Theo Hobson

Golliwog, Totem and Taboo

Golliwog, Totem and Taboo
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Commentary on the Carol Thatcher business has been predictably superficial and self-righteous. Its real meaning is that racial correctness can only be understood in relation to religion. Bear with me.

Did she commit a serious offence? She referred to someone as a golliwog, obviously knowing that it was a taboo word, capable of causing great offence to black people, and of producing a frisson of disapproval among the white people who were actually present. It was, perhaps, a momentary lapse of judgment, a brief failure of self-censorship - there is no evidence that she holds racist views. For this lapse she has been dropped from a television show, and her reputation has been damaged beyond repair.

It sounds like a shocking over-reaction, political correctness gone Stalinist. She was guilty of nothing more than 'bad manners', says Simon HefferAccording to Charles Moore 'she committed no offence, professional or moral – not even, since the person she described was not in the room, an offence of manners.'

This response is an evasion of a complex reality. The fact is that some race terms are genuinely taboo, in the anthropological sense – they have a sort of magic power. They conjure up a whole mental attitude, a way of seeing the world. Because of this power, they are effectively prohibited. This is not a matter of 'political correctness', but of quasi-religious piety. The prohibition stands for something larger: it is a totem of white repentance for historical racism. To use one of these words, 'as a joke', is to dissent from this; to signal scepticism about the necessity of white repentance for historical racism.

But is Carol Thatcher's little slip an instance of serious racism? On one level obviously not, but in race as in religion, symbolism is powerful. The way that we keep racism in check is to police these totem-words carefully. Why? Because racism is a subtle monster that is generally invisible; it consists of endless little negative assumptions about black people. And the average self-aware white person knows that he is capable of such assumptions. That is why we need to invest certain speech-rules with such force. We need to demonstrate our awareness that we are somewhat infected still by the sins of our grandfathers, and that we repent of it.

To say that one should refrain from using these words out of 'good manners' is a claim to be impervious to the taboo business. It is to say that whites retain the right to use these words – but we will try to refrain from doing so, if you are lucky.

I am expressing white liberal guilt, some will say. They're right: I think that British whites do inherit a burden of guilt, rather like Germans do (they're more honest about it) but smaller. For whites in post-colonial cultures, racism is a post-religious form of original sin, something we know to be in our DNA and ought to repent of.

Theo Hobson will be writing regularly on religion for at Faith Based, The Spectator’s new religion blog