When I was about 8 years old, a classmate, from Tottenham but of Indian origin, falsely accused me of calling her paki. As the child of lefty north London types, I'd been brought up with a no tolerance approach to prejudice. Imagine my horror. Outrage, confusion, worry and distress followed (said classmate eventually admitted that she had lied. I think she works in law now, go figure). I was concerned that no-one would believe my side of the story, my family would be accused of racism, and that I'd be unable to shake the stigma for the rest of my academic life. It was horrible.
I remember this story every time someone in the public eye is accused of racism. I think about how it feels and wonder how they will defend themselves. Recently, I've remembered this story more frequently. From Jade Goody on Big Brother to Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, racially charged language seems like it is slipping back onto our television screens.
No more so has this been evident – or so it seems - than on Premier League match days. John Terry's recent outburst has been well documented and is still subject to a police investigation, so we'll say no more about it here. The other high profile incident took place at the end of 2011 between Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Manchester United's Patrice Evra.
For those of you that don't follow football, a quick recap: during a match in October, the players were involved in an altercation where Suarez (originally from Uruguay), repeatedly called Evra (French, of Senegalese descent) Black/Blackie/Negro/Nigger depending on the translation you prefer. What isn't in dispute is that he said he “doesn't speak to Blacks”. The incident eventually resulted in an eight match ban and £40,000 fine for Suarez. So far, so by the book.
What's disturbing and depressing is what happened next. Liverpool football club rejected the findings of the enquiry and mounted a robust defence of Suarez. Statements were issued in “total support” of the footballer, and Liverpool football team publicly declared their allegiance on t-shirts.
Closer to home, some of my friends started saying some strange things. “Oh, well, who knows what Evra said first”, I heard from one, “Black isn't offensive, he's just describing him”, I heard from several. And the inevitable, “people always play the race card in arguments” (where do you get this mythical race card? I must have missed it waiting for my NUS one.)
How to respond to this. Certainly, yes, I am Black. I would describe myself as a Black woman. If someone calls me a bitch, I find it offensive. If someone calls me a Black bitch, it is even worse. Why? Because the person who has added “Black” does so for the sole purpose of insult to injury. Intention here is key: Suarez and Evra were having an argument. Suarez used the fact of Evra's race to insult him, knowing that this would cause deep offence. He wasn't describing what he looked like, he was being derogatory. This sort of abuse isn't allowed on the football pitch any more than it is allowed in the workplace. That's a good thing.
“But where will it end? Anyone can be offended by anything.” I heard. People suddenly seemed worried that they wouldn't be allowed to call people, “fat” or “ginger” because of the PC police. Perhaps I can make a suggestion: this could be progress. Really. Because until we live in a society where all people are treated equally, I say its perfectly reasonable to sanction against prejudice, be it racial, gender-based, sexual and so on.
When Barack Obama won the American Presidential race, I remember announcing to my pub mates that I hoped he would be allowed to be as mediocre as a White President. What I meant, which few understood, was that true racial equality would mean that he'd be judged to the same standards as all who came before him, criticised and celebrated according to the same rules. He isn't, of course. For me, a similar principle applies here – until Black people get to be judged and criticised and celebrated according to the same rules as White people, we get to be offended by racial epithets, and White people don't get to say them.