Earlier in the week I was on a flying visit to Stockholm and aside from nearly dying from cat allergy at my parents’ house, it was a welcome break from the routines of daily life.
Sweden, the country where I grew up, is often seen as a progressive country with strong international engagement, an image the Swedes themselves like to entertain, which is why I’m often taken aback by the ease with which many Swedes use the N-word.
I’m not talking about members of the Swedish right-wing party, but about educated, cosmopolitan Swedes.
They may not realise that they’re being offensive, and they’ve got enough awareness not to use the N-word in the presence of a black person, but they seemingly have no qualms uttering it in a room exclusively populated by white Swedes.
On this most recent occasion, I was sitting in a meeting when a derogative reference to black people was made. I protested loudly, adding that I took personal offence at such language as my children are half-black.
In response, I was greeted by amused smiles that said, “Oh dear me, someone’s got a chip on their shoulder.”
In Sweden, and elsewhere, it isn’t just the N-word that is causally bandied around.
Derogative words such as ‘harelip’ (to define someone with a cleft lip), ‘disfigured’ as a way of defining someone with an unusual appearance and the much-outdated term ‘handicapped’ are also still in use.
When people are called down for using offensive language, their response is often,
“Oh but I meant no harm, it’s just a word,” or,
“If it’s in the dictionary, I can use it,” or
“Don’t be so bloody p.c.,” or
“It’s my democratic right to use whatever word I want even if it’s offensive to others.”
What’s so democratic about offending and hurting people?
I might lose readers for saying this, but personal experience tells me that those who claim this right to be offensive are very often white men.
But do white men (or women) have a right to decide what’s racist or not?
No, they don’t, and by asserting a right to use what terminology they please and the right to determine whether or not it is racist, they are effectively claiming white superiority.
On several occasions, people (many of them journalists, by the way) have told me that using the term harelip is perfectly justified because it’s a word people will recognise more readily than the correct term, cleft lip.
The fact that I, a woman born with a cleft lip and palate, feel hurt, offended and above all, dehumanised by such terminology, is of little consequence.
But just as it’s not a white person’s right to determine whether or not a word is offensive to black people, neither is it ok for a non-cleftie to decide whether or not using the term harelip is acceptable.
The right to determine whether a word is racist, dehumanising, or discriminatory, must ultimately rest with the people who are the target of such terminology. For they alone can fully know and appreciate the historical, social and cultural implications that each of these words carries.
Now that’s what I call a democratic right.