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Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

What if you had a racist friend?

Dammers and Staples
Jerry Dammers (left) and fellow band member Neville Staples in the early 1980s

What do you say when a friend or colleague utters a remark that could be regarded as racist? Whether or not Carol Thatcher's use of the word "golliwog" was racist, comedian Jo Brand found it so offensive she walked out of the room.

It is an awkward conversation to have. One minute you are chatting away to an associate when out of nowhere they make a comment you find offensive. Knowing what to say in response, and how to behave towards them in future is not simple. So, what to do about it?

The reaction of comedian Jo Brand to just such a situation led to a slew of headlines last week. After an edition of the BBC's One Show, in which Brand had appeared, she was unwinding with crew members who included Carol Thatcher - an occasional reporter for the programme.

He was a really nice guy - it was just really out of character
Jerry Dammers

It's reported that Brand stormed out of the room after challenging Thatcher.

The flood of complaints over the decision to sack Thatcher from the show suggests that many think Brand's reaction, and the BBC's later response, was over the top. Nevertheless, many others will have found themselves in a similar quandary at some time in their life - unsure how to challenge an offensive remark, if at all.

One such person is Jerry Dammers, once the lead songwriter in the 1980s pop group The Specials and then The Special AKA. It was under this second incarnation that Dammers performed one of his best-known songs, Racist Friend.

Cut him loose

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House, Dammers says the song was his way of dealing with a friend who "just suddenly used to come out with racist comments".

"Apart from that he was a really nice guy - it was just really out of character. It didn't make any sense," he says.


The Special AKA perform Racist Friend

Apart from penning the song, Dammers also stopped seeing this "friend" - an approach echoed in the song's chorus: "If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end."

But for Dammers, who confesses he is "not a confrontational person", the song was substitute for a more direct challenge. He never actually got to tell the person why he had broken off contact.

"He actually died a few years ago. I didn't see him for years and years afterwards. When I heard that he'd died, I felt terrible that I hadn't told him that the song was about him, and why I'd cut myself off from him."

This tactic might work sometimes, but for others the idea of cutting adrift someone dear to them is understandably extreme.

Professor Roger Crisp, fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, says in the case of friends you should make the most of your relationship with them to try to change their views.

"Some philosophers have had some pretty implausible views on friendship. Aristotle thought that only virtuous people could be friends. A racist couldn't be your friend according to him."

"Us and them"

But musician Tom Robinson, who, like Dammers, was known for his activism, is wary of the motives of so-called racist friends. When someone shares a racist remark with you, it is a form of conspiracy, says Robinson; a way of them seeing it as "us" talking about "them".

Carol Thatcher
Carol Thatcher's "golliwog" comment did not go down well

"They are involving you, trying to make you collude by saying it to you."

And if the associate in question has very extreme views then it would seem unlikely a firm friendship could have been formed without this opinion having been apparent early on and causing difficulties.

"If the person is a virulent racist, disliking black people perhaps, then there is a difficulty for the non-racist friend," says Professor Crisp. "Then you think 'imagine I was black' then this person wouldn't like me."

Although racism in the UK is less overt than it once was, it still exists. People's views are shaped by those around us, and those that we are aware of - celebrities, politicians and others in the public eye.

"A minor racist joke or comment that seems innocuous filters down, especially if it's made by a powerful person. It goes much further and influences much more people," says Dammers.

There is no obvious response to hearing a friend's racist comments, but from Jerry Dammers' experience it is a good idea to share your feelings.

"If you don't confront it, you will regret it, I can assure you that much."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I believe to use such a word as 'nigger' would be disgraceful as it is clearly a racist word and has always been so. However I am sorry but the word 'Golliwogg' evokes memories of a loved toy or a vague recollection of a character in a book. I just do not relate it to anything else. If 'Golliwog' is now a racist word then how many other words are now abusive or racist for example 'stick thin' a clearly abusive attack on appearance or ' stupid black' clearly racist and an attack on mental capacity. Do we now ban the words stick, thin, black or stupid? It is the context and always the contex that matters and to suggest anything else is to impose one person's opinion on another. If we ban words is that next step to ban books or burn them? How far do we go?
E Morris, Ulverston

What do I do? I brush it aside as their opinion not mine. Unlike so many other people in the UK I accept that people have differing views but am not so wet as to let them effect how I think and feel. And would people be so outraged if their friend's remarks were anti-religion (any of the hundreds in the world) or sexist in one way or another? Or anti-North/South? It's all blatant discrimination. Racism is wrong. So is excessive control of people's thoughts and actions.
Em Jay, Tyne and Wear

If I cut off everyone I knew who thought something or other I found objectionable I'd have few friends. If my friends had done the same thing, then I'd still think some things which I now know are stupid. Of course it's important to challenge harmful points of view when we encounter them, and of course sometimes someone says something which makes you realise they're not who you thought they were, but no-one ever learned anything from a refusal to explain.
Hugh Parker, Birmingham

Why is Aristotle's view that only nice people could be your friend "implausible?" I can't imagine being friends with someone who makes unpleasant remarks that they can't justify, which includes racism. People have made racist remarks in my presence, in the we-all-think-this-really-only-we-can't-say-it kind of way. I always challenge them.
Isabella Jackman, Munich, Germany

My step-mother is racist and homophobic and not shy about it. She's also 81, and says she's too old to change her views. I've tried challenging her, but now I put up with it. I see her generation dying out, and hopefully these ideas will to die out with them.
Rachel, London

The problem now is that for many people racism is associated with very strong, very obviously hostile statements and acts. A lot of almost 'PC' racism has slipped under the radar and people may say it without even considering it to be offensive. For instance: I was having a conversation with a group of friends recently when they all agreed that 'Asians' can't sing in tune. I knew this was a ridiculous statement with no basis in fact; however they were quite upset to be confronted about it, and certainly didn't agree with me.
Tim, UK

I used to pride myself in the fact that I always tackled racist remarks made by "friends" & associates but, am ashamed to admit, in recent years have given up owing to the fact racism seems more widespread. Post "9/11", more & more people seem to think they have some justification in making racist comments. Many see it as a way of dealing with the "War on Terrorism", by adding their own form of propaganda. History has shown us that, in times of recession (or depression) racist views increase; when the "have-nots" look around at those who have wealth with envy that turns to rage. I worry that an increasing number of our society will start to display more obvious racist tendencies in the following months ahead & wonder just what solution we have to this age-old problem.
Lol Lambert, Chelmsford UK

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