Usually they’re strangers or passing acquaintances who then demonstrate that racist is exactly what they are. I should tell them what I think of them, but I don’t, because of some perverse politeness, and simply walk away, making a mental note to avoid their company in future.
I’ve also come across racism in older people who saw their world change around them as traditional northern towns became home to Asian immigrants in 1950s and 1960s. For some, this suspicion of people who were ‘different’ turned to bitterness and discrimination.
The point I’m trying to make is that I’m not oblivious to racism, nor do I think we inhabit some utopia in which it has been banished. I’m also sure that if I analysed my own thinking closely enough, I’d find traces of racial stereotyping no matter how liberal I think I might be. There’s the Welsh for a start.
But in general, attitudes have mellowed and society has become more tolerant and relaxed where race is concerned. It is a long time since I had one of those uncomfortable and unpleasant conversations I mentioned at the start of this post because it is recognised that racism is unacceptable, unless you happen to be one of the nut-jobs from the political right.
To demonstrate our growing intolerance of intolerance, being labelled a racist is on a par with being a convicted paedophile or sex criminal. That’s why I had to think long and hard before writing on the subject. It is too easy to be tarred by that brush through what you say, even if you don’t mean to be. (Could my turn of phrase in the last sentence be misinterpreted?)
The reason I’m tiptoeing around this subject is that I wanted to write about the various racism in sport allegations that have surfaced in recent weeks and didn’t feel it was something I could just launch into without appearing racist myself.
The most high-profile case, at least in the UK, is Chelsea and England football captain, John Terry, who is alleged to have called an opposing defender a ‘******* black ****’. I’ve used asterisks, but the censored words were about as bad as they get.
He was (allegedly) telling his opponent what he thought of him using industrial language. Had he simply called him a ‘******* ****’ the incident would have passed without remark, but adding the word ‘black’ seems to have transformed a personal insult into a racist attack on an entire ethnic group.
What he said was certainly racial, but was it racist? I don’t think so. For all his faults, and he has many, all this demonstrates is that Terry is an uncouth lout with a limited vocabulary, but we already knew that.
The argument goes that he is a role model for children and that adding the word ‘black’ to his unimaginative epithet will encourage them to become the intolerant racists of tomorrow, but if that were the case they would have a whole lexicon of intolerance to choose from.
For ‘black’, substitute the word ginger, scouse, northern, southern, Jewish, scotch, bald, queer, pie-eating, or even white.
I don’t excuse or condone what Terry said, but it was a personal insult from one player to another, plain and simple, and not the stuff discrimination and apartheid.
We saw a similar incident this week when golf caddy, Steve Williams, referred to ‘shoving it up that black ********’ of his former boss, Tiger Woods.
Again, we have to assume that it would have been fine to say ‘shoving it up that ********’ but that the addition of that one adjective took his crass comment to a whole new level.
I’ve no great love of Tiger Woods, but to his credit he said that he was hurt the comment but insisted his former caddie “is certainly not a racist”.
I guess it is easy for me to take this view, given that I’m white and having never been subjected to racist abuse, unless you count what was said to me during a visit to Edinburgh one New Year’s Eve.
There is certainly a lot wrong with some football fans, especially those in eastern Europe who think that racist chanting is acceptable, but I doubt that personal insults between ‘sportsmen’ is the cause or its absence the cure.
But what really bothers me is that some racial or racist remarks can pass without comment. Listening to the 606 Football Phone-in on Saturday, there were plenty of callers debating whether John Terry should play in the forthcoming friendly matches and whether he should be captain.
Presenter Jason Roberts, himself a black player, made the point that Terry was innocent until proven guilty and this outraged a black caller who accused Roberts of being an Uncle Tom.
To my mind, that truly was a racist comment that offended Roberts, although I doubt if he will call for an investigation.