It is upsetting when someone tells you that you have hurt them, especially when no hurt was intended. And it is easy to become defensive in your response; “I didn’t mean it like that, you’re just being over sensitive.” This situation is hard enough to negotiate between partners or friends, but when whole sections of society become polarised over an issue that one side feels is offensive and the other side considers childish, we need to stop and pay attention. Is it political correctness gone mad, or are we being given the chance to see ourselves and our behaviour through the eyes of another. And do we have the courage to listen?
Lovers of the Pippi Longstocking books will by now have heard that Pippi’s father has lost his job title. Those of you that know something of the Dutch ‘St Nicholas’ culture will have heard rumours about his original Spanish helpers being sacked in favour of more racially correct types. Two actions by a white culture to redress the symbolic representations of the very real injury caused to people of colour; such as slavery, colonialism, and everyday discrimination.
So why do I feel concern that we are in danger of pandering to political correctness, as a way of avoiding a true, and mutually painful discussion about tolerance, forgiveness, understanding and self-empowerment?
Pippi’s dad came up at a recent dinner party and it evoked the most delightful discussion with some of the youngest adults around the table. The general mood was that surely it is a good thing that we get rid of symbols of oppression in literature that would only perpetuate the imbalance between white and black. I asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to leave it in and use it to provoke a discussion about how unequal we once viewed people in the past?” The young diners expressed concern that many parents wouldn’t be up to the job of invoking a discussion about race, and so society had to protect them. This assumes little Björn or little Sofia is incapable of sorting out the Pippi story from modern role models such as the politician Alice Bah and rapper Antone Mecca in Sweden.
Having just watched the nationally televised arrival of St: Nicholas in Holland I sit with the discomfort that while I, as a child, never connected the old bishop’s assistants, blacked up and called Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), with anything other than the bringers of sweets and presents, I have to accept that for others they were experienced as a caricature of their race. And while I understand that they would see it like that, I am also saddened that this year armed guards had to be hidden among the crowds of cheering children, because the discussion has become so inflamed and the innocence has been lost. But in contrast to the erasure of Pippi’s dad’s job title, at least we are having a discussion, and we are prepared to meet the pain halfway. Cleverly, the narrative of the fairytale of St: Nicholas is being reconstructed. The old moorish and therefore black ‘Pieten’ that travelled with St: Nicholas from Spain are being replaced by locally trained, home grown ‘Pieten’. And so today we saw white Pieters joining in the parade, as well as ‘cheese Pieters’, turban wearing Pieters etc etc.
But will it be enough to satisfy the anti-Pieter faction?
Redressing the past is also about letting go
The other side of the debate goes to the heart of (in)equality and also addresses the choice we have as minorities to forever see ourselves as victims of (historical) oppression, or to grow strong and be counted, as individuals, regardless of handicap, sexual orientation or race. Last night I watched ‘Hawkings’. If ever there is an example of someone refusing to identify with a stereotype it is Stephen Hawkings. I remember once falling out of my pew at my local church when someone suggested in all seriousness to remove all references to ‘Him’ from the bible and make God gender neutral. This, it was argued, would help me, poor put upon Christian female, to feel included. Really?? Am I that insecure about my place in the Spiritual Kingdom? It felt patronising and insulting. We might as well rename Shakespeare’s particularly misogynist ‘taming of the shrew’ or take Caravaggio masterpiece the Victorious Cupid off the wall. After all, we rightly no longer accept sexual relations with under age children.
My fear is that by removing all evidence of the stupid, ignorant, culturally backward people we once were, we take away the valuable lessons learned through history. Rather than indulging the fear of indoctrinating our children with false stereotypes, we can offer them the stark contrast between fictionalised or historical accuracy, and the modern-day society in which they are growing up, where the principle of sexual and racial equality is a given, even if it is not perfectly practised. And if, as my fellow diners suggested, parents aren’t intellectually capable enough to have that debate, then there are teachers and the context of school and society in general. Awareness of the past is what hopefully protects us from making the same mistakes in the future. The rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe, hijacked by a racist agenda, can only be dealt with if the discussion is held out in the open, like the seeping sore that it is, showing the sickness of its condition instead of hiding it underneath politically correct bandages and plasters.
Understanding yes, victimization, no.
So those of us who happen to hear the accusation ‘you hurt me’ without understanding why or how, need to be brave and to listen. To understand and then to negotiate with the hurt party, what would be a better way forward. But when I am the one that is hurt, by what I know is unintentional, yet deeply ignorant behaviour, I too have a choice. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said; “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” It is hard to belong to a minority, but we have a choice. Commanding respect has never gone by the road of victimization. Commanding respect is the result of knowing that you are more than any label, more than your social position, more than any slight that another person can send your way, intentionally or not.
Each one of us, regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation, mental or physical challenge has the job of becoming the best of who we can be. And then to help our fellow humans become the best of that they can be. To know we are all of equal value, though not all the same. To see that it is the very diversity of habits, behaviours and outlooks that together form the mosaic of our existence. Have the discussion, point out what is wrong, but at the same time, refuse to identify with the stereotype.
Because once it is erased, if you’re not careful, so are you.