The other night I was out with a friend, and her friends, and their friends. You know, one of those evenings where you walk into the pub and realise you don’t know anyone. But seeing as this isn’t the first day of primary school and you can’t wail and cling to your mum’s leg, you have to suck it up, get a drink and start mingling.
The evening progressed and it seemed to be going well: small talk was made, jokes (and shots) were shared. On the dance floor, a new acquaintance leaned in all conspiratorial to tell me something about having slept with a guy at the bar. “Over there,” she said. “The half-caste guy.” The music was loud but there was no mistaking that ugly, old-fashioned phrase. I felt physically jarred, the blood rushing to my face. I usually hate confrontation – who doesn’t – but get a drink or two in me and I become altogether more argumentative.
I let the girl continue with her story, though I wasn’t really listening, instead trying to breathe calmly and give my raging brain the chance to sync with my mouth. I knew that if I was going to say something, my choice of words was as important as the way I said them. Blowing up at this girl and calling her a racist was not the answer. But I couldn’t let the slur go uncorrected – not least because I’m mixed race myself.
People are often surprised when I explain my heritage. And believe me, with a surname like mine, they usually ask – even in London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world where your friends and colleagues are likely to include a healthy mix of first-, second- and third-generation immigrants. I’ve never understood why, but plotting somebody’s family tree the first time you meet them seems to be a priority for some people. Sometimes, I wonder, were I to change my surname to my husband’s (very ‘British’) name, would I still be asked where I’m from all the time?
But back to that night on the dance floor. I leaned in: “Do me a favour?” I said, as calmly as I could. “Don’t use that term again.” All fine, awkward confrontation avoided and teachable moment not missed. Or so I thought, until she replied. “Why not? I know people who prefer it.”
So I explained that it was old-fashioned at best, and offensive at worst. Trust me, an impromptu lecture on racism and intent really wasn’t how I’d imagined my Friday night.
Do we want to start referring to women as birds again? Or make jokes about Essex Girls? Even if, as this girl asserted, some people have reclaimed the term – perhaps like some black people use the N-word – it doesn’t mean that it’s ok for others to do the same.
I explained that calling anybody half of anything was dehumanising and derogatory. If we are half, then is everyone else whole? And when us halves have kids, what will they be?
The word ‘caste’ has multiple meanings, none of which is good. The 'caste' with which we’re probably most familiar in the UK is the stratified class system of India that created segregation and disadvantage for centuries. But the root of 'half-caste' is the Latin word ‘castus’, meaning pure, and its Spanish and Portuguese derivative ‘casta’, meaning race. So 'half-caste' means impure, it means white is pure and anything else just muddies the blood.
My old uni housemates didn’t understand my horror when they called the shop on the corner “the Paki shop”. It’s just a thing they grew up doing, they said, not quite understanding why it was even an offensive term. They saw it as a shortening of Pakistani, like Brit or Aussie. But then, they’d never had it snarled in their face with rage and spittle.
As I get older, and the country threatens to tip back into its old, intolerant ways, it breaks my heart to think of how my parents might have been treated. My dad, the immigrant, and my mum, the white woman who married him. Even in the early ‘80s, in the ethnically diverse area in which they met, married and brought up a mixed family, it can’t have been easy. The worst I have to deal with is people thinking I’m far more exotic than I am, that I can speak another language, or being surprised when I don’t have a foreign accent.
It can be hard to know how to respond to those people, who may mean well but whose line of thinking makes unnecessary assumptions. Or – like the girl the other night – who don’t think their words are offensive because that’s not how they intend them.
Political correctness is often ridiculed, the idea that people are so fragile they need to be wrapped in cotton wool, protected from painful words. But the sort of people who decry it are usually the ones throwing out the sharpest barbs. To me, political correctness is just kindness by another name. And, please, do explain to me quite what the harm is in being correct? It is not rebellious or anti-establishment to cause offence instead of referring to a person by the pronoun they have chosen; to defer to someone’s own preferences and experiences when discussing ethnicity, race or gender. You might not get it right every time, but I promise to correct you as kindly as possible. Just don’t ask me where I’m ‘really’ from.