Context – Why Charity Can’t Be An Excuse For Everything And Not All Uniforms Are Sexy
One Friday afternoon, when I was in Sixth Form, me and my friend Shane abandoned our usual lessons, put on our Ku Klux Klan uniforms and ran around the streets demanding money. I realise that sounds a teeny bit racist and possibly a trifle thuggish, so please allow me to explain myself. There was a good reason for our little afternoon outing.
Now, obviously – or at least I hope obviously- me and Shane were not members of the Ku Klux Klan when we were seventeen. We’re not American, we’re from Newcastle, and it is in Newcastle where we set our scene here. St Mary’s RC Comprehensive, Benton Park Road, to be precise.
Me and Shane not being members of the Ku Klux Klan, our Klan uniforms were not the official ones with all the embroidery and stuff on them. They were, in fact, just white bed sheets cut up and stitched together to look like Klan uniforms. Shane’s mum made his and my sister-in-law, Anne, made mine.
The reason we were wearing these costumes in the first place was because we were participating in a fancy dress charity fun run organised by the school for the Newcastle Diocesan Society (basically the Catholic Mafia if you haven’t heard of it).
While our Klan costumes did not feature any embroidery, they were not completely unadorned. The hood of Shane’s robes had a big yellow smiley face painted on it, with the words “Have A Nice Day” printed underneath. A reference to the movie “Blazing Saddles”.
Mine didn’t have anything painted on it, but I did have a placard hung about my neck by a piece of string. Written on this placard in black marker pen were the words “Young Conservatives’ Race Relations Committee”.
We weren’t racists. We were seventeen and seeing how far you could push the boundaries of taking the piss. Quite far as it turned out.
Most of our fellow charity runners thought it was funny. The priest who organised the event thought it was funny. And, most importantly, our RE teacher Tony Hutchinson thought it was funny. He said something along the lines of : “A bit near the knuckle lads, but very clever.” The year was 1986, and the Eighties were nowhere near as politically correct as people like to remember them.
This turned out to be one of the few occasions when Tony Hutchinson was wrong. This was most definitely not clever. It’s one of the stupidest things I have ever done and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition, trust me.
So all the charity fun runners, me and Shane included, were on the starting line at the school gates. These school gates:
Somebody shouted “On your marks, get set, go!” and we pelted out of the gates, turned left and ran up the hill towards Gosforth, which is a posh part of town and where Newcastle keeps quite a lot of its money and middle class guilt. A prime charity killing field.
Things didn’t go wrong on the fun run itself. Most people got the joke, though one shopkeeper did order us out of his premises. The run was pretty successful. We made a fair old bit of money for the Catholic Mafia.
However, when we got back to the school, me and Shane decided to “go rogue” and see if we could get some extra money out of the teachers and pupils. We had assumed that everybody in the school knew about the charity fun run. This turned out not to be the case. As we very quickly found out.
I marched in on a first-year IT class. Unfortunately, the string on my placard had snapped during the run. The piece of white cardboard with the words “Young Conservatives’ Race Relations Committee” scrawled on it was lying on the pavement somewhere on Gosforth High Street. I sometimes wonder if anyone found it and what they might have made of it if they did.
So, I was minus the little ironic sign which would have gone some way to explaining the humorous political point I was trying to make.
I tell you this. Trying to explain that you’re not a racist to a bunch of eleven year olds and their horrified teacher while you’re dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan is really tricky.
Basically, all hell broke loose.
There was talk of suspensions and expulsions, but there wasn’t really anything the school authorities could do. We’d run out onto the streets of Gosforth dressed like that with the full approval of several teachers and a priest. So what we got was a very stern “Never, ever, EVER do anything like that again.”
I have no idea whether or not my little placard would have made a difference to the outcome. Maybe a bit of context would have helped. Context is very important. There are people whose hobby is to be recreationally offended. There’s nothing you can do about these people. Without context though, pretty much anything can be offensive, even to the most reasonable minded of individuals.
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think context would not have helped in this case. Brandishing my placard would have been like trying to stop a locomotive by throwing a pebble at it. All I can say in my defence is that I was seventeen and every seventeen year old, no matter how intelligent, is a fucking idiot. If I’d been thinking clearly, I could have just taken my hood off and said I was supposed to be a ghost.
There are some things you really shouldn’t do, not even for charity. Dressing up as the Ku Klux Klan is definitely one of them.
Copyright Michael Grimes 2017