Some Racism, It Seems, Is Acceptable
The following article was written by me and published in The Huffington Post on 6th January 2012.
The other day I got into a taxi with my mother, who is visiting for the holidays. The driver, hearing us exchange a few words in a language that was – pun intended – all Greek to him, inquired as to our provenance. My response “Greece” drew from him a chuckle and the comment: “Should I ask for payment in advance?”
I decided to react with qualities which, those who like to ascribe national identity to virtues and flaws, might consider “terribly British”. I took it on the chin; self-effacingly laughed along; and kept the stiffest upper lip seen on a Greek since the Caryatids.
The driver meant nothing by it, I’m sure. It was simply the latest episode in a growing trend.
On 30 December, I watched the Angelos Epithemiou Christmas Special on Channel 4, frankly, agog. It was only days after Dan Renton Skinner collected the British Comedy Award for Best Breakthrough Artist for his – and I use the term as loosely as fathomable – comic creation.
“What is the difference between Angelos Epithemiou and blacking up to poke fun at ‘darkies’?” I asked my friends. Various arguments were advanced in response: “It is racist, but in a comically ironic way”; or “the ethnicity is incidental – he is an idiot and a slob that just happens to be of Greek origin”. None of these points answer the original question, of course.
If I applied black shoe-polish to my face and stood up at the Comedy Store, would a 2012 audience tolerate me long enough to assess the ironic quotient of my routine? Would they wait to discover whether my obscene ethnic caricature was incidental or instrumental? Were Hollywood film villains incidentally German, then incidentally Russian, then incidentally Chinese and finally incidentally Iraqi?
But what about Harry Enfield’s ‘Stavros’ or Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Borat’, you might ask? Both Stavros and Borat possess two essential qualities. Firstly, they are written with exceptional warmth and affection for the character. Secondly, they are funny. Angelos is neither.
The unpalatable truth is that, as paradigms shift and – vitally – as some minorities acquire a powerful voice, the focus moves onto others who are not yet able to protect themselves. Writers, too lazy or thick to construct comedy on observation, wit and invention, simply switch to new, easy stereotypes. And, sadly, the phenomenon is not limited to comedy.
Four weeks ago Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, was asked to comment on the eurozone crisis on Sky News. He described it as a “Mars and Venus thing”. He went on to analyse the difference between “the pretty hard-working Northern Europe and the kind of siesta squad; the mañana-mañana guys at the bottom who don’t really have the same approach to work and wealth creation”. The comment drew a little chuckle from presenter Adam Boulton – much like my taxi driver’s.
I tweeted Mr Nelson and asked him whether he thought this was a fair representation of all southern Europeans. Whether he thought he could have gotten away with such gross generalisations expressed in such a flippant way with regard to any other ethnic group. He replied to me with: “Greece, France, Germany, Britain all have different ways of working. Chinese work harder than anyone, but not necessarily better”. I asked him whether that meant that a prospective employer would be quite justified in choosing a person of Chinese background over me, a Greek, on this basis. He did not reply.
I have given up trying to explain that there is an important agenda behind the campaign to portray Greek people as lazy, profligate and unreliable; that it diverts from an examination of corporate greed and the real causes of the crisis. Any Daily Mail reader is, by now, convinced beyond all reason that the entire western world is on the brink of collapse because a country with an economy which accounts for less that 0.5% of World GDP pays its train drivers too handsomely.
Some months ago I wrote a detailed article which presented data from organisations such as the OECD in order to expose some of this mythology. A Canadian commenting on my article explained that I could present all the data I wanted, but the fact remained that at his local Greek restaurant the other night the service was really slow and this proved the matter conclusively.
One slow order of moussaka for table 13 and Greek Nobel Laureates, the 2004 Athens Olympics, the 10% of our population wiped out in WWII, El Greco, Maria Callas and a host of other paragons of excellence, are wiped. One slow order of moussaka for table 13 and the fact that my grandfather was called to the army six times in his lifetime to fight with exceptional courage for the allied forces, is forgotten. One slow order of moussaka for table 13 and the fact that my mother has worked tirelessly for the Department of Archaeology for 40 years to now be asked to survive on a pension of 450 euros a month, is irrelevant.
And this is the crux of racism. The dehumanisation of an entire group; their descent to a punchline. The transition of poorly supported, highly prejudicial, discriminatory stereotypes into folklore fact. The general application of a truism, regardless of propriety or capacity to offend and hurt. The abbreviation of five entire countries, with proud histories stretching millennia, into a swine synonym: PIIGS. And thinking this is fine.
The question is whether people in the entertainment arena like Mr Skinner or the media like Mr Nelson choose to prick these balloons with truth or lazily endorse and strengthen them. And that is all there is to it.
So, while we deservedly celebrate the refusal to accept certain types of discrimination – be it in the Stephen Lawrence verdict, the punishment of overpaid footballers or the chastising of a Hackney MP for saying something about “white people” – let us also be vigilant that it is not replaced by a more generalised xenophobia. Because folks need to blame someone when they’re scared and right now folks are terrified. So, let us be measured rather than hysterical; progressive rather than backward; reasoned rather than screeching.
I say “us”, but I will probably be far too busy breaking plates, spending money I didn’t earn and having siestas. So, really, it is down to you.
I would encourage to read the comments on the original Huffington Post page, which are illuminating and infuriating in equal measure.