnes Wallis thus named his black Labrador springs to mind) it serves to remind us that hateful words were once casually used by otherwise largely decent people – so prevalent was racism back in the days of Empire. It also reminds us how far we’ve come.
But hey, perhaps we haven’t. I had the pleasure of seeing Aladdin at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley today. I won’t dwell on the leaden script nor the numerous references to the genie’s (Melinda Messenger) breasts. What struck me as particularly odd was the casting.
Aladdin is set in Old Peking so onto the stage march boys and girls, men and women dolled up as funny Chinese people. There is much bowing to the emperor. Signs in Widow Twankey’s laundry read ‘washee knickee velly quickee.’ There may have even been a lame sweet and sour joke. But the really odd thing is that with the exception of Princess Jasmine (Frances Mayli McGann) whose antecedents I suspect hail from China the rest of the Chinese are played by Europeans; wigs, makeup and all.
So does this mean that next year the good people of Bromley will be laughing through a panto revival of the Black and White minstrel show? I suspect not. The Black and White Minstrel Show hasn’t toured since 1987. There’s no stomach these days for white people painted up as funny black people. Yet somehow it’s OK to have white people yellowed up as funny Chinese people. Am I missing something here or is this simply a double standard?
Are we seeing the emergence of a hierarchy of racism? Certain stereotypes are apparently more offensive than others. Carol Thatcher was castigated for her use of the word golliwog but not her use of the word froggy.
Surely racism is offensive because it fails to recognise our common humanity while at the same time degrading each human being’s unique individuality? Likewise are not human rights founded on our common humanity? Should there be a place at the front of the ‘don’t stereotype me’ queue for people of a particular background.
What is apparent though is that some communities are less prepared to stand for abuse than others. Most of the British Chinese I know would shrug off Aladdin and simply ignore it and that’s a perfectly fair reaction. Traditionally overseas Chinese have preferred to keep their heads down and avoid trouble. That might go some way to explaining why there is only one elected representative in any UK regional or national assembly of East Asian origin – shocking given that there are more than a million Britons whose roots lie in East and South East Asia. However it does mean that our (possibly innate) tendency to want to make fun of those we don’t understand is channelled away from those who protest most and is visited disproportionately on those who don’t.
Let’s forget political correctness here. We should be able to laugh at silliness and idiosyncrasy. But it’s almost always done best from the inside because it comes with insight and humour depends heavily on helping people make connections and that needs understanding. If you want to make fun of another culture it’s a good starting point to really appreciate it.
So what really irked me most about Aladdin in Bromley was not that it was explicitly offensive. It wasn’t. It was just so Fu’Kien ignorant. If we’re going to subject any culture to moronic panto humour it should be our own – at least we can do it with a little insight and it might even be funny, albeit if the standard of writing evident in Bromley is anything to go by, perhaps not.
But the deeper point here is that no group should be allowed to appropriate the anti discrimination agenda. Not only do we all have an equal claim to the principles that underpin it – but to treat it as anything other than a universal fundamentally weakens the cause.