One of the pleasures of writing a blog is having intelligent conversations with people who visit. It does me some good to have my opinions challenged in a way that’s largely consequence-free and where I’m in no more trouble than a slightly bruised ego when I get things wrong.
The downside of this is that it takes time thinking through some of these challenges, which is what happened when Rob asked me about the word “gammon”. Is it a racist insult? It’s an argument I’ve heard so many times before, but I’d always dismissed it without really thinking it through. This time I did think it through but, by the time I’d finished the following response, I realised that I still hadn’t written a blog post for today.
So, because I want to make up for a really bad week (the Benadryl has finally cleared my system and I’m now awake), I thought I’d cheat and combine the two. I hope Rob forgives me for elevating our conversation to a blog post of its own. It’s an interesting topic that doesn’t deserve burying in the comments. I’d also be interested in hearing thoughts from anybody reading this. I might not be able to respond at this kind of length but I’m interested to see how the word is perceived.
So, to the matter at hand. Is “gammon” a racist insult?
Well, first, I don’t think it is because I genuinely don’t believe it describes skin colour. Skin colour and pallor are different things. One gives you your natural colour. It doesn’t change except through exposure to UV. Pallor is different. It has to do with blood flow. And that’s what “gammon” refers to. It describes the characteristic flushing of the cheeks when somebody gets angry. Again: it’s not skin colour. Its blood flow. And if we’re going to make characterising physiological changes taboo, then I honestly believe we’ve reached a new level of crazy.
Laughing and pointing out that somebody is “red-faced” when embarrassed would then become a racial slur. We might as well ban complimenting people as “rosy-cheeked” after they’ve exercised and “white as a sheet” when they’re frightened. More specifically: “ashen” then become racist because it involves exactly the same kind of metaphor. Then do we ban “white as the driven snow”, “Snow White”, and then, obviously, “snowflake” which was always about fragility but could just as easily be made about race (though I think it’s used in a way that is also linked to the vitality-denying anaemia of vegans etc.)?
The moment we do this, we open it up to anything that references changes in pallor. We would no longer be able to say “you’re looking a bit blue today” which derives from the “bluish or leaden colour” that results from “reduced circulation or oxygenation of the blood” (OED). Then, of course, there’s “in the pink” which, if anything, is the closest to referencing skin colour. I’m sure there are more. Many more… “He’s a bit yellow”, “she’s green behind the ears”, and “your ears are red”.
Secondly and just as important, “gammon” is an insult that generally doesn’t cross a racial divide. It’s used by one white grouping to describe another grouping of white people. Not everybody who is white would be described as “gammon” and, if this was about race, then that wouldn’t be true. It would surely apply to all people of that racial colouring, in the way that “whitey” is a racial slur.
Which brings us to the comparable phrase “black pudding”. The phrase isn’t in itself racist. It’s a pudding that’s black. Apply it to a person of colour, however, and it’s different. Then you are crudely describing a person’s natural colour but, crucially, you are not describing their physiological response when angry. Yet the severity of the insult would even then depend on your colour. That’s important. The ‘n’ word has a hugely different resonance depending on the colour of the person saying it. I don’t believe a black mother calling her child a “black pudding” wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as a white boss using it to describe a black employee. Context does matter.
In which case, a white person calling another white person “gammon” because their face has turned red is not, in my opinion, racist. The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. It would be like commenting on their turning pale, grey, green, or in the case of jaundice, yellow. It leads to even more ridiculous situations. Would we be able to say they’d been beaten “black and blue” if they’d been in a fight? Pointing out that somebody has a “black eye” would be wrong. Even calling somebody “Rudolph” when their nose was a bit red after too much drink would be racist.
More broadly, no meat-based insults would be allowed. There’d be no more calling people a “proper sausage” when they made themselves look a fool. No more “What am I, chopped liver?” You couldn’t even give somebody a “roasting”, which again derives some of its meaning from a red face.
“Gammon” is about the physiological change produced by increased blood flow caused by a spike in adrenaline when a person gets angry. That doesn’t mean that it’s a polite word but there are many more that are much worse. It’s a taunt in the culture war, used in the very same way the Right use “remoaner” and “snowflake”. The only reason why “gammon” has become controversial is that some white people look to play the race card against their liberal opponents who they know are steeped in the very identity politics they despise so much. Beyond that, it has nothing to do with race. It’s just part of the silly games that are being played in order to find higher moral ground.