I’m just watching last night’s episodes of Coronation Street. Paul the boring fireman (white, and to be fair the biggest nonentity of a character since Ryan in Neighbours) is in a bad mood because of some work stuff, and was angry at a decision going against him in a game of darts. Protesting the decision, he said something about “playing the white man’s game,” not realising that black characters – Lister from Red Dwarf, his daughter Jenna and her mother Mandy had just come into the pub and heard him.
Jenna, Lister from Red Dwarf and various white characters politely challenge Paul, who says he “didn’t mean it like that” but doesn’t apologise, because he doesn’t think he should have to apologise for something he obviously wouldn’t have said if he’d known they were there and because he “didn’t mean it like that.” After a bit of a discussion which turns into a barney, Lister from Red Dwarf calls Paul a racist, which makes Paul even angrier because he thinks it’s worse to be called a racist than to use a racial insult. And then neither of them will apologise to the other unless the other apologises first which obviously results in a bad-tempered stalemate.
Now, in Paul’s defence, there is no evidence that he is racist, and it does seem that he knows the term he used is racially offensive and that is slipped out in the heat of the moment when he was angry about something happening in the here and now, underpinned by his anxiety about what’s happening at work. He’s already feeling put-upon and attacked, and sees the people challenging him about what he said in the pub as adding to that, so he’s angry and defensive about that too.
But, he doesn’t apologise. He refuses to apologise, because he says that now Lloyd (Lister from Red Dwarf) has accused him of racism, if he apologises, he’s admitting to being racist. Because he still thinks being accused of racism is worse than being the victim of it.
Several of the characters talk to him, to Lloyd and to each other about it. All of them are in agreement that although they’ve all heard worse, and although they don’t think he is a racist, what Paul said wasn’t acceptable and he should apologise. Kudos to Coronation Street, none of the characters (so far) have said “oh, it was ok, they’re making a fuss about nothing.”
I think it would have been very easy for Corrie to make this an argument over the extremes of “it was harmless, get over it” and “it was awful, Paul’s a racist” and I think the way they’ve chosen to show it is cleverer than that. All the characters, Paul included, know that “playing the white man’s game” is a phrase which implies that white people play fairly – and therefore that the non-white people don’t. (I’m using non-white there deliberately to emphasise the privilege and sense of superiority explicit and implied in the phrase Paul used, not because it’s a term I would normally use. Just wanted to make that clear). All of the characters know it’s something he wouldn’t have said if he’d been thinking clearly, and the writers have included some discussion about the fact it wouldn’t have been ok to say it even if Lloyd, Jenna and Mandy hadn’t been there.
And what I really like is that all of the characters, except Paul, are saying very clearly “being called a racist is not worse than what you said. Stop being a dick and apologise. We know you’re not a racist, but you did say something stupid and it was hurtful. Stop being a dick and apologise. We understand why Lloyd, Jenna and Mandy are upset; it’s because you said something dickish. Stop being a dick and apologise.”
There are lessons for those of us who want to be allies to a cause – for the white people who want to be allies to black people in the fight against racism, for men who want to be allies to feminists in the fight against patriarchy, for the privileged in all the fights against oppression that are going on throughout the kyriarchy. Saying something stupid in the heat of the moment when you’re not thinking clearly doesn’t make you an evil person – but the decent way to deal with it is to acknowledge you fucked up, apologise sincerely, try not to do it again, and to not pretend that being challenged about it is worse than being a victim of it.
Also, Steve McDonald going on about his superglued hands – comedy joy.