I have told the story before about attending a workshop organised by a local Black writers’ collective.
I heard a number of poems and short stories about being Black, being proud of being Black, enjoying being Black, and seeing Blackness as a positive thing; and wondering how poetry written in that style but from my own—white—point of view might sound.
I couldn’t imagine any way of writing about being white, or being proud of being white which didn’t come out sounding like Enoch Powell and Billy Brit.
All this was a long time ago, I remember, before the Right had weaponised the term woke. I understood Black and white to be neutral, descriptive terms, like fair-haired and dark-haired.. I thought that racism meant “disliking people who had dark skin”: very silly, and unpleasant, but no different in principle from disliking fat people or people with freckles. I even thought that the bad word, the word beginning with a different letter from FUCK, was a term of abuse, like Froggie or Jock or Taffy or Limey or Aussie. It certainly could be very hurtful indeed, but it might also be neutral or funny or even affectionate, depending on who said it to whom in which context and on what day of the week. Racists were horrible people, and everything could be solved if everyone was a bit nicer. Ebony and ivory lived together in perfect harmony on Paul McCartney’s keyboard.
I have also told the story of an unfortunate fancy dress costume I once wore (more than thirty years ago) which at the time I sincerely felt was harmless because I didn’t mean anything by it.
I have also told the story about how, subsequently, I discovered Martin Carthy and the Incredible String Band and especially Show of Hands, and came to believe that they offered a positive, non-offensive way of celebrating my own, white, identity. The England of English folk music, and especially of the 1960s folk revival, is certainly an imaginary England, but then the Africa of the Black diaspora is to some extent an imaginary Africa. Salman Rushdie wrote a very good book about India called Imaginary Homelands.
A fortnight after I had embraced English folk music as a possible identity, Nick Griffin appropriated it for his white supremacist British National Party, and the whole folk-against-fascism thing happened. Say what you like about Nigel Farage, he has never shown much interest in Morris Dancing.
Me and Nick Griffin were, unfortunately, both particularly fond of one particular Show of Hands track. I discussed the song at some length in this forum at that time. I thought the song was lamenting the fact that there is a living folk-tradition among some Black and Irish communities, whereas white British people tend to take the piss out of singers who say hey-nonny-no with their fingers in their ears. But some people thought that it was playing on unfortunate tropes about vibrancy and an in-built senses of rhythm. Steve Knightley himself (who wrote the song) said that it was really about the 2001 performing arts act, which would have put small folk venues out of business. The philistine arts minister Kim Howells is certainly referenced in the lyrics.
One contributor to the discussion asserted that the song, the singer and the band were irreducibly racist (“why are we even talking about this?”) while generously conceding that I was allowed to like “problematic” things. Another went as far as to say that the entire conversation was racist: here was a privileged person—a straight white male with a job in the music industry and a platform—implying that he had something to complain about, and here was I, another middle class white person, calmly discussing whether or not he had a point.
In another song by the same band a white person—a white person!—complains that he is out of work and can’t afford to live in his own village because second-home owners have priced locals out. First world, as the young people say, problem.
In the course of the discussion, I blurted out: “You are saying that all white people are racist; or, at any rate, you are defining racist as ‘what white people are’”.
To cut to the chase.
I have since come around to the position that all white people are, in fact, racist, and that “what white people are” is a pretty good definition of the word.
But of course, speaking as a woke post-modernist who has read a little Foucault, I would have to add “It all depends on what you mean by racist.” Because words mean whatever I want them to mean.
I still think Roots is an excellent song.
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