In Australia, you could almost get used to being called a 'wog'. But rather than vicious abuse, it appears more frequently as casual racism –- an issue as dangerous for a society as a verbal attack.
Last week the Herald Sun ran a story about my relief that we don't use the term 'wog' lightly in the UK. The first responses were from Australians defending the word by insisting I didn't understand it. It's an endearing term for Greeks, they commented, and everything culturally attractive about the Greeks is borne within it.
A few days later Susie O'Brien produced an opinion piece which simultaneously drove home this defence, and also really got people's backs up.
The first problem is that I am not Greek. I'm not even Mediterranean. I'm a half Persian Brit. Even if the Australian adoption of the term had successfully lurched its historical weight across the threshold of political correctness, the word is broken, because in this instance it was used to mean 'dark skinned person'. The word has not slipped out of its original usage, which, for a very, very long time, was a pejorative description of any dark skinned 'foreigner' who didn't really belong.
Used in this way, 'wog' lumps together a huge array of people of Middle Eastern, South Asian and Mediterranean heritage who have little in common beyond being darker than the average white Australian.
Using historically and globally loaded words like 'wog' and insisting upon their jovial re-appropriation is dangerous. Whether or not someone who uses it believes the recipient is inferior is inconsequential. The term offends me because my skin colour is used to mark me out as different, 'other', an outsider.
Perhaps it is because she is white that Susie O'Brien's stereotypes left some readers cold. Maybe a white person can't unpick themselves from white privilege enough to be able to understand feeling different. To be the girl in the predominantly white changing room with hairier legs. To feel the burning shame of being told you have smelly sandwiches in the canteen. Feeling 'other' is never nice. It makes you feel unsettled, like maybe a part or all of you doesn't belong and you have been allowed to attend by invitation. Like you should be grateful. Just like when you tell a large group of people with deep and diverse historical heritage to be grateful when they are homogenized by your words.
As the debate kicked off, tweets in Australia confirmed a suspicion of mine. Not all Greeks are okay with being called a wog. Just because one Greek decided it was tolerable, it doesn't mean all Greeks will. It definitely doesn't mean all dark skinned people will receive it well, and it definitely doesn't mean that anyone should assume we all will, or become enraged when we don't.
Alongside defending the term, readers also left comments suggesting I shouldn't be so precious. The world has gone mad, they said. Why do we have to be so P.C?
There's an air of deja vu about this debate, as it harks back to the 'taking back' of the word 'nigger' over the past few decades. It is easy to see where we netted out with that one -– white people cannot call someone that word. It will likely cause offence. Black people are entitled to investigate if they're comfortable with it, but you don't get to tell them what they should individually feel.
Calling someone out because of the colour of their skin is not polite. It is crass, unkind, and arrogant. Language has the power to change how people view themselves, how children grow, how accepted we feel. So when the slur of choice -- and it IS a slur -- carries the weight of post-colonialism with it, casual use reveals an ignorance. It is selfish not to know, find out, or be interested in the power history has given to our words.
When I objected -– face to face and online -- to being called a wog, I was typically told it wasn't racist and I should lighten up. And it wasn't just white people telling me this. The entitlement of having words received as the speaker intended it is a popular attitude, relentlessly touted on chat shows and news panels and ultimately impeding real progression of the debate.
To examine the reasons some terminology still makes people upset, we may have to ditch the comfortable yet dictatorial stance that I can say what I want with impunity "because I'm not racist, don't you know?".Suggest a correction