Editors’ Note: This article relies upon news reporting from several Irish newspapers.
VoxFairfax has generally avoided commentary on international affairs, but a recent flap in Britain could not be ignored, mostly because its elements were remarkably similar, if not identical, echoing a narrative that often dominates discussion here in the colonies.
John David Taylor, Baron Kilclooney, of Northern Ireland, an 82-year old professional politician and member of the UK House of Lords, tweeted on Monday, November 9, 2020:
What happens if Biden moves on and the Indian becomes President? Who then becomes Vice President?
Few Americans can likely explain what the role of a lord in Parliament is. Nonetheless, the tweet prompted an uproar that mirrored in many aspects ones that are repeated on this side of the pond. the baron’s tweet about Vice President-elect Harris was not his first venture into racial shading.
The peer, as such members of Parliament are called, previously deleted a tweet describing then-Irish Taoiseach (Gaelic term for Prime Minister, pronounced tay shock) Leo Varadkar in 2017, “the Indian” and a “typical Indian” and again in May 2018 again referred to Varadkar as a “typical Indian” following the Prime Minister’s visit to Northern Ireland. On this latter occasion, Kilclooney stood by his comment, stating that the Taoiseach had “upset Unionists” with his visit, and asserted that he was not a racist.
“A Chinese born in England is Chinese and not English.”
For comparative reference, the current US President has, on several occasions, fondly and without any forethought declared that “he is the least racist person” anyone could know. In most dictionaries, “least” is defined as smallest in amount, extent, or significance. If it is a defense, at a minimum, the Empire’s analogous denial is flagrantly an outright one. In both instances, the evidence appears to outweigh the attempts to distance from the actuality..
Kilclooney’s defense has emerged as a revelation of racial distinction as such viral ideas are expressed. Previously, the peer had characterized the race of a popular UK cricketer and offered a nuanced explanation for his epithet, stating that the athlete may be British but he is not English. “There is a difference between being English and being British,” adding that “A Chinese born in England is Chinese and not English.” That distinction, of course, explains it all. The American comparison involves high jingoism including “speak English,” “go back to your country,” and others. Should Kilclooney emigrate to the US, he will not likely discover folks referring to him as English-American.
Thus, while denying his messages were racist, the stubborn member of Parliament defended his comments by defining racial differences. We can be proud in the US that we are far more subtle in our civil dialogue in this respect, although “I’m an American” is too often heard as a premise of a racial criticism.
Baron Kilclooney’s comments and defenses drew some clear condemnations from the press and political leaders. The head of the House of Lords advised his colleague to “retract and apologize” and other senior politicians stated they would file formal complaints. If Kilclooney had no inkling of the mine field he had entered, the House of Lords leader schooled him:
This is an offensive way to refer to anyone, let alone a woman who has just made history. The comment is entirely unacceptable and has no place in British politics. I could not be clearer.
Lord Kilclooney, in denying racial content or intent, brought forth additional reasons that are all too familiarly uttered in the US. He was quoted by one press source as follows:
The first thing is to get it in perspective, the criticism is minor, the support is massive – I’ve never had so many twitter followers in one day, ever.
Perhaps the most internationally recognized defense is “I have friends who are not white,” to wit:
I’m very fond of India myself, I’m a member of the British India all-party group, I have two Indians (tenants) in my flats here in London and there’s nothing racist in it whatsoever. She’s (Harris) proud of her Indian roots just as Biden’s proud to say he’s Irish.
Of course, neither Joe Biden nor Kamala Harris would ever be recognized as English. Being called Irish, in fact, in England is often a derogative term.
He justified his previous tweet about Mr. Varadkar by saying, “I didn’t know his name at the time” but, asked if he would delete his latest message now that he knows Ms. Harris’s name, he said: “No, not indeed. Because she’s proud of her Indian background.” That may be true, even self-evident, but not for an elected politician to proffer.
The baron also said that he did not try to find out her name online before writing the tweet; replying to the reason for not conducting an online search, the response was, “That’s none of your business.” He later tweeted that he would “certainly withdraw my reference to her as an Indian as it seems to have upset some people” but had not deleted the tweet in question.
It’s of no material concern whether racism originated in the British Empire or here in the US of A. What is clear is that it functions very much like a viral pandemic and finds folks who are prepared to justify and sustain its existence. Oh, that there were a therapeutic to prevent the spread of racism such as wearing a mask!
Baron Kilclooney’s tweet query, similar to checking for the name of the VP-elect online, on its face is puerile punditry and not a serious inquiry. Like many of his ilk, he sought to seem clever and pushed “send” on his mobile phone before his brain was engaged.