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Dr. Keith Devlin

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Racial Slurs Against a Brit? You're Kidding!

Posted: 02/09/2012 21:06

I suspect it's pretty rare for an expat Brit to be the object of racial denigration, but after living in the US for twenty-five years and being a citizen for over fifteen, it finally happened to me this past week. Considering the experiences of other immigrants, I am clearly lucky it took so long.

The surprising thing is that it wasn't just racial, which, as the whole world knows, is rife in US history, but also class-based, something that in my experience is endemic in the UK but not common here.

One of the things that attracted me to Stanford (way back in 1987, when I first arrived) was that it is a meritocracy. Your origins do not matter; it's all about how smart you are, how hard you work, and how good your work and ideas are. I've lived in the US and worked at Stanford for so long, I've grown used to that state of affairs. It therefore came as something of a surprise to read the following description of me recently in an education blog: "a damaged East Yorkie boy desperate to seem part of the aristocracy of math and the cognitive elite."

For the benefits of those not familiar with the UK, I originate from Yorkshire (known to millions of US television viewers as "Herriott country," after the (late) Yorkshire veterinary surgeon who made the county famous through his bestselling books and television series). The phrase "East Yorkie boy" manages to combine three standard slurs into a single three-word phrase: the "East" refers to the fact that of the three Ridings (subunits) of Yorkshire, the East Riding has always been the most impoverished region; "Yorkie" has enough US equivalents for its strong racial overtones to be self-evident here; and "boy" - well, that will also be clear to US readers.

As to the content of the blogger's remark, (and I am not going to identify the blogger), he suggests that, coming from working class origins in the North of England, I really do not belong among the "cognitive elite" of Stanford.

A quick online check of the blogger indicated he is an American, not British, so this is our racism (speaking as an American citizen), not Britain's. He is also elite-university educated and the president of a US financial company, so presumably not without standing and influence. He also, clearly, is sufficiently familiar with the UK to tap into its social nuances. This is well-informed, sophisticated racism.

One incident in twenty-five years - a drop in a vast ocean, a mere comma in a library full of daily racial slurs. And to be honest, apart from the message it sends about society, I simply shrugged it off, aware of many, far more significant examples happening daily that result in real hurt. Nonetheless, it is a reminder that racial prejudice and discrimination are alive and well. With an African American president, we have come a long way in just a few decades. But as countless ongoing examples far more significant (and more damaging) than mine make clear, we have a long way further to go. Something particularly worth remembering in an election year.

 

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