Theo Hobson

What words are off limits in the race debate?

What words are off limits in the race debate?
Greg Clarke, ex-chairman of The FA (Getty images)
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Greg Clarke, the chairman of the Football Association, stood down this week after saying some politically incorrect things. Chief among his offences, it seems, was his use of the word ‘coloured’, when referring to black players. On the Today programme, an interviewee explained that this term was deeply offensive to ‘people of colour’, as it reminded them of the era of segregation. I can’t have been alone in noticing that the offensive term is similar to the approved term that she used, and in being struck by the apparent irrationality of this.

A few weeks ago, the headmistress of Benenden, Samantha Price, got in trouble for giving a talk about racism in which she used the term ‘negro’. But she was using the word in a critical, questioning way, pointing out that it used to be inoffensive; Martin Luther King used it to refer to himself, for example. Even using the word in this way was offensive, said some people, and she felt obliged to apologise. 

I read about this in the Times. Why was it OK for the newspaper to use the word in the report, if it was so offensive? Because it was printed rather than spoken? Or maybe her offence was to use the word as a representative of privilege? Again, I was struck by the irrationality of the amorphous rules surrounding race language.

Which is the whole point. The irrationality is the point. Because it means unpredictability. It means that we are never quite sure of the rules. This means that a member of the racial majority is always somewhat on the back foot, in danger of slipping up, in slight fear of getting it wrong. Even when a term is unambiguously off-limits, uncertainty remains: is one allowed to refer to it, quote it, give a student a book that contains it? 

And with other terms, there is huge ambiguity about whether they really cause people offence, or whether a few activists are choosing to say that they do, in order to foster a culture of nervousness. I am not allowed to ask whether such words really cause intrinsic offense; it is a mystery I must back off from. It is a limitation on my easy freedom to hold forth about almost everything in the world.

I am not saying: away with all the irrationality of racial correctness, as if words have magic power. Let’s say what we want! For it is simply a fact that, in the realm of race, words do have special power. Nor am I saying: let’s establish some firm rules about what is and what is not acceptable, so well-meaning folk like me don’t get into trouble. 

The whole point is that no such rules are possible. For racial correctness is a force that defies reason. Does this make it beyond criticism? Yes and no. Like all forms of human culture, it is subject to criticism. But at the same time there is a sort of sacredness here we cannot discount. There is something here we should respect and fear. Indeed we have no choice but to.

Written byTheo Hobson

Theo Hobson is the author of seven books, including God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values

Topics in this articleSociety