Changing the definition of a noun... By Mwelwa Chungu, The AFRican Londoner

Changing the definition of a noun...

By Mwelwa Chungu, The AFRican Londoner

Published on Thu, May 01 2008 by Mwelwa Chungu

Earlier this week I was surprised to learn that the word “immigrant” has become a racial slur.  Being unreasonably proud to be an immigrant, to have my roots embedded elsewhere, I was quite taken aback by this new development.  I made the discovery purely by accident while reading an article about an altercation that occurred after a football game last Saturday.  Some players from the premiership team Manchester United were warming down after a game against Chelsea, when they were involved in a scuffle with the grounds staff.  One of the players, Patrice Evra, is a black frenchman, and was apparently called a “F£$%ing immigrant”.


I suppose the expletive and the tone of the remark, made the spirit in which it was intended obvious, as Evra can been seen, in photos taken at the time, hands forward, tongue sticking out, going for the offending grounds men.

I have previously written about racism in sport and I will not go over old ground.  I will simply make a few comments about the reaction to this event, then move on to more pressing matters.  


Needless to say, two camps have sprung up, each fighting it’s cause convincingly; there are those that believe the whole thing should be ignored and those that believe it should be dealt with in the most severe manner possible, punishing both the man in question and Chelsea football club, who, together with Manchester United, had wanted to cover the whole thing up.  Manchester United grew a conscious over the weekend and decided not to go ahead with the planned joint statement denying anything untoward occurred.  Instead, they went and complained to the FA, earning the ire of their premiership rivals in the process.  And not surprisingly this is not the first time that a member of the Chelsea staff has been implicated in a situation like this; in 2006 a steward was accused of hurling a racial slur in the direction of Samuel Eto’o, that unfortunate recipient of many a racially motivated insult, during a champions league fixture.


I don’t need to tell you where I stand; it is imperative that the spirit with which the phrase, allegedly directed at Evra, was meant is stamped out of football. The FA must take a stand, after all this is still going on when people are busy chanting the words and wearing t-shirts declaring, “Kick it out”, which is the official UEFA slogan for the campaign to end racism in football.  But hey, we have had this discussion.


The interesting thing about this whole foray is that Evra, the insultee, has sort to distance himself from any allegations of racism, probably because he went home, calmed down and realised that being called an immigrant is not, in the great scheme of things, such a bad thing.  What I want to know is, when did the ignorant take the word and make it their own? 


An immigrant is defined in the Oxford online dictionary as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.”  The great scholars of Oxford University don’t seem to have realised that there is a more sinister definition of the word, a definition created by the government and media in this country.  For the three years I have lived in this country there have been headlines vilifying immigrants, turning us into the bogeymen of the UK.


Immigration to the UK is as old as there have been people inhabiting these Isles, though in those days it was not as peaceful as it is now, with Vikings, Normans, Romans and other people invading and occupying the lands that are now known as Britain.  Apart from becoming more peaceful it has, in recent years come full circle. Whereas historically settlers had been predominately from Commonwealth countries, they are now mostly from Europe.


The old settlers were easy to spot, the majority being either Black or Asian. They were also easy to insult, as there were several slights available for people of differing colours.  The new wave of settlers blend in more easily and have required the creation of new slurs or the resurrection of more historic ones, being as white as (most of) the people who would like to make them feel unwelcome.


The arguments against immigration are the same old ones that have been used against new comers since the first man left his home to visit the people across the river.    There has been great debate as to the nature and amount, if any, of immigration that should be allowed.  The government has begun to pander to this talk often shifting the goal posts for immigrants by changing the rules.  This however, doesn’t really affect the people who have caused this new uproar, as they tend to come from nations that have recently joined the EU and who thus do not require entry permits into the country.


There have been calls that economically the UK cannot absorb the number of immigrants currently coming to its shores.  There are, apparently, no jobs for British people let alone the new comers.  There is also the claim that the newcomers, being desperate, are taking jobs at lower pay than the natives, driving down wages. 


This is, off course, just another xenophobic argument.  The United Kingdom has an aging population and a relatively low birth rate.  If no immigrants were allowed into the country the size of the working age population supporting the older generations would dwindle meaning that there would be greater pressure on a smaller proportion of the population to support the economy.  Many of the immigrants that come to the UK are highly skilled, reflecting the changing needs of the economy.


Immigrants have been blamed for the dilution of English/British culture, but that would be assuming culture is a static thing, which clearly it is not.  Tea, for years considered the traditional drink of the English, is not native to these fair isles.  Nor is the potato, the required vegetable in the ubiquitous English dish, fish and chips.


As always immigrants have been blamed for the increase in crime though a study last year showed this was not the case and statistics show that the overall crime rate has been falling. And in the midst of all this apparently half of the central and eastern European immigrants have gone home.


So, why this hostility?  Well, it is the usual thing, isn’t it? The fear of the unknown fed by irresponsible journalists and capitalised upon by equally rash political parties, has resulted in an innocent noun becoming a vicious insult.


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