Yes, they certainly embraced racism.
It’s been a problem for story-tellers. Back in 2011 the BBC reported that the name of the Dam Buster’s mascot, a black Labrador named the N-word, would be changed in a movie produced by Peter Jackson:
“You can go to RAF Scampton and see the dog’s grave and there he is with his name, and it’s an important part of the film. “The name of the dog was a code word to show that the dam had been successfully breached. “In the film, you’re constantly hearing ‘N-word, N-word, N-word, hurray’ and Barnes Wallis is punching the air. But obviously that’s not going to happen now. “So Digger seems OK, I reckon.”
The BBC goes on to say that decision really centered on the fact that there’s a larger story to tell and the dog’s name is a tiny, unessential detail.
“The film is not about the dog. My big concern would be if they watered down what the Dam Busters had achieved.”
The Independent in 2018 reported that screenings of the 1955 version of the movie decided to leave the N-word, but warn viewers of racist language.
The name has previously been censored for TV broadcasts, while some American versions have used dubbing to edit the dog’s name to Trigger.
Digger, Trigger…Vigor, Rigor, Bigger. It doesn’t really matter what that dog’s name was to tell the Dam Buster story unless you want to talk about racism of the RAF. If the N-word is used, then you have to talk about the bigger picture of the N-word.
One could argue that if Peter Jackson’s film crew had tried to use the original racist slur name, they would have needed to address racism with a lot more that just basic context setting. And that would have been a very different movie.
It would of course mean doing far more than just tossing out “you can go to RAF Scampton and see the dog’s grave”, although I understand that sentiment. The writers claimed anyone who wants to see an original name can easily do so for other purposes.
That is not a bad response to shift the burden to another production team until you read Sky News reports today that even RAF Scampton has removed the N-word from memorials to the Dam Busters. Can’t go and see it anymore.
It is understood the decision was taken in order to not give prominence to an offensive word that goes against the modern RAF’s ethos.
This is the right decision by the RAF, yet Sky News really should have concluded with “…an offensive word that goes against the RAF’s ethos.”
Saying it goes against the modern ethos is problematic because it passively excuses a legacy of racism in the RAF.
Fortunately the BBC does indeed report it in the proper way:
The RAF said it did not want to give prominence to an offensive term that went against its ethos.
More to the point, the N-word has been racist for centuries and there’s no real excuse for using the word in the 1940s.
Everyone should be able to agree it was clearly and widely known to be derogatory by the 1800s, as the book “Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” explains:
We do know… that by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult. […] For many whites in positions of authority, however, referring to blacks as niggers was once a safe indulgence. […] Given whites’ use of nigger, it should come as no surprise that for many blacks the N-word has constituted a major and menacing presence that has sometimes shifted the course of their lives.
“A safe indulgence” by “whites in positions of authority” seems exactly to be what has happened in the case of the Dam Busters naming their dog a racist slur.
The African American Registry explains how change does indeed come slowly for those in positions of authority:
No matter what its origins, by the early 1800s, it was firmly established as a derogative name. In the 21st century, it remains a principal term of White racism, regardless of who is using it. […] In 2003, the fight to correct the shameful availability of this word had positive results. Recently Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), gave a speech at Virginia Tech. There everyone was informed that a landmark decision was made with the people at Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Recognizing their error, beginning with the next edition, the word nigger will no longer be synonymous with African Americans in their publication.
In other words, while the word has been harmful the whole time, some tend to erase that fact by presenting it as an intentional slur of innocent motives.
Consider the 1964 campaign slogan that won “the most racist election” in Britain was not long after the end of WWII:
Conservative MP, Peter Griffiths, had been elected in the previous year’s general election on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
The best case for the Dam Busters would be ignorance that led to an unfortunate mistake, but even that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that the N-word is harmful and the Dam Busters were racist.
Keep in mind also that the push for abolition of slavery is as old as slavery itself, such that by the 1700s there was growing condemnation of those who perpetuated it (thus leading to widespread abolition in the early 1800s).
By the 1943 raid that made the Dam Busters famous there is no question the N-word was racist and documented widely as such.
We can’t simply say because some whites found that their position of power and privilege had allowed them to indulge in harms without consequences, therefore they intended no harm. That is the wrong analysis and legitimizes wrongdoing.
Quite clearly there was racism in the ranks, and quite clearly it should be treated as such. We even have documentation of that fact from those who suffered it.
…In 1939, the peacetime recruiting regulations…restricted entry into the RAF to men of “pure European descent”. Under the Act, all “men of colour” were automatically debarred…. […] …a Guyanese man…in 1941 was recruited by the RAF. Grant wanted to be a fighter pilot…. Years later after being shown Air Ministry records researched by Roger Lambo be was to painfully learn of the racism with informal Air Ministry policies.
As Robert Murray, who left Georgetown, Guiana to join the RAF, recalls: “I never heard of racism until I got to Britain.” …there is now a desire to celebrate the achievements of those such as Flight Sergeant Jimmy Hyde, the much-decorated Trinidadian piolt, there has been little recognition of the isolation they felt in the RAF. […] There is an official RAF photograph of Hyde, from 132 Squadron, with his Spitfire and holding “Dingo”, the squadron commander’s pet dog. Hyde, while forcing a smile, looks uneasy: it is unclear which one is the mascot.
However, rather than go too far down the complicated paths to explain motives for this systemic racism in the RAF, we really should keep focus on consequences here.
Given the term was known harmful from the 1800s onward, and given that most blacks who heard the term would consider it harmful, therefore POSTING OR USING THIS DOG’S NAME ERASES THE BLACK EXPERIENCE.
Perhaps I come at this with unique experience that makes the right choice obvious to me.
I spent many hours deep in the military archives of the UK for my academic degree. There I found an excessive amount of racism of an almost unbearable level in secret memos, especially in the war-time Colonial Office correspondence for the North African campaigns (as you might imagine from the office name).
The intolerance and hate is all still there if you want to open the folders, but it most certainly should not be paraded or celebrated. And if someone pulled that racism from the archive and built a gravestone or monument to it for celebration, I would ask them frankly if they are trying to erase history by trying to elevate that particular tangent.
If anyone believes that erasing history is harmful, then they should see removing the N-word is a restoration. Don’t believe anyone who claims the N-word was acceptable at the time, or that it didn’t get a reaction from those it slighted. That erases the black experience.
To post such a word believing it to be “factual” without thinking of its factual consequences, is an act of erasure. It erases history and continues to promote severe and lasting wrongs, by failing to acknowledge mistakes as such. The RAF is right to correct the mistake, acknowledge the bigger story and fuller history, and remove the racist name.