Yesterday, I read this fascinating short essay posted at Dangerous Minds. The author ponders the possible "racism" of an early version of The Beatles' song "Get Back." It's short. Worth reading.
It's also a tidy example of the way in which historical context enriches a simple story.
In this case, the author of the piece ponders the idea that perhaps the song's early reference to sending "Pakis," meaning Pakistani immigrants, back "home" demonstrated racism on the part of Lennon and McCartney.
The author concludes that, no, the song was not intended to be racist, and offers historical context for that conclusion. To that conclusion I would add:
In this case, historical context is everything. And I don’t just mean “big politics” of warfare and diplomacy that pushed Pakistanis to emigrate, but also the personal histories of the men who made up the Beatles.
They were young, all of them born between 1940 and 1943. Their demographic cohort marked the onset of a surge of birthrates in the western world, one that accelerated at the end of WWII. By the time George, John, Paul, and Ringo formed their band and hit London, the first significant wave of boom babies was reaching adulthood, a youthful cohort that both created the Beatles and pushed them into the mainstream. (There were simply too many “young people.” No one, no matter how stodgy or old, could ignore their impact.)
Here’s a fact about “young people," especially young urbanites: They gravitate toward outsider cultures. Toward cheap living, cheap food, etc.
Here’s a fact about emigres like the Pakistanis who poured into Britain after World War II: They’re also “outsiders.” By default, then, their cultures are exotic and therefore appealing to those, like the young, who also see themselves as outsiders. And like the young natives, first-generation immigrants scramble to make do; they, too, live lean.
Their food cultures, for example, tend to focus on basics, bare minimum, making do. Their food is typically cheap and prominent in low-rent neighborhoods of the sort where young people hunt for housing and food. Food often functions as a route by which the outsider young make contact with immigrant, exotic cultures.
The Pakis' outsider status surely resonated with four young men in London trying to make their way in the world via outsider music, outsider clothing, and outsider mores. (Indeed, I'd go so far as to suggest that the surge in outsider, immigrant cultures influenced George Harrison's "discovery" of "eastern" culture, which, in turn, influenced not just his life but The Beatles’ music.
So: were the Beatles being racist? No. They were mocking the oldsters in their midst by siding, obliquely and via sarcasm, with another group of outsiders.
Context is all.