24th September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Nelson’s Column

Recently, in a triumph of common sense, a council in England under pressure from local parents forced a school to change a menu item from “Gingerbread Person” back to “Gingerbread Man.” Quite right too. That’s just taking political correctness too far. Or is it PC gone mad? Well, actually it’s neither. Gingerbread Person is not a PC term. Let me explain.

Too many people think political correctness is about not causing offence, but that’s not exactly true. Yes, being PC will cause less offence but it is only really about using correct definitions and designations.

For example, when I was in the USA I was often regarded as Irish. Now, I am not at all offended by being thought of as Irish, but I’m not, I’m Scottish. It is the politically correct definition of my nationality. And so I would correct people.

In any case, causing offence isn’t always a problem. If Emmeline Pankhurst hadn’t offended men and polite society, women might not have the vote. If Rosa Parks hadn’t offended white folks by sitting at the front of the bus, the civil rights movement would not have been what it was.

So if you take a confection which is called a GingerBread Man and call it something else then you have not been PC.

I can see where they made their mistake. They have thought it wrong to make this confection gender specific. In itself that is a noble idea. However they have not recognised that a Gingerbread Man is actually a man. That’s the way it was invented. It is male. Nothing wrong with that.

These mix ups happen all over. A couple of years ago the wonderful Billy Connolly got annoyed about a maitre-de telling him that a “wait-person” would be with him soon. Obviously he considered this taking PC too far. But again, not PC. The consensus is that the word “waitress” is incorrect because it attaches a gender to a genderless job. This has been noticed already in management where you will now very rarely hear the word “manageress.”  A manager is a manager regardless of gender. The PC term for all waiting staff is “waiter” regardless of gender. The exception to prove this rule is the word “actress” as this is a gender specific job. You won’t see many male Queen Elizabeths or female Hamlets. Female actors can decide personally if they want to be referred to as actors or actresses. Both are correct.

Also I have great trouble with the phrase “PC gone too far.” Imagine if you will a football match. Just outside the penalty box a striker heading for the opposing goal crouches down, picks up the ball, tucks it under his arm, charges the goalie, knocks him to the ground than scores a try. You wouldn’t say he had taken football too far. You would say he’d gotten it all wrong. He would protest that there were two teams on a grassy field with a ball and goals so it’s all the same. People do this with language too.

I suppose my point is this: don’t automatically bash the concept of PC when often it is either not being used or is being horribly twisted.

So with all that in mind and Up Helly Aa coming up soon, let me ask this question: what’s with all the blacking up? Year upon year at the torch-lit procession I see a few sqauds completely blacked up. It’s just a laugh, eh? Well here’s the deal.

The practice of “black face” was developed in the mid 19th century in American vaudeville. Black performers were not allowed to play in whites-only theatres, but their songs were good enough. So white singers would black up to sing Negro spirituals, earning a crust while the black singer starved. It was also used by comedians to do black characters, intent on belittling black people as stupid, corrupt and lazy.

Of course most people blacking up today aren’t doing that. It’s just a bit of fun. Well again there is a difference. If you are dressed as Barack Obama, for example, or Jimi Hendrix or The No.1 Ladies Detective agency, then that is one thing. You are dressed as a specific person and if done really well the black face is part of a specific costume. However if you just slap on the boot polish and a grass skirt (or a track suit and bling) then you are not simply being politically incorrect. You are buying into a historic system of vicious racism by saying “this is what black people look like.” You are as well just writing the word “darkie” on your forehead.

So on Transvestite Tuesday go ahead and black up by all means. I just ask that you know what you are getting into, and don’t just lazily throw PC in someone’s face if they have a problem with it.

Sandy Nelson