Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Goldfish Guide to Talking about Stuff without Sounding like a Racist

or Some things I should say sometimes instead of banging my head against dining tables.

You know, I don’t believe you are a racist. And I can be quite sensitive about these things. I see inequality sometimes where others would rather not look; I tend to notice the subtle exercise of prejudice which can add up to tangible disadvantage. And I fear racism. Other forms of discrimination and hatred can and do ruin lives, but racism has brought about violence on the streets of this country, together with civil war and genocide elsewhere, several times within my own lifetime. Not only is it unjust and based on the most superficial difference imaginable, it is extraordinary dangerous.

But I’ve known you a long time and I know you are a reasonable person. Only we keep having these conversations. Imagining my whiteness puts me on your side, you speak your mind, concluding,

“Of course you can’t say what you really think or else people will say you are a racist.”

Only I can and I've been thinking about this. I guess there are really two reasons why someone would call you a racist. The first would be that they were trying to shame you into shutting up, which I guess must happen sometimes. But the second is that something that you said, or something in the way that you said it, genuinely gave that impression.

The latter can be avoided. I wish you’d have a go. Not only in order to avoid offending people, or in order to avoid that accusations, but because you might not be making yourself understood. You may have a very important point and the rest of us might miss it.

The Goldfish Guide to Talking About Stuff without Sounding like a Racist

Rule 1. Say what you mean

Being accurate with language is the key to avoiding unnecessary offence where you are uncertain of (or indeed, unhappy about) preferred terminology. Accuracy and respect - I don’t need to mention the respect bit to you, of course.

For example, how is the best way to describe the group you belong to and the group of people you are talking about? Consider the necessary conditions, the qualifiers for belonging to either group. Does colour come into it? Place of birth? Cultural heritage? Religion?

Try to narrow it down to just one common denominator if possible and don’t use words that have nothing to do with the subject. For example, when talking about Muslims, the rest of the population are non-Muslims, not white people, Britons, or Christians. Some Muslims are white and British, and not all non-Muslims are Christian.

Wherever possible, try to use quanitifier expressions to determine the fact that you don’t believe that all of a group have an experience or viewpoint or exhibit certain behaviour. Talk about some, a few, many, a tiny minority of or simply a group of. Otherwise, whether you mean it or not, to say Muslims have planned terrorist attacks in the UK sounds like all Muslims have planned terrorist attacks in the UK.

Rule 2. Address one issue at a time.

If you have an argument to make about a specific issue, stick to addressing that without bringing in subjects you feel may be vaguely related. It can be tempting, especially when your original argument proves to be a bit floppy, to launch into a ranted list of grievances you have against a certain real or perceived group, mentality or area of policy. But that can very easily sound like racism.

I have listened to you complain on all manner of subjects in one sitting, from illegal immigrants committing organised crime to the EU migrants stealing our jobs to Asian doctors speaking in indicipherable accents.

Each of these points may be valid by themselves (or maybe not) but lump them all together and you might as well offer them up as My problem with Johnny Foreigner. Regardless of the implications, this is not useful way of organising your thoughts; any steps to clamp down on illegal immigration isn't going to help you get a job or understand your doctor better.

Your uncomplicated bigots throw everything in and blame it on immigration or the specific group they hate; they lump in the corruption of youth, the struggles of the health service, drugs, benefit fraud, even rising house prices. The enemy is at once an impoverished parasite and a tyrant empowered by their ill-gotten gains. Clever that.

There is nothing racist about talking about, or even objecting to, current levels of immigration. Like any major area of government policy, education, health care, foreign policy or whatever, there are bound to be disagreements and important debates about how we handle and control immigration to this country. But unless we say "No more!", you can't object to the whole lot all at once. And if we did say "No more!" we'd have a problem; whilst one in twelve people resident in the UK was born abroad, one in ten UK citizens is currently living abroad. Call them back before the borders close, and we'd have a marked population increase*. We'd be swamped, flooded, overwhelmed...

This matter of bringing in extraneous issues is especially important on the subject of Islam. There are one and half million Muslims in our society, there are inevitable issues that arise in the Muslim community about which the rest of us have some concern; most notably, the radicalisation of a small number of young Muslim Britons which has lead to four of them blowing up tube trains and a handful of others plotting to do similar. However, if you are talking about what might be done to combat terrorism, please don’t bring up veils, forced marriages, segregated education and blasphemous cartoons at the same time. You are in serious risk of presenting Islam as an innately problematic faith, and Muslims as an enormous group of troublemakers.

That is prejudice and unsurprisingly, it sounds like it.

Rule 3. Avoid Straw Men

A straw man is a caricature of a real or perceived opponent or viewpoint. It is a cheap trick and very commonplace. Referenes to political correctness, the loony left, the liberal elite, right wingnuts, the chattering classes, bible-bashers, benefit scroungers, fat cats, Daily Mail readers, Guardian readers** or enviro-fascists; these are all caricatures. Since to argue against these things is to argue against a fiction, you can't really lose. Only, what you say won't mean anything, even if you do get a round of applause.

You tell me that we're not allowed to celebrate Christmas any more, or fly the Cross of St. George, that nativity plays, The Three Little Pigs and Baa Baa Black Sheep have all been banned. Surely, you know this is bollocks? Yes, you do. No, come on. You do.

But someone somewhere at some time objected to these things. Yes, they did and the newspapers ran with it. In all such stories I have read myself, it is always someone who is acting out of a fear of causing offence as opposed to an offended person making a complaint. However, do you want to know what all this really means, the big profound social implication of this kind of thing? In one sentence?

Human beings do and say silly things sometimes.

Your efforts are wasted on getting worked up about silliness. None of these things have got into the law or become cultural taboos. It is a bit like me, as a feminist, railing against Patrick Moore's comments about women controlling the television schedules. He said something silly on a trivial matter, he has no position of great influence, bless him, nor does he represent an important viewpoint.

However, straw men are also created about more important matters.

A chap called Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, the head of the Union of Muslim Organisations, suggested that perhaps some very limited aspects of Sharia Law might be put in place for the Muslim community in the UK. For example, Muslim holidays might be formerly recognised and Sharia Courts might help resolve issues in marriage and family life, civil not criminal disputes. Yes, I think the latter bit is extremely problematic too, but that's not the point. A subsequent survey of five hundred British Muslims suggested that about forty percent (two hundred people) supported this idea.

However, if you google Sharia Law UK, one might easily be lead to believe that most of our one and a half million Muslims were calling for the versions of Sharia Law we hear about in a few other parts of the world where folks are hung or else stoned to death because of some minor sexual trangression. Which would be worrying. And it would be very easy to present an argument and get very worked up about that. Only it isn't true, so there isn't any point.

Rule 4. Recognise privilege.

I'm afraid this one is going to sting. Sorry, but I have to do it. It is just that you keep saying this one thing - or at least variations on a theme - which is really very wrong.

"It's getting to a point where I'm being treated like a member of an ethnic minority in my own country."

No, you're not. I mean, really, you're not. No, I know, but you're not. No.

Apart from anything else, your assertion begs the question, how should a member of an ethnic minority be treated in their own country or anywhere else?

In fact, if you look at the government, the media and big business, you may notice that there is a minority group running the show. White straight non-disabled men. A statement I just know you're going to misinterpret as saying that all white straight non-disabled men are a bunch of bastards who have it easy and nobody else ever gets any privilege or power. Not so. I'm not suggesting that they don't deserve to be there, and I am certainly not casting aspersions on their characters. But you'll find it very easy to identify the exceptions in the corridors of power because they are so damn conspicuous.

Privilege is, however, very complicated; outside those corridors of power, things become slightly fairer and when you get right down to my level of wealth and status... Well, I guess I am privileged over a non-disabled unemployed person because disability gives my status legitimacy; my bad luck is not often misunderstood as something I might have avoided or got myself out of already. Being female lessens the cultural pressure to be in work, to be a bread-winner etc.. Thus these things do shift about and you may have been in a situation where it would have been better for you not to have been white. There are undoubtedly situations where white people experience racism. But not many situations.

In any case, I know you, and I know you have never come across such a situation (you'd have surely told me about it if you did). This is something you have absorbed in a round about way, from the media, from dubious anecdote, from the fact you are asked your ethnicity on forms, from the fact that you observe that time and money is going into projects to promote equality where you don't see a particular need for it. Which of course you don't because you've never had any comparable problem.

Even so, consider how you feel at things you consider to be slights against your ethnic or cultural group and imagine you were a Muslim just now. Yes, I know I keep mentioning the Muslims, but to be honest I feel like I'm watching an entire people being slowly - and not exactly purposely - demonised.

Rule 5. Establish logical truths and hold on tight

The truth is that there is an ongoing and inevitable conflict inside all of us. It is not about ethnicity, religion, age, sexuality, gender or disability; no specific prejudice can be considered natural. But what is natural is that life is frustrating, other people are frustrating and our poor little brains are working very hard to try to simplify a very complicated world - worse some very complicated emotions associated with a very complicated world.

Racism is a deliciously simple outlook, it would make life so much easier if other people could be colour-coded. Imagine! These be the good 'uns and thems is the bad 'uns. Wonderful.

But colour isn't really the issue for you, I know. Even so, there is a part of you - just as there is a part of me - that longs to be able to simplify your dealings with and attitudes towards other people, to catergorise them and to have a group upon which you project your fears, insecurities and the disappointments of life. Could be an ethnic group or the generic Johnny Foreigner, or it could be some group you see as different for some other reason, nothing to do with "race".

Folks don't often speak about this. Because if you're a good person, you have no prejudice. Not necessarily so. If you exercise logic in your dealings with other people, you have no prejudice. How you treat them beyond that determines whether you are good.

It is your logical mind that believes in equality. Your logical mind knows that even if someone looks and speaks differently to your or follows a different religion, they aren't worth more or less, there's no reason to imagine they might be more or less intelligent, sensitive, friendly or compassionate than you. They have a different story, they may have quite different ideas about life, death and the universe, but no conflict is innate. And if one such a person turns out to be a bad egg, you know that it is only one and there are bad eggs that look like you. Feelings don't let people off so easy.

If you cling onto these facts whenever you talk about stuff, cold and uninspiring as they might be, you can't go too far wrong.

* Statistics and thus the balance may have shifted, but I believe it is still the case that there are more UK citizens abroad than there are foreign-born people in this country. I realise that doesn't mean a great deal, but it is an important point to bear in mind.

** Of course, people might admit to reading the Daily Mail or the Guardian, but they are unlikely to feel that their views and outlook on life is easily ascertained from the paper they happen to read.


Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. The Goldfish:

Why hasn't the Guardian fired Lucy Mangan and hired you instead? That alone would make the G2 worth reading again. They used to print columns as fine and well-argued as this one. I've said it before: people need to read the things you say here; the mainstream media needs more writers like you, full stop!

Patrick Moore, by the way, is completely off my list. What does he mean, he won't watch Doctor Who any more? You can't not watch Doctor Who.

Yours etc.,

A Guardian Reader*

*I admit it. :)

Sally said...

This intense, common sense and finely worked post should be printed and distributed, but is unlikely to be read further than the blogosphere precisely because newspapers do not want to encourage thinking in their readership; they want to do their thinking for them.
Oops, big generalisation there, waiting to be shot down.

I started reading this post thinking you were directing it at one person you know, and wanted to say: they are not worth your energy - unless it is someone you will always be connected to (such as me and my mother, for the time being anyway) in which case, you have a heard time of it.

But now I think it is directed at every person we have ever known who answers to any part of this description.

May I save it, to serve as a handout, when I cannot think for myself, to shut the racists (including my mother and her ilk) up. ? ! Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to give a very short responce to a long and excellent post but "Hurrah!".
As a BLANK-class BLANK person I, too, believe that these things should be talked about (the BLANKs are because it shouldn't matter what categories I belong to. Should it?) :)

Anonymous said...

Not necessarily a generalisation without a grain of truth, Sally. Still, I think it'd be well worth Ms. The Goldfish's while to get her work out there; I can't help but notice that her journal is full of excellent essays like this, waiting to be printed up and submitted for publication.

I'm not kidding, Goldfish! Querying newspapers (or magazines, or literary journals, or whatever) can take some time, and unfortunately some headaches, and frequently rejection slips, but you've got a book's worth of solidly publishable stuff here-- topical, important stuff. Not that print publication is the be all and end all-- but you could, you know. You really, honestly could.

Skye @ Planet Jinxatron said...

Amazing post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Mary said...

First, great piece :)

Second: I think there's a difference between using a word as a descriptive term and using it in any kind of whatever-ist or whatever-phobic way. Insults are something else entirely, of course. But conversations would get extremely bland if we were constantly removing details.

marmiteboy said...


You have surpassed yourself. Not something that is easy to do, judging the quality of your posts.

This is a quite brilliant piece. I'd advocate that every tin pot little Englander reads this in the hope that it my shame them, enlighten them and change their repugnant views.

Everything you say is true. Your analogy of a, sadly, significant number of people of all creeds and cultures in this world is spot on. And as is so easy with the bigot thier views are so easily shot down in flames. However few coiuld shoot them down so eloquently.

You do your self an injustice in your last sentence. Far from being cold and uninspiring they are quite the opposite.

Utterly suberb.Racism is evil and should never be tolerated and I salute you.

S. said...

Oh yes. And if you're a white person who really doesn't want to be a racist, it's important to shut up and listen when someone non-white is telling you about what they've experienced. After all, that's not an experience we white folks usually get to see.

Goldfish, I don't know if you do memes, but I tagged you for one I thought was interesting.

ben said...

'The enemy is at once an impoverished parasite and a tyrant empowered by their ill-gotten gains. Clever that.'

Spot on.

seahorse said...

I have long thought your posts surpass any columnist in any paper I read. But sadly, this is becoming less of a compliment as standards continue to decline in print journalism. I won't pontificate as to why I think this is the case, but I feel ultimately that this is your natural habitat and your blog is a shining example of the continuing momentum giving the world's population its own voice on the internet. It's great to be able to move away from the confines of the mainstream media, with all it's poorly thought out and badly executed trash. However, there is a strong argument for your words to reach a wider audience through the mainstream. It would be entirely your choice as to how to do this. But you could make a freelance career out of working at your own pace, putting superb writing out there to knock some of these second-rate columnists off their pedestals. Or put together your best pieces and submit them to a publisher. You would be published. I have no doubt.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone - I was rather pleased that anyone managed to read all the way to the bottom, it was a long one. :-)

It addresses a kind of amalgamation of people, but things that have really been said. The trouble is that I honestly think that such people do deep down, believe in equality. Only people get caught up in a grievance or a sensational news story (or a real news story like a terrorist attack), and the next thing you know, people who might be outraged at social injustice in another context, are coming out with this kind of crap.

As for publishing articles, you're very kind. Unfortunately I don't think I can sell anything I wrote at a rate which would make it worth while. In order to be worth while, I'd have to become financially independent from benefits. That wouldn't involve a vast sum of money, only it would have to be very regular, because there's nothing to fall back.

However, once I've finished my novel and if I was to get that published and put a few grand in my pocket, that could tide me over while I played with this sort of thing. I'm still not entirely sure I'm capable of turfing out enough stuff that people would want to pay for to earn even a modest living of it, but I am kind of holding on for the opportunity to try.

Sally said...

You could ask 'your' publisher to spread out the few grand at the rate of £16 per week (unless its gone up!) so you could call it THERAPEUTIC EARNINGS, so you would still get IS and, remember, DLA is not means tested (as an ex said as he slid into his Porche !)

An excellent post, which I have saved against Blogger, with your permission I hope.

Anonymous said...

Oh, dear. I wasn't going to get pushy about this, Goldfish, but I feel compelled to nudge you a bit on the submission thing, now. :) It's true, especially for writers just starting their careers, that publication doesn't yield much, financially speaking. It's not even that you might not get paid enough to live on; the ugly truth is that you may not get paid at all, at first (I've got a couple of unpaid book reviews floating around right now, for instance). But that's not quite the point.

There's a great misconception among many writers-- and readers-- that publishing is mainly about profit, but that's not necessarily true. It's also about what's on your CV; it's the "paperwork" part of being a writer, the thing you do to ensure that you continue to have opportunities come your way. Having published work-- paid or not-- under your belt will help you get published again, and increase the likelihood that editors will be happy to see your work when you send it to them. I'm thinking about that novel, now. I worked for a small press, several years ago. We didn't have the budget to publish more than a few books a year; that meant that we were limited in terms of the material we could consider. By and large, we published authors who had previous publication experience over those who didn't. Unpublished authors are riskier, and often even a large publishing house won't be willing to take that risk, even if the writer is clearly talented and the manuscript's quality is excellent.

Bottom line: you want to be a published author. That means your first priority, at this stage in your writing career, is to get your writing out into the world where people can see it, whether it's fiction, nonfiction, whatever. Blogging's certainly one way to do that, but it's rare that blogging alone will give you the professional recognition you need to make writing for a living lucrative. It's very rare that a writer can simply finish a novel, have it accepted by a publisher, and suddenly Become an Author. The fact is that being a writer involves, well, doing a lot of writing on different subjects, persistently, and then sending them out, persistently.

Now the thing about you, Goldfish, is that you do write persistently, with consistent quality. You've got all that writing just sitting here. You've got nothing to lose by doing the "paperwork"-- even if you don't make any money on it to start. At this early stage in your career, the money can't be the point if you want to be successful. Bite the bullet and do it, though, and I've no doubt that you will be.

/sermon :)

BloggingMone said...

Great post, goldfish. Thanks for writing and publishing it and - I agree to many other commentors - it should be published in other places as well.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the above; having constructed a long screed of advice & encouragement about getting your writing published, Blogger appears to have eaten it.

To summarize: try local free press, try parish magazines, try local papers. Once you have got one thing accepted you have something to start a portfolio.

seahorse said...

I couldn't agree more, Jess. Sorry Goldfish, but it's the quality of your writing that has opened this debate. You can take from it what you will. I agree that whilst getting a novel published is an enormous leap, there are smaller, easier steps to becoming published, which will in turn increase the possibility of the novel being accepted. You can start by submitting stuff free, perhaps entering a work experience from home agreement with a desired publication. This may jar, but it's how most writers start out. And it gets round the benefits problem. My gut feeling is that you could do very well just by selecting your best posts and submitting them as they are to relevant publications whether they be local or national, or editing them to suit what target you have in mind. But to be fair, who are we? You may prefer your energy to go into posting here regularly, and working on your novel, which I know is very important to you. Going over archived stuff would be time consuming. But if you needed any help or pointers, it would seem there are plenty of people behind you :-)

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for your comments, folks.

Hmm, you have really genuinely given me some food for thought.

I am short of spoons, as it were, and my book is really very important to me. I know, in my own psychology, that my self-confidence is going to take a significant positive shift at the point that the novel is actually finished. In the meantime, blogging is mostly about getting stuff out of my system.

However, a part of me knows that you're right, that there are more or less realistic and objective ways of going about things. I will have a ponder.

I have been very much inclined to get my book finished before I think about 'serious' writing in any other context. I don't take publication for granted, but at least once it's done I've proved to myself I can do that and then I can pursue publication by whatever means (even if that means building a portfolio from scratch at that point).

However, very seriously, this is very much appreciated advice - as well as being complimentary of course. I will go away and have a ponder, perhaps explore one or two avenues... Thank you. :-)

Anonymous said...

I have been very much inclined to get my book finished before I think about 'serious' writing in any other context. I don't take publication for granted, but at least once it's done I've proved to myself I can do that and then I can pursue publication by whatever means (even if that means building a portfolio from scratch at that point).

I know what you mean. :) I've been similarly focused on getting my novel out of the way, actually, for many of the same reasons (for all my preachy prattle)-- though in my case, I've lately got so bloody stuck with it that I've decided to work on shorter pieces for now. In that sense I think doing the submitty-type paperwork can help boost one's confidence, too (if ony in that it makes you feel more like a "job"). But I certainly can relate to your reasons for wanting to finish the book first. I don't doubt your success whichever path you follow, though.

I'll reiterate that if ever you'd like to, don't hesitate to give me an e-nudge for writerly support. Am always happy to oblige! :)

Anonymous said...

"It's getting to a point where I'm being treated like a member of an ethnic minority in my own country."

No, you're not. I mean, really, you're not. No, I know, but you're not. No.

Awesome. Perfect.