George Orwell: “Anyone who knows of an instance of colour discrimination ought always to expose it”

Managed to find this fascinating and rarely shown column by George Orwell from 11 of August, 1944, in the Tribune (His column was called ‘As I Please’, and he often did). I reproduce it here because it’s a side of George you may not have seen, directly challenging the racist practices of his time.

Next time a right wing libertarian type accuses you of ‘Newspeak’ or ‘Doublethink’ on Twitter, ask them why they’re quoting a social justice warrior…

 “A FEW days ago a West African wrote to inform us that a certain London dance hall had recently erected a ‘colour bar’, presumably in order to please the American soldiers who formed an important part of its clientele. Telephone conversations with the management of the dance hall brought us the answers: (a) that the ‘colour bar’ had been cancelled, and (b) that it had never been imposed in the first place; but I think one can take it that our informant’s charge had some kind of basis. There have been other similar incidents recently. For instance, during last week a case in a magistrate’s court brought out the fact that a West Indian Negro working in this country had been refused admission to a place of entertainment when he was wearing Home Guard uniform. And there have been many instances of Indians, Negroes and others being turned away from hotels on the ground that ‘we don’t take coloured people’.

It is immensely important to be vigilant against this kind of thing, and to make as much public fuss as possible whenever it happens. For this is one of those matters in which making a fuss can achieve something. There is no kind of legal disability against coloured people in this country, and, what is more, there is very little popular colour feeling. (This is not due to any inherent virtue in the British people, as our behaviour in India shows. It is due to the fact that in Britain itself there is no colour problem.)

The trouble always arises in the same way. A hotel, restaurant or what-not is frequented by people who have money to spend who object to mixing with Indians or Negroes. They tell the proprietor that unless he imposes a colour bar they will go elsewhere. They may be a very small minority, and the proprietor may not be in agreement with them, but it is difficult for him to lose good customers; so he imposes the colour bar. This kind of thing cannot happen when public opinion is on the alert and disagreeable publicity is given to any establishment where coloured people are insulted. Anyone who knows of a provable instance of colour discrimination ought always to expose it. Otherwise the tiny percentage of colour-snobs who exist among us can make endless mischief, and the British people are given a bad name which, as a whole, they do not deserve.

In the nineteen-twenties, when American tourists were as much a part of the scenery of Paris as tobacco kiosks and tin urinals, the beginnings of a colour bar began to appear even in France. The Americans spend money like water, and restaurant proprietors and the like could not afford to disregard them. One evening, at a dance in a very well-known café some Americans objected to the presence of a Negro who was there with an Egyptian woman. After making some feeble protests, the proprietor gave in, and the Negro was turned out.

Next morning there was a terrible hullabaloo and the café proprietor was hauled up before a Minister of the Government and threatened with prosecution. It had turned out that the offended Negro was the Ambassador of Haiti. People of that kind can usually get satisfaction, but most of us do not have the good fortune to be ambassadors, and the ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf.”

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4 thoughts on “George Orwell: “Anyone who knows of an instance of colour discrimination ought always to expose it”

  1. # Next time a right wing libertarian type accuses you of Newspeak or Doublethink on Twitter,
    # ask them why theyre quoting a social justice warrior

    I don’t think it’s fair to call Orwell a social justice warrior. The term is used for those who hypocritically use left-wing ideology to their own ends (she-who-must-not-be-named being the ur-example, or perhaps Rachel Dozeal, depending on what we believe about her). In fact, Orwell was standing up to this kind of person, and speaking out for those who were wrongly accused by the demagogues of the left. He would have had no truck with the culture of accusation, hypocrisy and slander that increasingly defines the middle-class ‘online left’.

    The new-left’s refusal to listen to any criticism in the belief that ‘the future belongs to me’ is what will ultimately destroy it. Just as happened to the communists, and to the trades-unionists in the 80s, if you make too many enemies among the common people you’re on the wrong side of history. Orwell should be the touchstone for any political movement to pause and check it’s own hubris, but unfortunately the dymanics that he identified seem too deeply written into human nature, and though history may not repeat itself, it often rhymes.

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  2. I must say I pretty much knew where Orwell stood on this issue. Efforts to paint him as racist have always struct me as dishonest (he gets constantly attacked, mostly by people on the left). The more interesting thing to me is the implication that it was Americans who bought racial division to wartime Europe. In many ways I feel they are doing the same thing now. The US persists in projecting it’s culture and experience onto the rest of the world.

    But on the other hand, long after the GIs had gone, signs saying ‘No dogs, no blacks, no irish’ were still displayed UK hotel windows. So perhaps Orwell, who was always a little misty-eyed about england despite all the crimes of empire, was too ready to blame home-grown sins on the US.

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    1. I suspect a good part of this article is George getting ruffled by American ways permeating things. Likely, he’d be just as outraged by the arrival of tea bags (Probably a mercy he was already passed by the time they arrived. The radio series of Hancock’s Half Hour goes on about tea bags so I guess that means they arrived in the UK sometime in the mid-fifties, but I digress…)

      There’s a question as to whether the US GI colour bar normalised it in Britain (It confused my dad when he was five-ish), though perhaps the bigotry was already waiting to happen. Likely it was. But I sometimes think it unfortunate the internet has made a situation where the rules of multiculturalism are being broadcasted by the US. I love that country in many ways but it’s not the nation to take advice from racially speaking: I could feel the racial divisions in Boston when I visited, it’s visceral and ingrained. I’ve never known the like in my ethnically plural home city. Brit multiculturalism is a very different beast, as I imagine every nation’s is, and there’s no one size fits all. The US anti-racism dialectic is a very well-meant kind of cultural imperialism. British multiculturalism needs to get a better sense of itself. It has much to offer the world. Much.

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  3. # I suspect a good part of this article is George getting ruffled by American ways permeating things.
    # Likely, he’d be just as outraged by the arrival of tea bags

    I think you’re right that’s in the mix. On the other hand I do think he had a genunine commitment to anti-racism, modified somewhat by being a product of the times he lived in. Reading some of his essays of his time as a colonial footsoldier there’s very little sign of the ‘were here to civilize these people’ mindset that characterized the age: although there is the question of why he was there at all?

    # Theres a question as to whether the US GI colour bar normalised it in Britain (It confused my dad
    # when he was five-ish), though perhaps the bigotry was already waiting to happen.

    I think it already existed. There’s two ways of reading what Orwell was up to here. One is that he, as an England-lover, is taking the easy route of blaming English sins on the perfidious Yanks, clinging to an illusion of a noble and enlightened Albion that was corrupted by the teabagging ways of perfidious Uncle Sam. The other reading is, for me, the more interesting, which is that Orwell had a keen sense of political rhetoric. Imagine that he wants to swing Britain away from racist attitudes. He can 1) Accuse the British people of racism and denounce them for it (which I’m going to call the ‘social-justice model’ because it will piss off the right people (and yes, I’m aware that I’m doing 1 myself in this, but I’m beyond caring)) or 2) he can blame it on an outside force (which I’m going to call the ‘realist’ model, because I can’t see any political group that shows any signs of understanding this).

    If you accuse and attack a group of people for doing anything, they’ll close ranks against you and you’ll achieve very little. The sinners in the target group will be protected by the larger group, who will be forced to find common cause with them and come up with defences for the behavior that you are condemning. As you’ve defined the group in terms of the sin, they cannot really side with you, but instead must defend themselves from you. The only time the social-justice model is useful is if you want to raise your profile as a crusader against the infidel, in which case a lot of loud and showy fighting that does nothing to unbalance the status quo, or even makes things worse, is exactly what you want.

    On the other hand, if you accuse some other group of bringing the sin into the community, or identify an isolated minority who are guilty of the sin, you can then say to the larger group “We’re not like that, are we?” and they will tend to unite with you against the invaders/sinners. Doing this forces the community to define itself against the sin, and start thinking/speaking in ways that condemn the sin, it swings support over to your side. Unfortunately this approach is not without its dangers, the major one being that your new-found allies may go too far: I don’t think Orwell would have wanted a backlash against US GIs in WWII, as we needed them to win the war.

    # sometimes think it unfortunate the internet has made a situation where the rules
    # of multiculturalism are being broadcasted by the US. I love that country in many
    # ways but its not the nation to take advice from racially speaking

    Yep. I think few people would disagree with you there. I actually think that the angry US rhetoric around race is a genuine threat to European multiracialism, because it creates wounds and divisions where there were none before, and exacerbates those that are already present.

    # Brit multiculturalism is a very different beast, as I imagine every nations is, and
    # theres no one size fits all.

    Agreed.

    # The US anti-racism dialectic is a very well-meant kind of cultural imperialism.

    Agreed. It’s like the neo-cons thinking that US-style free markets and democracy can be applied everywhere, or the soviets thinking that their brand of socialism is similarly a global panacea.

    # British multiculturalism needs to get a better sense of itself. It has much to offer the world. Much.

    I agree that Britain, and Europe, need to get a better sense of themselves, and to reject the political extremism that we are constantly barraged with from the US. Sadly I don’t think this will happen, and there’s every chance of European society collapsing into the kind of multi-faceted conflict that seems to define the US. But I’m not sure we should be trying to export our model, that’s where the trouble always starts.

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