07 August 2009

Lucy in the sky with violence

Since I posted "The South", three weeks ago, I've had a trickle of enquiries about one peripheral comment: “I didn't know what racism or race were ... until I was 14. ... I lost that innocence not in the US south but in a smallish UK market town”. Only a trickle, but a constant one which hasn't yet shown any sign of abating. So, here is a tidied up and recycled account lifted from an email to friends a few years back along.

I know now, as an adult, that most of us grow up to a certain point without knowing what racism is. We just assume that our own attitudes and those of the world around us are normal – until such time as the two (our own and the surrounding world's) come to differ in some way. One of the oddities about my early upbringing was that I didn't know what race was. Fat, Buddhist, thin, Baptist, white, tall, Jewish, short, black, friendly, Hindu, antagonistic, dark brown, kind, Moslem, cruel, Taoist, light brown, open, Baha'ist, distant, English speaking, French speaking, Arabic speaking, Cantonese speaking, clever, Shintoist, clumsy, olive, young, Catholic, old, pagan, middle aged ... that was just the way people were ... it genuinely never occurred to me that any of these things were relevant to anything else at all until I was 14.

At that age I found myself listening to class mates at a British school talk and make jokes about "wogs". Like any 14 year old, I was reluctant to admit ignorance ... so, just as I had four years earlier when other boys talked about sex, I pretended I understood: I laughed when others did, but said little and tried to puzzle it out.

This unwitting collusion ended after about three months. I had had my first kiss. Well, first adult kiss; there had been snatched playground kisses but not the full real beautiful thing. Now that had changed. Lucy, who lived up the road and was a pupil at the Sec Mod school, (with whom I had for some weeks been taking long and unnecessary detours on the way home, talking earnestly about deeply meaningful issues which now escape me) suddenly dragged me off the road into a patch of bushes by the rec, put her arms round my neck, and ... well, the world was wonderfully changed.

The next day, at school, other boys were looking at me and sniggering. I didn't particularly notice; I was lost in my own selfish haze of eternal undying love for Lucy. At lunch break, though, I was rudely awakened by being thrown in the ornamental fish pond and held under.

My crime, apparently, was being seen "kissing a wog". I was at a loss. The only person I had kissed was Lucy. Was Lucy a wog? I didn't know; but obviously she must be. After that, I couldn't stay innocent for long. I found out what the word meant (for US readers, the approximate equivalent of "nigger") and with it the whole existence of race and racism.

And there's no closing the door once opened. It's like original sin. When we know what racism is, we become, ipso facto, racist ourselves. It's like original sin, Because it's not possible to be aware of something and not have it in mind when looking at the world. Similarly with sexism, or any other prejudicial ism. At thirteen I simply wouldn't have noticed a black/white couple; at fifteen, I would note it with approval – and that is racism. I became aware that race affected advancement ... so I would cheer a black footballer though I had no interest in football – and that is racism. Even my passionate following of the gradual, painful civil rights triumphs in the US and in Ulster (and gravitation to friendships with those who shared those politics) was racism. Heart in the right place racism perhaps; but racism nonetheless. As Jim Putnam has more than once commented over at TTMF, we will know that racism is no more when every race can have its scoundrels as well as its heroes – and without comment on their race, in either direction.


Ray Girvan said...

Ugh. My stepfather used to regale us with stories about his dealings with "the wogs" when he was stationed in India - with the lame excuse that it wasn't derogatory because it stood for "worthy Oriental gentleman".

Felix Grant said...

In the aftermath of the above story, a history teacher overheard me being teased (or, as I would now say more bluntly, psychologically bullied) over both my ignorance about the word and my refusal to sacrifice Lucy.

He (the teacher) supplied the supposed acronymic origin (I've never checked it ... will do so after typing this), substituting "wily" for your stepfather's "worthy". To his (the teacher's) credit, he also poured withering scorn on the word, all similar uses of language, and the boys concerned ... none of which stopped them once he was out of earshot, of course.

Ray Girvan said...

OED says "Origin uncertain: often said to be an acronym, but none of the many suggested etymologies is satisfactorily supported by the evidence".

It's a reliable rule to mistrust claimed acronyms for pre-1900s words, and certainly ones where the coinage of the acronym isn't documented; and a quick search finds an 1893 example.

I did, however, rather like the use in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2 (the one that's a retelling of War of the Worlds) where the enraged Mr Hyde calls the Martians "Sky Wogs".

Dr. C said...

Well, I always thought it was derived from Golliwog. But then, this was an American invention and referred mostly to dolls of negroes. And, for some reason, this reminds me of the song, Polly Wolly Doodle All Day.

In Ireland in the 1970's there were many foreign students, particularly at the medical school. Those from Norway were called "Norwogs." But I guess its actually Australian.