Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Bongo-Bongo Land

I found this old post under the sofa, and thought it would be a shame to bin it:

Over the summer there was a classic Silly Season story.  One of those dinosaurs who have found a congenial home in UKIP made some comment about the way British foreign aid to "Bongo-Bongo Land" is generally used by kleptocrats to buy "Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and F18s for Pakistan".  Cue factitious outrage, and a debate over whether the expression "Bongo-Bongo Land" is, or is not, racist.

Ah, racism!  There are few other topics where hypocrisy comes so easily to so many.  The concealment of uneasy feelings about "race" beneath a veneer of inclusiveness or pretended indifference has become a matter of modern good manners, an updating of the perfect politeness shown by the perfect gentleman even to those he despises.  And rightly so: polite hypocrisy is often a precursor of a genuine change of heart and social advance.  Besides, is there any worse company to find oneself in than the sort of braying saloon-bar philosopher who revels in dragging down these well-meaning but fragile fictions, with tales of "political correctness gone mad", and provocative references to "sluts" who don't clean behind the fridge?*

I was brought up in a context where racism, of an abstract kind, was the default setting. Abstract, because ours was then a predominantly monoracial town.  Small, essentially white-on-white differences -- Irish vs. English, grammar school vs. secondary modern, skinheads vs. longhairs  -- were the stuff of conflict, such as it was.  But casual contempt for the absent "racial other", mainly expressed as jokes, was the norm.  Jamaicans, Jews, Pakistanis... These fabled, seldom-seen creatures each had a characteristic, diagnostic set of amusing or alarming features, like Pokémon monsters, which gave such jokes their point.  It's easy to learn to play that game; much harder to unlearn.

Being a "quick study", I did unlearn my parochial prejudices after I left home for university.  My father -- a decent, fair-minded man, who worshipped Dizzie Gillespie, Count Basie, and Erroll Garner -- would sound hair-raisingly racist to my freshly re-educated ears when discussing his wartime experiences in the Middle East, India and Burma.  I would cringe inwardly when, after a glass or two, he would explain that "wog" ought not to be taken as an offensive word, as it merely stood for "worthy oriental gentleman".  Oh dear... Shades of Bongo-Bongo Land.

Mind you, for him there were good wogs and bad wogs.  Like all British servicemen who came into contact with them, he had massive respect for Gurkhas and Sikhs.  One of his stories concerned driving trucks through the streets of Calcutta with a couple of Gurkha bodyguards leaning out and clearing a swathe through the dense crowds with pickaxe handles and occasional bursts of overhead gun-fire.  The hillmen's contempt for urban Bengalis was, apparently, even more profound than that of the typical British soldier.

image © Library of Congress

Clearly, you don't have to be white to be racist, it seems, though it certainly helps.  But there is another side to this: you don't have to be racist to find certain cultural habits and practices uncongenial.   We needn't go as far out as grotesque genital mutilation or the assassination of little girls who show an interest in going to school. I only have to think of the relish for public hawking and spitting of Chinese men, for example, or the ritual drunkenness of the British sports-fan abroad.

Often, the "anti-racism" of the liberal middle classes -- who generally live in enclaves free from the issues of conflicting cultural practices and values brought about by immigration into the poorer parts of town -- is as theoretical and friction-free as the racism of my childhood.  To live next door to the delightful family of a hospital consultant from Pakistan is not the same as living next door to an ongoing riotous house-party of transient young Poles.  You can trust me on that  (see my post "Trouble").

No, genuine racism is not just a negative reaction to "difference", which is a simple extension of the impulse to despise the inhabitants of the next village.  For what it's worth, I prefer to define racism quite narrowly as a systematic set of false but firmly-held beliefs: in the absolute reality of races as "natural" divisions within humanity; in a person's race as their essential defining property; and in the superiority of one's own race over all others.

This set of beliefs seems, unsurprisingly, always to arise among those who happen -- by whatever contingencies of history and geography -- to be holding Top Dog position at any particular time.  I have yet to hear of an ethnic group who believe themselves to be essentially and eternally inferior to all other groups, though if such a group does exist I'd quite like to meet them.  They may hold the key to humanity's salvation.  Maybe they live in the much-despised Bongo-Bongo Land?

* Same idiot, same summer.

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