Hegemony at work: racism rows

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From a 1946 Rupert Bear annual

From a 1946 Rupert Bear annual

There’s a very interesting controversy surrounding the dismissal of Carol Thatcher from The One Show (BBC). Thatcher’s agent thinks that there’s something personal going on:

“This was a private conversation held in private, amongst individuals in the green room after she [Carol Thatcher] had been on The One Show. At the time nobody objected to that conversation and I wasn’t made aware of the conversation until Saturday morning, ie 48 hours after the conversation had taken place.”

Quite often in these “off-the-cuff” or “off-air” racism rows, the guilty party tries to defend themselves by arguing that they “never intended” to make the remarks in public, and that little “jokes” like this, between friends, as it were, shouldn’t be reported. The fact that everybody was too polite to object at the time is somehow being used to justify making the remarks in the first place.

Nobody saw me shoplifting the iPod from John Lewis, so I should be able to keep it, right?

So the agent’s argument here is that “someone” has it in for Thatcher, and has been speaking out of turn, as if making objectionable remarks in private was perfectly acceptable. There’s a sense here that TV professionals belong to a private club, which has different standards of conduct and behaviour, which is not the business of the “little people” watching at home. This is a very similar controversy to the one sparked about one of the royal family recently (the “Paki” remark). Actually, what makes these cases worse is not just that the remarks are racist to start with, but that the person making the remark is so ignorant that they’re not even aware of the offence – or potential offence – being caused.

It’s like the kind of person who puts fireworks up a cat’s backside and then claims that “it’s all a bit of fun” or “he likes it – look he’s jumping around having a great time.”

This is all related to the media theory of hegemony: which is the exercise of power by a dominant group over other dominant groups – not using force, but cultural messages, encoded in the media. When your toffs and your Daily Mail editorials get het up about “political correctness gone mad”, what they’re doing is trying to make objectionable behaviour seem “normal” or “natural” (and therefore not offensive). “It’s not racist, it’s just a little joke” is a classic way of being able to use objectionable imagery and language to put someone down, at the same time as putting them down all over again for daring to voice objection. So you get a double whammy of the exercise of power/dominance.

I found the Rupert the Bear picture above on a web site which champions “political incorrectness” in all its forms, and sets out to be as offensive as possible by just printing imagery and opinions which are no longer considered socially acceptable. The thrust of the argument seems to be, well, we used to do this kind of thing all the time in the 70s, and there was nothing wrong with it then, so why is it suddenly wrong now?

The fault in the thinking, of course, is that it was wrong then, and it’s still wrong now, but that back then the kind of ignorance displayed by the royals and Carol Thatcher was more widespread. Most of us have moved on and realised the negative power of such representations. Some people have not. The same web site has book covers by Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton. Blyton, in particular, is often cited for racist and xenophobic representations in her children’s books. What you have to imagine are the generations of children who grow up reading those books, seeing those representations, and accepting them as normal, common-sense, and natural.

The political-incorrectness web site – which I won’t dignify with a link – also has a page dedicated to Carol Thatcher’s mother, who is described as “the last great Briton.”

In other words, such people have a nostalgia for the days when black people and other people of colour knew their place, when the British Empire stomped across the world, exploiting native populations for their labour and resources, and when you could get away with calling people demeaning, racist names, because that’s what everyone else was doing.

What hegemony does is drip-feed attitudes and opinions which come to seem reasonable and fair – especially when they’re not. Rupert the Bear first appeared in the Daily Express in 1920 – so there were decades of children (and their parents) being exposed on a daily basis to a version of the world in which black people were portrayed as “gollywogs”. Carol Thatcher was probably one of them.

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