Friday, 9 May 2014

No parlour Inglese?

As this picture I took and Tweeted on Wednesday has attracted some local press attention and a lively debate online, I thought I'd post it here and say what I think in more than 140 words. It's in the window of a tattoo shop, New Romantic Ink, 20 yards from my flat.

On Twitter, I called it racist, discriminatory and just plain dumb. Dumb's easy: although reading and speaking skills don't always go together (I can read Latin and Welsh but can't speak them to any standard), it seems unlikely that anyone who can't speak English will be able to read the sign, so it's a little self-defeating.

Discriminatory? Yes: most of the world's population is excluded from this shop. Racist? I think it is. The owners of the shop and their friends contacted me on Twitter to accuse me of lacking the 'bollocks' to come in and talk about it, but they also explained to me and the local paper that an Iranian customer who spoke no English had issued death threats (despite not speaking English?) over a disagreement, and that forms need to be completed by customers. The man was arrested, which seems perfectly fair to me.

I do think the sign is racist though. Apart from the hostile phrasing ('don't even bother'), the owners have responded to one awful and frightening event by making a link between linguistic ability and behaviour. It feels to me like the the inability to speak English is a coded way of excluding foreigners, and the exclusion of all non-English speakers because one person behaved appallingly clearly roots that behaviour in cultural/racial/linguistic difference without regard for personal responsibility or the enormous variation in human behaviours. It implies, too, that English-speakers can behave however they like in the shop – and as we all know, people with BNP and EDL tattoos are charming gentlemen one and all.

I hope the customer who threatened the staff at New Romantic Ink is subjected to the full force of the law. But I hope too that the shop's staff learn to differentiate between one arsehole and the many billions of people whose custom they've turned down. It reminded me far too much of the famous 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish' signs formerly displayed in British shops and boarding houses.

I'm pretty certain, too,  that a tattoo shop owner would object to a ban on people with tattoos in other places.

PS. Reading the newspaper article, I wonder how much my friend Paul Uppal had to grit his teeth before agreeing with me!

Update: I had a conversation with the owners on BBC Radio the other day. It was all very cordial and thoughtful, though I (and the presenter) wasn't entirely convinced that the sign going up minutes after an altercation with a threatening Iranian customer was entirely coincidental.

The sign has now been replaced with this one, which made me laugh quite a lot. Genuinely funny.


Arron Hook said...

It certainly discriminates, but it isn't racist since there are large swathe of the world where the population aren't white and speak and write English to a better standard than most English people. I agree the 'Don't Bother' is churlish. But if you count that as racist, is it racist for restaurants in Quebec refusing serve customers who don't speak French?

Anonymous said...

The sign is ridiculous, no doubt about that, but an understandable knee jerk reaction to a stressful situation, and that was removed quite rapidly, so I think we should all move on to more important things now!

Anonymous said...

How can expecting people to speak English in England be racist? If you choose to come from abroad and live in England (like I did), isn't it fair that you should make some effort to speak the language of the country. What is more scary is how liberally accusations of 'racist' are thrown around.

NB The shop[ is not there to serve half the world's population, it is there to serve the local community

@beilinglaoshi said...

In one of my classes an English student was sporting a Chinese tattoo. The Chinese students were very interested. "Is your boyfriend's name Richard?" they asked. Her face fell.

Anonymous said...

Is this racist? As this is the same thing as what the shop owner was saying.