Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Renault & Racism: Just Say 'No'

Here's the headline on an ad for French automaker Renault on Page 10 of today's Guardian: "FOR TEN DAYS, WE CAN'T USE THE 'N' WORD."

There are plenty of words that begin with the letter "n" but there's only one "n-word." I don't have to spell it out, right? It's an ugly racial epithet the utterance of which will not endear you to anyone with an ounce of sensitivity. Of course, Renault would never use that word. So what n-word do they mean? Here's the complete text of the ad:
No. There, we said it
But that's the last time you'll hear it for a few days.
Between the 9th and the 18th of November,
we've instructed all our dealers not to use the 'n' word.
With unprecedented deals across the range, we're just going
to keep saying yes.
Visit renault.co.uk for details of your local Renault showroom
and for a precious few days, see if you can get us to utter
that naughty little word.
Ha ha! Renault and its advertising agency, Publicis, are just having a little fun. They want you to think they're referring to that n-word. They want you to experience a wicked (a naughty) little frisson. We were thinking they meant the n-word that white-sheeted Klansmen used to shout before stringing someone up from a tree in the Deep South, the n-word that skinheads scream before kicking some poor guy's teeth in (or worse). But the joke's on us. They actually meant the word "no."

I had several questions:
Is it wise to suggest that except for 10 days in November Renault dealers have a hard time not saying that word?
Will they go back to saying it on Nov. 19th?
And what is this ad doing in the Guardian, the most self-consciously liberal and annoyingly PC newspaper in the land?

I have been told by some English friends that Britain is not as racist as the United States, not as segregated or race-obsessed. It's true that racism is America's great shame, the issue that has split the country since it was founded. Even today we don't necessarily deal with race and discrimination in the healthiest of ways. But I don't think a U.S. ad agency would bandy about race-related expressions in an effort to shift a few hatchbacks.

And the U.K. isn't exactly a color-blind society. Recently a Conservative candidate named Nigel Hastilow resigned after suggesting that Enoch Powell, Britain's great race-baiting rhetoritician, was correct on the subject of immigration.

I suppose racism is something we each confront in our own ways, but this ad just strikes me as the b-word: bad.

I have calls in to both Publicis, Renault's agency, and the Guardian. If they call back, I'll update with their points of view.

Left Holding the Bag
According to the Guardian, London may tax or ban plastic shopping bags, concerned about their environmental impact. It's already hard to get the bags in Oxford: If you ask for one at the shops, instead of using a reusable, carbon-neutral, handmade-by-Bangladeshi-lesbians burlap sack, people look at you as if you've just poured crude oil on a baby seal.

The unintended consequence of these noble efforts is the hardship a bag ban would put on dog owners such as myself. Our dog has a two-bag-a-day habit, if you know what I mean. Plastic shopping bags are the perfect poop-disposal mechanism. Please don't tell me I'm going to have start using reusable burlap bags for that.

Jesus Is Just All Right With Me...
The Oxford Mail today reports that local veterans were upset that more than half of the city's 48 councillors didn't show up for Sunday's Remembrance Day ceremonies--the British equivalent of Memorial Day. Bad form, surely, but one detail in the article clanged with me. In the story, a Col. Chris Keeble is referred to as a "devout Christian." The same language is used in an editorial elsewhere in the paper: "We could not agree more with the thoughts of Col. Chris Keeble--a devout Christian--who negotiated the surrender of Argentinian troops at the Battle of Goose Green in the Falklands War in 1982."

I'm not sure what that fact signifies or why it's worthy of mention. What makes a person cross the line from "a Christian" to "a devout Christian"? And how far do you have to go before you arrive at "a fanatical Christian"?

And while I'm piling on the Oxford Mail, I was disappointed by a detail missing from a story about a pair of local musicians auditioning for a TV talent show. Wende Blowfield said she and Brian Staton auditioned for "Britain's Got Talent" as a way of showing "her three disabled children...that anything can be achieved if you put your mind to it."

A worthy sentiment, but what did Anton Chekhov say? A loaded gun seen in Act One has to go off in Act Three? Nowhere do we learn what the Blowfield children's disabilities are. I don't want to be morbid but if you're gonna mention it, explain it.


mark from alexandria said...

John, does the "n word" have the same resonance in Britain that it does in the US? I am not excusing Renault, but I don't think that they would be foolish enough to place that ad in the US, even if they were to place it on a show like the unlamented "Sopranos" which America felt free to embrace, regardless of its regular and insulting use of every negative stereotype of Italian-Americans that was on offer. My point is that one person's racial or cultural insensitivity is another person's clever use of language. Its like the conundrum of Don Imus, the shock jock known for insulting the great and the near great since the Nixon era, who is about to return to American airwaves, just a few months after the NBC people fired him for insulting a womens'basketball team. Did he cross a line or did professional "takers of offense" use him for their own purposes? Very probably, a bit of both, but some of those professional "takers of offense" have gotten away with equal lapses.

suburbancorrespondent said...

I've got to agree with mark - I doubt that word resonates with Europeans the way it does with us.

On a recent NPR talk show (can't remember which one, sorry), someone mentioned that when free plastic shopping bags were banned in Ireland, there was a definite uptick in the purchase of plastic trash bags to line personal garbage cans with. So, a ban on these bags doesn't necessarily lead to a smaller carbon footprint. Personally, I find that the bag that the Post comes in every morning is the perfect size for pooper-scoopering and for used diapers. Take that, Internet!

Christopher said...

In my Oxford days ('89 to '92) I remember an ad that played before movies on a regular basis. The product was some kind of liquor (maybe Southern Comfort?), and the ad featured a stereotypical white farmboy driving into the inner city to pick up his black girlfriend. They go to a bar, where they turn a few heads, but they win over the disapproving crowd with their happy dance moves. Tag line for the ad? "Who are you mixing it with?" I cringed every time I saw this, but no one else seemed to mind. I would suggest that race relations and racial sensitivity are not better or worse in the UK than they are in the US, just different.

John Kelly said...

I haven't heard from any English people, comment-wise, so I don't know where they fall on the n-word spectrum. Who I'd really like to hear from is Publicis, but I think the chances of them actually returning my call are pretty slim. All I want to ask them is: "What n-word did you want readers to think of when they saw the ad?" Perhaps I have it totally wrong. Maybe they didn't mean to call THAT word to mind. Or maybe they DID mean to call that word to mind, but it's not a radioactive word here so they didn't care. Any Brits care to illuminate things?

Ken said...

The n-word is a big deal in Blighty too - we had a reality tv racism spat about it earlier this year, on the Big Brother show. Stick Big Brother N-word into google for the whole nine yards.

henry said...

I agree with the comments about how racism and racist terminology differ across cultures, but on the acceptabiliy of the n-word in Britain I'm with Ken - it's just as offensive and probably just as well known a term over here, and has been in use as long as I've been around, ie ages. I don't know what this says about popular acceptability, but Agatha Christie called the novel about the 10 people on an island getting murdered one by on "10 Little N*****s" (it was later renamed "10 little Indians," in an unsuccesful bid for cultural senstitivity, and then "And then there were none" for a film version I think. The n-word or varients were a staple of the 1970s sitcoms about racists like Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death us Do Part, and the term's used the whole time by racist football fans and racist stand-up comics like Bernard Manning. (and, as you know, is used satirically by Elvis Costello in "Oliver's Army").
In any case, everyone here is very well aware of American pop/slang culture. There's no way someone wouldn't get the reference.

hb said...

Call me crazy (or fanatical?) but I can see a distinction between a nominal Christian, someone who's baptized and attends church occasionally, and someone who, say, talks about his faith all the time and regularly attends church. I can see how devout might seem a little too personal and intense--as if it saw into the person's soul and his relationship with his god--but whoever said the newspapers went for philosophical accuracy, anyway, when a clear and cool-sounding distinction would serve?

Rob said...

Just out of interest, how do your politically correct sensibilities in the Renault post gel with the throwaway line about "canvas bags handmade by Bangladeshi lesbians" in the post immediately below it?

Your self-awareness is stunning.

Anonymous said...

The n-word is "no."

Car dealers in the US run similar campaigns, although certianly not with that extact phrasing.

John Kelly said...

Rob, let's do this: I'll call a Bangladeshi lesbian a "Bangladeshi lesbian" and you call a black person a "n*****" and let's see who takes the most offense. One is a descriptor; the other is an epithet.

HB: I agree that there are probably degrees of "Christianness," I just don't see why it belonged in that particular story. There was no indication that the relative religiousity of any of the people quoted had anything to do with anything. It would have been different had it been a story about religion or church going or Bible study class or something. But it was akin to "Joe Smith, a devout Christian, injured his leg falling off a ladder yesterday."