“No, I don’t fancy him”; “Yes, your dress looks lovely”; “I’m really going to miss you too”; “It’s a perfect present: just what I wanted”; “No, I don’t want that last slice of warm chocolate fudge brownie – you take it”.
These are just a few of the many, many fibs I’ve told over the years: lies that flatter and please; lies that preserve my dignity and spare others from shame; lies that save my neck and help me get out of trouble.
All lies are created untruthful, but some are more untruthful than others, to paraphrase George Orwell. So of all the lies I’ve ever told, one of the slightly more truthful ones was this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
As children we were encouraged to recite this mantra whenever we fell victim to a verbal attack. It was supposed to protect us from the pain of insult. It’s a nice idea, but let’s be honest: sticks and stones rarely break our bones but names will often crush us. And when it comes to name-calling, there’s one particular slur that I find particularly painful to hear: n*****. (NB. The asterisks are here for the benefit of those who’d rather not see this word in print – and just to be clear, it’s not ‘numpty’, ‘nitwit’ or ‘nutter’.)
The last time I was called the n-word was just a couple of weeks ago. Needless to say, it’s never nice. Afterwards, I attempted to brush it under the carpet of my mind, however the memory resurfaced recently when I heard about the latest furore surrounding the TV presenter many love to loathe, Jeremy ‘Top Gear’ Clarkson.
Clarkson made the headlines two weeks ago after The Daily Mirror released previously unseen footage from the popular BBC motoring show, Top Gear. In the scene in question, in which Clarkson tries to choose between two cars, he appears to recite the un-PC version of the children’s counting rhyme ‘Eeny meeny miny moe’. The version that says: “Catch the n***** by the toe”. He mumbles the n-word not once, but twice.
In his subsequent apology video, Clarkson claims he used “everything in his power” not to say the word. Everything, that is, except for his self-control. The incident has sparked no small degree of outrage among some quarters, with critics urging the BBC to sack Clarkson over this latest example of ‘racist’ behaviour. Meanwhile, his defenders say it was just an eeny meeny miny mistake, and that he meant no malice.
As Clarkson will know, the n-word is one of the most incendiary racial terms around; its etymology harks back to a horrific history of oppression, abuse and prejudice that can never be divorced from its six letters. And despite what some say about how it’s been ‘reclaimed’ by black sub-cultures, including rap and hip-hop artists, some words will always be toxic. So while Clarkson may not have intended to be antagonistic or hostile, his actions revealed a lack of empathy, sensitivity and sound judgment, at the very least.
And while reciting a nursery rhyme doesn’t make you a racist, we all know that a word is never ‘just’ a word. What we say has immense power. The tongue “corrupts the whole body” and is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison”, as the book of James says, under the section titled “Taming the Tongue”. It might sound a tad melodramatic, but James even goes as far as to call it “a world of evil among the parts of the body”. Of all the body parts he could have warned us about, he chose our tongues, not our sexual organs. Worth thinking about when we get tempted to draw up a hit-list of “Top 10 Sins”.
Anyway, back to Clarkson. Yes, the man needs to learn how to tame his tongue. Yes, he should know better. But for all his misdemeanors, I’m not incandescent with rage. Sad, yes. Livid, no. Rather than writing to the BBC calling for him to be strung up by his toes, I’d rather vent my fury at some of the more pervasive, insidious and more damaging instances of racism that affect the everyday lives of ethnic minorities in Britain.
So how about we get a bit more outraged about the fact that police stop-and-search powers still disproportionately target black people; the fact that ethnic minorities are still woefully under-represented in the upper echelons of politics, media, academia, law, finance, arts and even the Church; the fact that UKIP and its xenophobic polemics appear to be inching closer and closer to victory in this month’s European elections.
Racism isn’t just about using the n-word. There’s a lot more to it than that, so we have a lot further to go before we root it out of society. And for once, I’m telling the truth.