Thursday, November 24, 2005

Half-castes, mongrels and skinheads

It’s the 25th anniversary of the release of the track Embarrassment by one of my favourite bands of the time, Madness. The song tells the story of one of the band member's teenage sisters who had become pregnant, and - to the shock and resentment of some family members - a black man was the father. As the article about the song goes on to explain, attitudes towards mixed relationships have not always been very positive, and in a time (late 70s/early 80s) when issues of race were high on the national agenda and scumbags like the National Front were active in many areas of the country, the song struck a chord with many people. Using the song as a starting point, it's perhaps interesting to look at the way labels to describe people born of mixed parental ethnicity have changed over time. And maybe also to look at the way "skinheads" have been stereotyped with labels too.

It might also have appeared a brave move for a band like Madness - who had a large working class skinhead following - to make a stand on a race issue, but maybe not if you look at the true history of skinheads: their adoption of Caribbean culture, their fierce pride in their working class roots, and their prominent role in anti-racist and anti-fascist groups like the first incarnation of the Anti-Nazi League and SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), then later such militant groups as Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action. All too often, when people hear the word "skinhead" they conjure up an image of a knuckle-dragging racist, when the majority of skinheads were quite the opposite. "Bonehead" was always a more popular term among anti-fascist skins for their dim-witted racist nephews!

So getting the skinhead history out of the way, what about the labels for people of mixed parentage? Terms like "half-caste" have been around for a while, but are often seen as being derogatory because they suggest someone is less than complete (as John Agard points out in his poem of the same name). The word "mongrel" is clearly offensive, carrying with it connotations of being on the same level as an animal and it sparked a storm of controversy in the 1997 General Election when a Tory MP John Townend used it to describe the changing ethnic make-up of the country; the term "half-breed" which is chucked around by some people apparently does the same, causing offence because of its connection to animals and its dehumanising effects on those it's applied to. Clearly, these words - which have all been used to describe people of mixed parentage - reflect the nastier side of human nature.

So what of attempts to find neutral alternatives? "Mixed race" is now seen as a suitable term here in Britain, while in America, "dual heritage" seems to be more popular (but then when the USA starts giving us lessons in race relations it's time to start taking lessons from them on foreign policy!). These have got to be better than "other" which is what had to be ticked on the UK census form until recently!

And in a very roundabout way that takes us back to the original inspiration for this: the lyrics to Embarrassment by Madness.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates

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