Monday, June 28, 2010


A Bristol Liberal Democrat Councillor, Shirley Brown, has been found guilty of racial harassment. She called Asian Conservative Jay Jethwa a "coconut" during a debate at Bristol City Council in February 2009, because Jethwa had backed a proposal to cease funding for an organisation set up to support ethnic minorities in Bristol. Mrs Brown's words were:
"In our culture we have a word for you, a word which many in our city would understand, and that's coconut. At the end of the day I look at you as that." The term coconut is used to accuse someone of betraying their race or culture by implying that, like a coconut, they are brown on the outside but white on the inside.

Section 3A of the Race Relations Act provides that harassment occurs where:
"A person subjects another to harassment ... where, on grounds of race or ethnic or national origins, he engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of:
• violating that other person's dignity
• creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him
• conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified (above) only if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect

Well, I suppose that being called a "coconut" in those circumstances and with that special meaning is insulting but does it violate a person's dignity, as the magistrate must have concluded ? The insult can only be delivered sensibly to someone with a dark skin but the burden of the insult is about the person's behaviour not their colour. As I write this I am listening to a succession of Labour MPs making similar insults about the behaviour of Liberal Democrats, accusing them of betraying the people they represent, but there's no racial element so you can violate their dignity as much as you like. Above all, I question whether making a remark like this in the absence of violence or any threat of violence should be a crime ? This case is a good example of how easily we limit freedom of speech when we make being offensive a crime. The logic is that you can legally insult me for being a Liberal,a lawyer, a ballet dancer, a fox-hunter or a train-spotter (I am only one of these) because these are all choices I can make. Of course you can also legally insult me for being middle-class, red-haired, short, fat and bald ( I am all but one of these), but I have no choice about any of them. Most of these characteristics are genetic inheritance as much as race is. As a society, we have decided that certain insults are so much worse than others, that they are criminal.

Surely an apology, which I understand was given, should have ended the matter. I have grave doubts that the criminal law is helpful in this situation. Indeed, there is a danger that such cases assist recruitment to the dreadful BNP.


RantingRoy said...

I was present for the entire hearing on 28th and have nothing but praise for the conduct of all concerned. The judgement made clear the distinction between strongly expressed opinion, acceptable party political argy-bargy and targetted personal abuse which has the potential to give rise to unrest. I hope it serves as a lesson to those who hitherto have believed racism always requires a white versus black scenario.

PeteP said...

David, you clearly don't understand the complexity of racism - or are distracted by the Liberal v Tory aspect. Shirley Brown had no reason to bring race (or skin colour) into the debate whatever her background and whatever the subject matter. Clearly all three elements of section 3A that you list apply.

Your analysis is even worse:

"The insult can only be delivered sensibly to someone with a dark skin but the burden of the insult is about the person's behaviour not their colour."

- So you have to be black (or non white) to use this insult? Think about it - please!

- and as for the latter bit: She's explicitly saying he's a non white behaving as if he's white - because he doesn't (automatically) support an "ethnic-minority" project.

I would concede that there maybe circumstances where this insult may be laughed off - but can't really think of one. But this is certainly not one of them. Jay's skin colour is of no relevance to any aspect of the discussion and Shirley's remarks are derogatory to "Black" "Brown" or even "White".

Trouble with Liberals is that they believe their good/nice political intentions override their need to observe law or concede that others (Tories in this instance) can have valid opinions. Hope Bristol Libs censured Shirley too.

As for your remark about assisting recruitment for the BNP: absolutely the opposite - clearly demonstrating that discrimination is not acceptable from any quarter.

Whatever your self definition David, "middle-class, red-haired, short, fat and bald"

- you are naive

Pete (ageing Liberal since 1976)

David said...

Thanks for your comment,Roy. You seem to think that "Targetted personal abuse which has the potential to give rise to unrest" should be criminal. That's a pretty broad definition. There's an old Common Law offence of "conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace" which comes near, but the requirement of "breach of the peace" sets the threshhold much higher than "unrest". Thus, calling someone a coconut in a tense confrontation at work, on the street, in a pub may have the potential to lead to a breach of the peace, i.e.violence, whereas saying it in a council chamber does not. In the end, I do believe that violence is the responsibility of the violent not of the person who provokes them. When provoked we all have a choice whether to be violent or not. In the case, it appears that there was no breach of the peace. Do you really support a restriction on freedom of speech because someone is insulted or offended or deeply upset ?

David said...

Thank you for your comment, PeteP. No, I am not naive. Nor do I care that the councillor delivering the insult is a Liberal and the councillor insulted is a Conservative. I do think it's debateable whether Section 3A was broken. Violating someone's dignity is a higher test than upsetting them. However, my point was to question whether we need such a law in the first place.

You are also wrong about my analysis. Read my words again: ""The insult can only be delivered sensibly TO someone with a dark skin..." This says nothing about the colour of the person delivering the insult.

Your comments are clearly designed to insult me, but the law gives me no redress - nor should it !

Tommy Herbert said...

"As a society, we have decided that certain insults are so much worse than others, that they are criminal."

Yes. Because of the historical context. I can picture a society where remarks about skin colour would be relatively innocent but remarks about hair colour would be gravely humiliating. We don't live in that one.

David said...

Hello Tommy ! You may be interested in the film, "The boy with green hair" which can be found here:

Tommy Herbert said...

Huh, what do you know? Okay, so yes, I guess from the synopsis that such a society might need hair colour harassment laws.