I only today realized that the “Eeny meeny” rhyme contains the word nigger – despite having said it many times in my childhood. I really attached no meaning at all to the word then – I though it was just nonsense like “eeny meeny’. I certainly had no idea it meant a black person. I had only ever met two or three black people, and did not think of them as any different.
Once I did know the word “nigger” and its hateful sense – probably from TV – I never made the cognitive connection between it and that old nursery rhyme. Absolutely not until today when I read about Jeremy Clarkson. I then closed my eyes and said the rhyme. I was genuinely astonished – and horrified – to find myself saying:
Eeny meeny miney moe
Catch a nigger by the toe
If he squeals let him go
Eemy meeny miney moe
I am quite sure that was the version I chanted as a child when counting out a random choice. It was just a counting rhyme. I had as a small child no associations at all with its meaning, any more than I associated “ring a ring of rosies” with bubonic plague, or “Here we go round the mulberry bush” with pagan fertility rituals.
Clarkson said the rhyme in the context of making the point that there was nothing to choose between two cars, as a way of indicating the choice would be random – an entirely natural context for the rhyme to spring to mind. Plainly he realized what he had done, and recorded another version. Clarkson is even older than me. I might very well have made the same error. He denies he ever said the word “nigger”. I can conceive I might have done it without realizing it is there, until too late. If that sounds incredible, I think it is because you are not taking into account the way children learn and continually repeat rhythmic counting rhymes.
Naturally I hope that version of the nursery rhyme is never used again. There can be few things harder to eradicate than ancient playground chants, but parents and teachers must explain why it is wrong if they hear it. I don’t know if children still use it. But while we may deplore attitudes of the past, we have to exercise wisdom in dealing with people who were products of a very different environment. Like Clarkson. Oh, and me.
Which leads me to a further thought. I am pretty sure I had no concept of people’s colour as a small child, and the following I know for certain. My elder children attended a primary school in Gravesend in which a little over half the children were Sikh. By age seven, they had absolutely no conception of any racial difference between themselves and any others in their class. It is a slender piece of evidence, but I am generally fairly convinced that racial difference is a taught construct.