Racism and political correctness

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling star in 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh.
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling star in 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh.

Racism has been in the headlines this week with this year’s Oscar nominations causing controversy as no people of colour have been nominated in any of the main categories.

Numerous actors and directors have expressed their anger and disappointment that Hollywood does not reflect the multicultural society we live in.

As well as African American, Latinos and Asians speaking out, white actors have also expressed their views in the diversity row. Some like Mark Rufalo stand by their industry cohorts, calling for a shake-up of the Academy. Others, however, have been criticised for their comments like Charlotte Rampling, herself nominated for a best actress gong, who said that the outrage could be seen as racist towards white people.

As often happens when a white person weighs in on a debate about racism, there is an air of awkwardness. As a historically-colonial people, what do we really know about racism? We can never have the experiences of other races, so how can we fully understand them? Should we accept that we are always coming at the issue from a white privileged point of view?

Our views are informed by many different factors – the family we are born into, the place we live in, the newspapers and books we read, the television we watch, the friends we keep and the history we are taught. There is a different context for every viewpoint.

In a column written for The Guardian on October 22, 2015, Rebecca Carroll asserts: “People are afraid of the power that true equality can give the historically disenfranchised and afraid of having been wrong.”

Perhaps this explains why there is such a backlash against so-called political correctness.

Some traditional children’s songs have changed over the years to eliminate discriminatory or racist language, therefore becoming more politically correct. It doesn’t mean that when you sang the old versions as a child that you were racist. When we are young our behaviours are largely learned, we pick up what adults say and take them as truth, and it does not necessarily come from a place of malice.

But, as Carroll says, it is hard to admit that you have been wrong, especially when childhood memories become tainted.

There is an assertion that political correctness is dictatorial, telling you what you can and can’t say, and hindering free speech. But what if we look at it another way? What if we use political correctness to provoke a discussion instead of simply shutting someone down?

Ultimately, we have to acknowledge the wider world and the historical context offensive phrases and stereotypes come from. There is no committee sitting in a room deciding what is offensive and what is not. Offensive language is offensive for a reason – it came from a real place where a person or group of people was belittled or made to feel uncomfortable.

We can’t live in a bubble, so let’s talk about it, let’s educate ourselves.