I had barely seen any black people at that time. I remember looking at what I now realise were some small black children in an American picture book, and because they had short tight braids that reminded me of nothing so much as the antennae sported by cartoon aliens, vaguely associated them with other planets. Oh yes, and like everyone I knew, I picked who was going to be "it" in games by using a rhyme mostly composed of nonsense words such as "eeny", "meeny, "miny", "mo", "nigger" and "hollers". I'd heard none of these used in any other connection. (I wonder how that rhyme made it across the Atlantic, and when?)
That was all in about 1970. Some eighteen years later, things had changed. I was shocked when I stayed in a shared postgraduate student house in Cambridge, and found in the bathroom a tube of "Darkie" toothpaste. It turned out one of the students in the house was Malaysian, where this is - or was, before they renamed it "Darlie" - a popular brand. Perhaps in Malaysia they lacked the cultural reference point too?
That was all in about 1988. More than twenty years later - last week, in fact - my PhD student (who's working on Captain Underpants, and don't you wish you were too?) told me about the Spanish equivalent of M&Ms. They're called Conguitos (i.e. Congolese people), and they advertise them like this:
What I didn't know in a small market town in 1970, and the Malaysians weren't much aware of in 1988, it's very hard to believe that the Spanish - just a Herculean pillar's caber toss from Africa - are ignorant of today. Conguitos aren't particularly controversial, though, it seems.
I'm not sure what to make of it. Easy to call the advert racist (well, duh), but I'd feel a lot more outraged if it appeared on, say, UK TV, because I'm more certain of the context here. But then, how far does something's being racist depend on a "context"? But then, do I really think my younger self was racist for using the word "nigger" without having any idea what it meant? But then, wouldn't it be a different kind of racism to "make allowances" for the Spanish lagging a few years behind us Anglophones?