Racism, I’m sure most of us agree, is bad. But we have a problem: we don’t all agree about what it is. The jokes that Top Gear’s presenters made about “lazy” Mexicans are apparently thought racist–at any rate, the BBC apologised to Mexico’s ambassador, and Steve Coogan wrote a newspaper article calling the jokes “casual racism”. (Not that this has made the Top Gear presenters think twice–on Sunday they joked that Albanians were thieves.) Meanwhile, an independent health watchdog has had its funding withdrawn after its chairman described gossip as “jungle drums”.
It’s interesting how much, and how quickly, our notions of what constitutes racism have changed. Take this example. In the September 1994 issue of Loaded magazine, Damon Albarn from Blur was asked what sort of women he found attractive. His answer included the declaration: “I don’t like Orientals at all. Well, I like them, but I never fancy them.”
This was one of the leading pop stars of the time, interviewed in one of the leading magazines of the time–yet the quote was unchallenged. It didn’t make the news. Nobody called Albarn racist (and he plainly isn’t: he’s made records with musicians from all over the world).
Imagine the outcry if a leading pop star today, not 20 years later, were to say he found a particular race unattractive. “Asian girls aren’t pretty,” for instance, or “Afro-Caribbeans don’t turn me on.” Come to that, referring to people from the Far East as “Orientals”, as Albarn did in 1994, would probably now cause some degree of scandal.
Another comparison. At Christmas, thousands complained that BBC One’s comedy series Come Fly With Me, which featured two white British actors (Matt Lucas and David Walliams) playing various daft foreign characters, was racist. I don’t remember thousands calling it racist when, in 1997, a white British actor created a comedy character named Tony Ferrino, a sleazy, slow-witted Portuguese singer weeth a seelly accent like thees. The comedian, incidentally, was Steve Coogan.
Then again, there are still times when it seems to be fine to talk witheringly about a race. Yesterday, a Left-wing national newspaper ran an article about a band called The Vaccines. Its headline: “Sick of dull white-boy indie rock? The Vaccines have the cure.”
I wonder whether the same newspaper would run an article asking if we were sick of “black-boy hip hop”.