Airbrushing racism: Why racist words shouldn’t be edited from history

Kunle Olulode

Kunle Olulode, director of Voice for Change England

The opportunity to re-introduce Astrid Lindgren’s children’s literary figure Pippi Longstocking to a new Swedish generation in 2014 should have been a fairly innocuous affair. However, the decision to edit out parts of the programme, which originally aired in 1969, on anti-racist grounds caused a major furore. Two scenes in particular, Pippi’s reference to her father as King of the Negroes and secondly her slit-eyed impersonation of someone from China, were removed, provoking national and international debates about the rights and wrongs of the re-edit.

Critics rounded on the Swedish broadcaster SVT, accusing it of imposing adult PC values on a beloved fictional figure. But this situation is not unique to Sweden. The people who run television programming throughout western Europe are acting in the same way. The programme could be seen as simply part of work reflecting attitudes of a particular period. I fear there is a danger we lose the contextual understanding of the work and an understanding of the period by editing it in this way.

Mark Twain’s classic novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been at the centre of a similar debate in the United States, but the book was always intended to be controversial. Critics rounded on it when it was first published in 1885. The Committee of the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts, publicly declared the book “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions”.
The enterprising publisher saw this as a “rattling tip-top puff” and used the library ban and …

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Padraig Reidy: Why Golders Green isn’t Britain’s Skokie

Far right group the English Defence League march (Photo: Gavin Lynn/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Far-right group the English Defence League march (Photo: Gavin Lynn/Flickr/Creative Commons)

It is probably a sign of the success of our society that people like me spend so much of our time defending the rights of jerks.

Racists, misogynists, Christian fundamentalists, jihadists, wannabe jihadists, counter-jihadists, homophobes, trolls, Top Gear presenters, True Torah Jews, Nazis; cretins of all colours and creeds. In modern, liberal Europe, these are the people who tend to get in trouble over free speech. In the past, they were the ones in charge.

That is not to say everyone else is entirely free from censorship; and of course, the reason we defend free expression as a good in itself is because we understand that the powers used to silence the craven can also be used to silence the virtuous, but by and large, it’s the oddballs who tend to get into trouble. Them and journalists.

And so we turn our attention, wearily but determinedly, to the case of the “anti-Jewification” protest which was due to take place in London’s Golders Green on 4 July. As others have pointed out, anyone hoping to prevent the “Jewification” of Golders Green is, frankly, a bit late. But then, we know full well that Judenfrei policies have experienced some success in the past.

The stationary protest will now not take place in Golders Green, but instead in central London – Whitehall to be precise, away from Golders Green’s Jewish community. Ironically, many Jews are now planning to make their way to Westminster to stage a counter-demonstration.

As Richard Ferrer, editor of Jewish News, noted: “Saturday’s rally is fast turning into the social event of the season for the capital’s Jewish community. When it was originally announced, synagogues braced themselves for their lowest Shabbat attendance figures in years. I had a family lunch booked, but had to make sure it didn’t clash with the scheduled Holocaust denial and book burning.”

It does all sound rather fun, but the moving of the Nazi demonstration does raise questions about the nature of protest and how it is policed.

A demonstration must be disruptive, by its very nature. So there’s a dilemma raised by the moving of a protest from the scene of its target, in this case the Jewish community, does it become effectively meaningless? What happens if a swastika waves in a side street in Whitehall, with no one there to fear it? Does it still resound?

The police decision to move the demonstration, in spite of earlier claims that they were powerless to do so, has effectively neutered it. It’s meaningless.

Now here’s the question: should the police have a right to neuter protest in that manner? Or does the fact that the neo-Nazis are allowed stand in the street and make their little speeches, even if it’s not the street they wanted to stand in, mean that their free speech has been fully protected? I’m not entirely sure we’ve thought about this fully. But I do recall past campaigns against “designated protest zones”, for example during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

I don’t really know what the answer is here: I guess the simple point is that one should be free to protest outside institutions but not outside people’s homes. But then what about the UK Uncut protesters who staged a “street party” outside then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s home?

This case of the relocated anti-Semites is interesting exactly because it has not turned out to be Britain’s Skokie case. To briefly recap, Skokie was an Illinois town where many Holocaust survivors had settled.

In 1977, the National Socialist Party of America proposed a march there. They were opposed. The case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The ACLU backed the Nazis’ right to march. Eventually, the court upheld the Nazis’ right to march. But they never actually did. [For more on this case, read Index on Censorship magazine, Vol 37, Number 3, 2008].

In 2015 in north London we have a similar but different case. There are some Nazis wanting to march in a Jewish neighbourhood, there are some people who object. But there is no great call to principle, no great desire to take up the cause seemingly on either side. It’s hard to even get anyone on the Nazi side to own up to who exactly is in charge. Joshua Bonehill, the Somerset Stormtrooper and all round troll, is widely believed to be responsible. He was arrested early this week on suspicion of incitement to racial hatred. No one seemed that bothered.

This is the British way of free expression; a matter of practicality rather than principle, a pliable concept, one that can almost always be tempered by appeals to taste: it is simply distasteful for Nazis to demonstrate in Golders Green; just not done to burn a poppy.

By and large, taste wins out in these compromises. Remember that the Chatterley ban only came to an end because it was deemed that the book was of high enough literary quality, not because adults have the right to read what they damned well please.

Tastefulness being the characteristic the British most pride themselves upon means it’s rare that anyone will argue against it. It’s a soft tyranny most people seem happy to live with.

This article was posted on 2 July 2015 at

Padraig Reidy: In defence of Mario Balotelli

I feel sorry for Mario Balotelli. I’m sure he’ll take that as a comfort; knowing he’s not the only one asking “why always Mario?” That is not to say I think he’s drifted through life blameless and immaculate: not at all. I’ve only seen him in the flesh once, when Manchester City played Arsenal. He had a terrible game and got sent off for what even I, sitting in row Z at the other end of the ground, could see was a stupid and dangerous tackle.

But I’ve had a soft spot for Balotelli ever since someone pointed out he looks like a baby dinosaur. Without wishing to infantilise him, he’s like the boy in school who can’t help getting in trouble even when he’s trying to be good. Ballotelli’s current situation is the perfect example. Last week, the player posted an image on Instagram, showing Nintendo character Super Mario (from whom the footballer takes his nickname, or at least would like to).

“Don’t be racist!”, it read (Yay!)

“Be like Mario” (LOL!)

“He’s an Italian plumber” (indeed he is)

“created by Japanese people” (correct)

“who speaks English” (sort of)

“and looks like a Mexican” (I suppose he does. A bit.)

“…jumps like a black man” (hmmm)

“and grabs coins like a Jew” (oh)

Long story short: people suggested that this might be a bit racist towards black and Jewish people, Balotelli responded that his mum is Jewish. Eventually, he took the post down and apologised. But by then it was too late. The Football Association announced over the weekend that the striker would face an investigation for using insulting and improper language with “reference to ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race and/or nationality and/or religion or belief”.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe for a moment that Balotelli meant to insult anyone with his Instagram post. I think he entirely sincerely posted the meme seeing it as an anti-racist message. The problem for poor Mario was that his ill-judged but innocent Instagram came while the football world was actually paying attention to anti-semitism, as Wigan chairman Dave Whelan spouted a series of inappropriate race-related comments (Jews, money, you know, that stuff) after hiring former Cardiff manager Malky Mackay, who himself had run into controversy over dubious texts (Jews, money, on and on it goes).

Whelan stylishly compounded the issue with a “clarifying” interview in the Jewish Telegraph, where he spun the ”some of my best friends are…” line, saying there must be “a dozen” Jews with apartments near his residence in Majorca, and “so many Jewish people go to Barbados at Christmas. That’s when I go. I see a lot of them in the Lone Star, in restaurants. I play golf with a few of them.”

In the same interview, Whelan told how when he was younger, people called the only Chinese restaurant in Wigan “the Chingalings”, and absolutely nobody had minded (though one doubts anyone asked the Chinese people of Wigan).

Whelan now also faces charges of misconduct from the FA. I’m not about to suggest that the FA has no right to investigate Whelan, or anyone involved in professional football in England. Associations can have their own rules and standards. But it would be sad if, in football’s newfound determination to deal with discrimination, innocents such as Balotelli got caught in the dragnet.

The interesting question is whether, in combating racism, one confronts the words used, the stereotypes invoked, the intent behind them, or all three at once. Is it possible to disentangle the three?

Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than the debate about whether Tottenham Hotspur fans should be able to chant “yids” or not. Short explanation: some Spurs fans are Jewish, many identify as the “yid army”. Some people — mostly not Spurs fans — feel that Spurs fans chanting “yids” legitimises anti-semitic chanting by fans of other teams. Spurs fans say it’s their chant and their word and they are using it positively. Unpick that one, sports fans.

Words in and of themselves are neutral entities. Does saying the word “yid” — in and of itself — make me more or less anti-semitic? No. But the creation of a taboo can elevate a word, bringing a certain thrill to its use. In a society where, more or less, we have decided bigotry is a bad thing (which is not to suggest a society where bigotry is no longer a problem), the use of words and phrases associated with bigotry can take on a thrill of its own, as much for the well intentioned as for the malevolent. The bad taste joke, the inappropriate interjection, the drunken football chant using the words you might not be supposed to use, are the shared cigarette behind the school bike shed; the shared, line-crossing moments that so often bond people.

The joy for most Unilad Bantalopes lies in that shared bond. For the person who created the meme which ill-feted Mario Balotelli shared (very much from the Bantasauraus school), one could simultaneously attempt to be anti-racist and use racial stereotypes. Human beings are complicated like that. And that’s why a zero-tolerance approach to words and meanings is unlikely to work on us.

This article was posted on 11 December 2014 at indexoncensorship

French magazine raises specter of racism and press freedoms

French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira makes a speech about penal reform in the lecture hall of the Political Science University in Paris. (Photo: Davide Del Giudice / Demotix)

French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira makes a speech about penal reform in the lecture hall of the Political Science University in Paris. (Photo: Davide Del Giudice / Demotix)

An obscure 16 page-long far-right magazine recently put France’s black justice minister Christiane Taubira on its cover, comparing her to a monkey. The storm of indignation that followed gave unexpected visibility to the magazine and members of the government expressed their desire to sue the magazine or to block the distribution of the infamous issue. Was this an attack on the freedom of the press? Or rather, an occasion for French politicians to look good and to make everyone forget about their own track record?

“Crafty as a monkey, Taubira gets her banana back”, said Minute’s cover, next to a photo of Taubira looking unhappy. The title used a common French phrase (“avoir la banane” means “to be in good form” in French).

Following the outrage caused by this cover, Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s prime minister, asked prosecutors to investigate whether any law had been broken. The prosecutors decided it had and opened an investigation for “injure publique à caractère racial” (racist public slur). The interior minister, Manuel Valls, announced he was examining whether it was legally possible to block the distribution of the magazine. This, however, has not been followed by any measures.

Taubira, 61, was born in French Guyana, where she started her political career as a supporter of independence for the ex-colony. She has been the driving force behind the 2001 law that recognises the Atlantic trade and slavery as a crime against humanity and a strong advocate of the law  allowing same-sex marriage passed this year.

As such, she has suffered an escalation of racist abuse from the opponents to same sex-marriage. Last month, Anne-Sophie Leclere, a Front National municipal election candidate, was dismissed by her party after comparing Taubira to a monkey on her Facebook page and on TV. “I prefer to see her swinging from the branches of a tree than in the governement”, she told a reporter. The FN subsequently sued Taubira for having insulted the party.

During a recent visit to Angers, the minister faced kids from the “Manif pour tous” waving a banana at her and chanting: “Who’s the banana for? For the monkey!” The abuse is reminiscent to what Cécile Kyenge, minister of integration in the current Italian governement, has been facing in Italy and rife with references to colonisation: In an October demonstration of the extremist Catholic Civitas Institute, a priest was heard shouting: “Y’a bon Banania, y’a pas bon Taubira” – a reference to the old advert for Banania chocolate powder which featured a Senegalese infantry man speaking in pidgin French, an advert which is seen as a symbol of French colonialism.

Minute’s words “deny that I belong to the human race”, said Taubira, who refused to prosecute the magazine.

Created by supporters of French colonisation in Algeria in 1962, Minute backed the Front National party in the 1970’s and has been struggling over the past years. Its publishing company went into administration last March and the magazine currently counts only three employees. For the magazine, the infamous front page has been a success: “We wanted free publicity. We got more than we could have dreamed of”, said one of their journalists. Hélène Valette, spokeperson for Minute added: “We take responsibility for this cover. It’s satirical. No one takes offense at the covers of Charlie Hebdo.”

Satirical publication Charlie Hebdo responded to this statement saying:  “Some people have actually taken offense at the covers of Charlie Hebdo, among which the Catholic far-right which has sued us 12 times in 20 years (…) Minute does not defend the freedom of the press. It prepares the ground for future racist crimes.”

The law against racist public slur was added in 1972 to the 1881 Law on Press Freedom. France has some of the toughest hate speech laws in the EU. Minute’s editor is risking up to six months in jail and a 22,500 euros fee.

For French politicians and for the press, the racist abuse against Taubira has actually provided an occasion to express unanimous indignation and to push under the carpet their own recourse to racist rhetorics. As Julien Salingue wrote in Acrimed (an independent organisation criticising the media) some of the media coverage of the abuse looked like an investigation led by suspects. “Has France become racist?” recently asked the Parisien newspaper on its front page, forgetting previous covers demonising migrants. The pattern was shared by Le Point and L’Express magazines, known for their sensationalistic Islamophobic covers.

At the launch of the Front National municipal campaign, a journalist from France Inter radio deemed fit to give a platform to 85 year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen and ask him for his opinion of Christiane Taubira. Always predictable, Le Pen said that because Taubira had been independentist she was against France and had been chosen because the colour of her skin could serve as a shield when proposing unacceptable laws.

Interior minister Manuel Valls has used the attacks on Taubira to his political advantage and has been very prompt in saying he wanted to ban the circulation of Minute – which seemed at best useless, as the damage had been done, at worst, counterproductive:  it would insure more publicity for Minute and allow the publication to portray itself as a defendant of the freedom of the press. Valls happens to be well-known for its anti-immigrants and anti-Roma policies and rhetorics. France’s national union for undocumented migrants, which is planning a protest in front of the Parti Socialiste headquarters on 27 November, argues that “the liberation of racist speech is a result of the policy of successive governments which have agreed to the idea that “immigration is a problem” and stigmatised Roma people, Muslims and all foreigners, especially undocumented people.”

Henri Maler, one of Acrimed founders, tweeted: “Fighting racism exclusively by outraged declarations and legal action = emptying the ocean with a tea spoon.”

This article was originally posted on 25 Nov 2013 at