Anybody who looks at local online forums such as the Shetland Times website or the Shetlink page will have noticed the casual racism that sometimes lurks there. Whether it’s people winding themselves up about perceived wrongs done to “native” Shetlanders by Scottish “incomers”, or jokes about ordering takeaways being the only use for teaching Chinese in schools, the underlying attitude is clear – some commentators enjoy attacking people from other places.
Thankfully, though, what can be read on these websites isn’t a reflection of the views of the wider community. The fact that the same names appear again and again tells us that. But it is troubling to see how racist language is slowly infecting political and cultural discourse, both locally and nationally.
Things are, of course, better than they used to be. There aren’t grotesque racist stereotypes on TV now, and doling out explicit racial abuse in the street can get you in serious trouble. Even when I grew up in the 80s, it wasn’t unusual to hear what would now be considered serious racist language. It’s good to reflect that we now live in a society where that stuff is pretty close to unsayable.
Pretty close, but not quite. Because, especially as we approach the general election, it looks like things might be taking a few steps back. With UKIP riding high in the polls, and with the other parties desperate to avoid losing votes, the current talk is often about “getting tough on immigrants,” and so on.
A race to outdo UKIP on immigration won’t be pleasant to watch. That approach does nothing but pander to the worst kind of instincts and won’t help to keep racist language out of political and cultural discourse. Hearing Nigel Farage say that blacking-up is OK, or Godfrey Bloom foaming about “Bongo Bongo Land”, or William Henwood telling Lenny Henry that he should go back to a black country is pretty laughable. Anybody who isn’t a Neanderthal recognises this for what it is. But the fact that this stuff is being said is a real worry.
So, maybe when people send comments to local websites they should think a bit more carefully about what they write. Blatant racism is easy to identify, but more subtle, implicit kinds do damage as well. People have the right to say what they want, but when racist language becomes normal we’re all in trouble. It doesn’t matter if you’re a national politician or a local online commentator, the responsibility is the same. Racism, even a little bit of it, should never be part of the picture.
Mark Ryan Smith