Theatre takes fright at using 'spooky' this Hallowe'en over fears it could be racist

·3 min read
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censorship

The word 'spooky' has been censored at Hallowe'en by a major theatre company over fears the term could be seen as racist.

The National Theatre of Scotland said it would “always interrogate language choices” for “historically oppressive connotations”.

During the Second World War, American servicemen began using the term to refer to black pilots, and use of the word has caused some controversy in the United States.

However, Prof Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s most prominent black academic, claimed the publicly-funded charity was “doing more harm than good” and that he had never heard 'spooky' used as a racial slur.

A source told The Sunday Mail that while nobody had complained to the National Theatre of Scotland about the word, there were concerns that its continued use might cause problems in future. It was identified by the organisation as an offensive term, the Scottish newspaper reported.

Prof Palmer, 81, who was installed as the new Chancellor of Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh at the weekend, described the arts body’s intervention as "an irrelevance" and claimed it had no right to interfere with our use of language.

'Doing more harm than good'

"This seems to be another example where organisations think they are doing black people a favour,” he said. “They are not.

“I have never heard of ‘spooky’ being used as a derogatory term for black people and I am a black man. It has always meant to me to be something that’s scary or frightening.

“Therefore, if it is not a racial slur that is part of our culture, these people have just ensured that it becomes one. I think there are enough negative images around race without looking for more.”

Jamaican-born Prof Palmer, who also serves as president of the Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council, added: “If they want to do something about race, let them put on a play about it and explain its origins. Otherwise, they are doing more harm than good.”

The term ‘spooky’ was last used by the theatre five years ago in ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Old Kirk in Kirkcaldy, in Fife, which it described as “a spooky location”.

The theatre source said: “There’s been a lot of training and meetings since the Black Lives Matter movement and how NTS should change.

“There might not be many people who know that ‘spooky’ can also be used as racist but even if it’s one person who is offended, it’s one person too many.”

According to the ‘word watch’ website Code Switch, which monitors and advises on racially-offensive language, ‘spooky’ originates from the old Dutch word for ‘apparition or spectre’.

It says the word “lived a relatively innocuous life” until the war when US servicemen began to use ‘spook’ to refer to black colleagues.

An NTS spokesman said: “The company has not banned the word spooky from being used on National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) website or marketing materials.

“However, following the commitment by NTS to becoming an anti-racist organisation, the company will now always interrogate language choices on all materials to try to ensure that no offence or hurt is caused by inappropriate language or by words that have historically oppressive connotations.”

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