Sunday, 2 January 2011

Why do some races get called worse things than others?

I’m an opponent of Political Correctness, obviously, and I’m all for racial profiling when it comes to identifying terrorists, and the unfairness of immigrants jumping housing queues and anything which smacks of positive discrimination reduces me to apoplexy. But not having working class comedians habitually using the term “Paki” on television, and the general unacceptability of such terms as “Sambo” and “Coon”, are surely cause for celebration – after all, if there were any insulting words for Norwegians (maybe there are, and I’ve been shielded from them all these years), I’d thump anyone who used them to my face. 

Happily, the English language is so rich in insults, recourse to racial epithets hardly seems necessary (though I won’t pretend I haven’t occasionally succumbed – but that’s usually when watching international sport or discussing the EU). One interesting test of an insult’s acceptability is whether it can be delivered affectionately (Britons and Australians are particularly adept at this): very few slang racial terms can be.

Why do some races attract a long list of wounding racial epithets – each of which is in effect a slur – while others can barely muster a single nasty term? I used to imagine that racially-charged words become increasingly abusive in direct proportion to how visibly different from us the abused party was. 

But a bit of thought shows that not to be so.

Why do blacks – wherever they’re from and wherever they now live – merit dozens of insulting names (including the “n” word - the ultimate racially offensive term) while the Japanese, with whom – let’s face it – we’ve had our differences, can only muster “Nip” and “Jap”? After all, I don’t for a moment believe we feel more affectionate towards the Japanese than we do towards, say, Nigerians or Trinidadians.

The terms white people from different countries use about each other barely rate as insults – if we mainly perceive them to be of Northern European stock. For instance, the worst we can throw at Australians is (and correct me if I’m wrong) “Aussie” (with the occasional crack about convicts thrown in). The worst they throw at Brits is “Pom”. Americans are “Yanks” – to them, the British are “Limeys” (although when Humphrey Bogart first met David Niven, he reportedly called him a “pissy Englishman”). Even the traditional enemy, the French, only rate “Frog”, (unless you count “Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkey”), while the great 20th Century enemy, the Germans, are “Kraut” or “Fritz” or “The Hun” or “Gerry” (and, from the comics of my youth, “Square-Head” and “Sausage-Nosher”). None of these exactly demands pistols at dawn. Russians are either “Ivans” or “Russkies”, neither of which carry any hint of insult. “Polack” sounds a bit more derogatory, but even that hardly calls for a fist-fight.

Talking of fist-fights, do the Scots object to “Jock”? Or the Welsh to “Taffy”? (“Paddy” and “Mick” do feel slightly more offensive, probably on account of some of the adjectives often attached to them.)

Weirdly, Southern Mediterraneans – towards whom I’m not aware of any great hostility in this country - get a pretty raw deal: “Spic”, “Dago”, “Greaseball”, “Wop”, “Eye-tie”. Again, why do these all carry such a heavy disparagement payload? (Argentinians, with whom, again, Britons haven’t enjoyed the warmest of relationships in recent decades, only merit “Argey” – but that might be because there are so many other abusive Hispanic terms to choose from.)

The Europeans who fare even worse are Jews: there’s no argument that “Kike”, “Yid” and “Ikey-Mo” are all meant to hurt. And yet Jews are the most assimilated of all major immigrant groups in this country.

The Chinese are, at worst, “Chinks”. (The Americans have come up with a whole host of unpleasant words for South-East Asians, but I assume that’s because of the Vietnam War, and they haven’t really caught on over here.)

Indians are only ever really “Wogs”, and Pakistanis are “Pakis” – both of which are, of course, deeply unpleasant (though it’s hard to see why “Paki” – really just a shortening of the official term - should be). But you might imagine that, given the size of the immigrant populations from those countries, the unpopularity of both groups with racist knuckle-draggers, and with Pakistan’s reputation as a finishing school for terrorists, a number of other more extreme terms would have emerged – but if they have, I’m not aware of them.

Arabs – similarly tarred with the terrorist brush -  are also “Wogs” (let’s face it,  most non-Britons are): they’re also “Camel-Jockeys”, “Towel-Heads”, “Ab-Dabs” and “Rag-Heads”. Given the image of Arabs in the West, I’m surprised there haven’t been even more unpleasant variants. (The Americans have come up with ”Dune-Coon”, probably the most unpleasant of the lot, but, again, that hasn’t really caught on over here.) 

Finally, we turn to Blacks, who, when it comes to number, variety and nastiness, win the insult-recipient award hands-down. The only even vaguely affectionate term I’m aware of is the very British “Nig-Nog” (which, as one Black American comedian pointed out, sounds like something you’d drink at Christmas). 

So why do black people get such a rough verbal deal? Is it a hang-over from the 1950s and 1960s, which saw the first waves of mass immigration from the Caribbean, at which time the use of what would now be considered racist terms was fairly common on TV (and pretty much everywhere else)? Because of the high levels of street crime black youths are responsible for (I believe the standard euphemism is “over-representation”)? Because of comparatively low levels of academic achievement? Because many black-majority countries are seen as violence-ridden economic basket-cases? Because there’s nothing more annoying than white teenagers adopting black street argot? Or Is it something to do with slavery and/or colonialism? 

What’s particularly perplexing is that Blacks – in London at least – integrated relatively easily with the indigenous white working class: skinheads tended to save their real bile for Pakistanis and Indians, and, of course, adopted Reggae as their preferred soundtrack. What’s even more perplexing is that the Jews – who’ve proved even more assimilable, particularly into the middle classes – should run Blacks a close second in the specific-terms-of-racist-abuse league.

This post may come across as a bit of a mess – but it has taken me longer to write than any other, even though I’ve reached no conclusions. So sensitive is the issue of race that I’ve been through what I’ve written again and again trying to ensure that I haven’t inadvertently implied anything I didn’t mean to.

I simply don’t have a clue why Blacks, Jews and Hispanics have it worse than others when it comes to insulting terms – or why the worse race-related thing I’ve ever been called (within earshot) is “Noggin the Nog”!

Any ideas?  


  1. I've just received an email from a reader telling me that they call all Scandinavians "Roopdidoops" (apparently it represents the sort of sound Sandinavians make when talking). I used to work with Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (or whatever it's called), and I have emailed him this piece of information. Unfortunately, as my correspondent doesn't live in the UK, they may prove beyond his reach.
    Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 07:50 PM

  2. Gweilo-'White Foreign Devil'(Cantonese)
    I've only been racially abused 3 times-unless one counts 'gweilo'which all sensible expats in H.Kong take as part of life's rich tapestry-the last time in London unnervingly so:"we Africans love to kill."
    I phoned the Race Agency or whatever it was called(it was a long time ago)and turning it around informed the Jamaican lady in my best African patois that I'd called my boss a "white c***" to which he responded "you black b******"
    Knicker elastic twisting was audible over the public pay-phone receiver; I was assured that this was taken very seriously indeed and were there witnesses,did you call the police etc and so on.
    What common sense was crying out for was"if you called him that,what did you expect."
    More seriously Airlines(especially from the Far East) tired of repeated racism and worse,insist their staff when in London 'buddy-up.'
    Unless a serious assault occurs,the Savvy Airlines seldom report any crimes
    knowing that Trident won't wish to get involved as the victims are'nt black nor will The Met as the racists are'nt gweilo.
    Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 04:19 AM