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The Words We Use

When I first arrived in London what seems like eons ago now, there still were golliwogs on Robertson jam jars and black and white minstrels on television. Having participated full throttle in the Civil Rights Movement in the US, I was stunned and enraged. Ex-Colonial Masters in the secondary school where I first taught were perpetrators and their students—mostly from the Caribbean—were, to their pleasure and amusement, imaginary golliwogs come to life. To say that there was cruelty in that school is an understatement. Caning, slippering (with a gym shoe known as a plimsole), humiliation. “These children are so backward,” the teachers said over and over again. But it was the country that was backward at that time, or these teachers in particular, to be fair, as the school system was in the midst of reform which was taking a long time to percolate outward to the worst schools.

My husband and I stayed in Britain for a decade; our daughter was born there. Over the years, as entrance into the EU became a reality, there was increased tolerance for the “other.” So many “others” were being born British, born Londoners, cosmopolitan and borderless. And so many “others” were visiting and studying in England, and so many young Brits were traveling and working abroad. This kind of voluntary migration shatters insularity. The neighborhoods, though divided by class, were integrated racially. People were socializing, dating, marrying. So I was surprised to discover that a British friend who visited New York the other day is still using offensive words and finding new uses for them. I am sure she is an anomaly, living in a small village, prey to the sensational press—Islamic terrorists these days instead of golliwogs. And offensive words still on her lips.

“Stupid,” was always a favorite, “naughty” another. “That’s a stupid woman,” my friend said on the M4 bus which travels from my neighborhood into Harlem and beyond. I had wanted her to feel the contours of my divided city, contiguous ethnic neighborhoods living peaceably side by side without much interaction. And a young black woman got on who was obviously unwell, perhaps even on medication, and her reflexes were so slow, her lips and hands trembling, that she didn’t get up fast enough from the side seat reserved for the elderly and disabled when an elderly woman got on. “Stupid woman,” my friend said again. That brought me back-ward to my early days in London.

“She is unwell,” I said, correcting my friend. “The words we use to describe people matter.” Earlier she had referred to our native people as “Red Indians,” and prided herself on not having any “laborers,” in her family. Class prejudice as well as racism, I thought. How quaint.
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