The N-word, pets, and do the British get a pass?

My husband and I were recently watching the move “The Dam Busters” on Netflix. This is the story of the brave men of the RAF, who using a radically new and for the most part untried method, bombed dam sites during WWII. We were settled in for an exciting, but true, war adventure, when we suddenly looked at each other and went “huh?”

The movie showed Wing Commander Guy Gibson leaving his plane after a successful bombing mission being greeting by his black lab pet.

My husband- “Did he call his dog what I think he called his dog?”

Me-“It sure sounded like that, but he probably said ‘Nigel’, it’s the accent.”

My husband – “OH MY GAWD, he said it again, he called the dog the n-word!”

Me-“He did, he called the dog the n-word! Should we be watching this movie?”

(It should be noted my husband and I really did say “the n-word”. That’s because we never ever say that “the n-word” represents. We are parents, and I work with preschoolers. It’s safer to never say any actualy word like that for fear of little ears in anyway hearing. It doesn’t matter that our children are grown and it was just my husband and myself. We can’t bring ourselves to say it, even in this case of film watching horror.)

My husband-“Maybe it’s alright to watch the movie as there aren’t any black people in the movie?”

Me-“I don’t think he’s a racist, I think he’s just British.”

We continued to watch, but also winced each time someone called the dog “the n-word”. It was “well hello, n-word, what are you doing around here boy?” It was “Good old n-word, he’s a good dog.” Everyone on the base seemed to know the name of the dog, and delight in saying “n-word”.

My husband-“Perhaps at that time, it was common in England to call a black dog the n-word”

Me-“When I was young our neighbors called their black cat ‘Sambo’. That’s pretty bad but not n-word bad”

My husband-“Well, your grandmother called your white cat ‘Blackie’ if I remember.”

(This is when the guilt began to creep in. My grandmother had called our white cat “Blackie”. She thought it was funny. I remember the veterinarian would call us back and would always chuckle at the looks on the faces of the other people waiting when he call “Blackie” and we would bring up our snow white cat.)

Me-“My grandmother wasn’t racist,I think she was being funny. But it’s probably not very funny.”

My husband-“I just remembered, our cat, ‘Othello’!”

Me-“We weren’t being racist! He was a black cat, if we were racist we would have named him ‘Sambo’ or something worse!”

My husband-“I don’t know, I still feel pretty badly about it now. Though that dumb vet’s assistant thought we had named him after a board game.”

Me-“Well and Shakespeare was English! So maybe it’s OK, because Othello is a English name. I don’t think Wing Commander Guy Gibson was a racist, he was just English! Same with Shakespeare! Othello was too dumb to answer to his name most of the time anyway.”

Othello the cat, probably we would have been safer with “Felix”

I hope I’m not giving anything away when I say that right before the big dam busting, “N-word” the dog is hit by a car and dies. It’s tragic. Still, without hearing the n-word over and over, my husband and I were able to focus on the movie. It was quite good, and well worth a look up on netflix. I have heard the movie is being remade. The original has the same type of plane that was flown on the mission, which I’m sure will not be available for the remake. I also wondered if not only would the original planes be missing, but the original dog’s name, There is history, but there is also a modern audience listening to a movie and saying “Wait, did he just call that dog what I think he called that dog?” Distraction is just one reason this bit of history will probably be rewritten for the new film.

My husband and I also agreed to stick to non British names for our pets from now on.

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7 replies

  1. You mean.. er.. Trigger?

  2. Nothing to do with offensive names, but here in Australia it is common to call pets or have nicknames that are the opposite of what they are – for example, red heads are often nicknamed Bluey, shy people are nicknamed Rowdy, so your grandmother was just being Australian!

    N-word is a whole other matter…….

  3. Yep, Gibson’s dog had that name, so it is historically accurate. At the time, nobody thought anything about it – it wasn’t racist per se, just a part of life. Lynn remembers products being describes as n***** brown when she was a kid. A shool choosing rhyme to see who would be on who’s side was,
    “Eenie, meenie, miny,mo,
    Catch a n***** by his toe.
    If her hollers, let him go,
    Eenie, meenie, miny, mo.”
    I didn’t even know what the word meant.

  4. Yep. It’s an interesting world. I remember when I was informed of these British ways. On the one hand they claim that it wasn’t racist yet at the same time it’s pretty obvious that this wasn’t the name chosen by the black British population(….Afro-British???). Racism and bigotry has many, many layers and levels. Can they justify a word just because of habit? I think not.

    Thanks. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

  5. Back in the 1940s and for most of English history Nigger actually meant Black – from which the term for people with black skins was derived. So Gibson was just using a common word; in exactly the same way you might even now call a black pet animal ‘Blackie’ ; or a ginger cat ‘Ginger’ etc etc.

    It was not racist; it was a common descriptive word used as a name.

    As Americans; you may not realise that there were very very few non- Anglo-Saxon (‘whites’ or Caucasians) in the general population; though courtesy of the Empire; most people were aware of the marvellous diversity of the human race.

    You are; of course; judging Guy Gisbon’s behaviour through the lenses of 21st century US culture; which is – in terms of acceptable behaviour – a completely different planet.

    He was NOT an American of the 21st century; he was an Englishman of the mid 20th century; using a perfectly acceptable word for the colour black to name his dog. I have heard the new movie will either do away with Nigger; or rename him.
    Leave the name in; and in context; it is part of the true story of a group of men who risked their lives for the freedom you now have to chose NOT to use a word you think/know others will find insulting and/or demeaning. Nigger did NOT have those connotations in England in 1944 – re-writing history is right out of that dis-utopia 1984; and something I find extremely insulting and perfidious.

    Great Britain and the United States – two great nations separated by a common language (WInston Churchill).

    Note to informationforger – look up the demographics of the UK in the 1940s; WHAT population group would be insulted ? WHY would any Brit at that time; and in that place NOT use a common descriptive word to name his dog. Gibson would have known of ALL the European languages where the current word for black is derived from the same Latin noun that gave us (English speaking peoples) nigger for black in English English.

    • I have to agree, that Gibson was in no way a racist. This was just a common nick name, that to today’s ear sounds “funny”. I have to admit we started to laugh a bit, because it was said so often it lost all offensive meaning. I rather hope the new movie keeps the name also, with perhaps a publicity bit about why that was a common, not insulting, nick name. Considering what those pilots and their crews went through, and the dog is an important part of the story, why not?

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