Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Reality of Racism - Celebrity Big Brother 2007

I'm sure all of you will have heard by now about Celebrity Big Brother Series 5, officially the most complained about tv programme in British history.

It started with contestant Jackiey Budden (not a celebrity at all) refusing to pronounce Indian actress Shilpa Shetty's name (she claimed she was physically unable to pronounce it but, come on, if you can say the word 'contract' you can say 'Shilpa'), asking her if she lived in 'a shack' and generally displaying a lack of respect for the actress that smacked of outright hatred.

The viewers showed their displeasure by voting to evict Jackiey first but what followed was a turning point in the show, and maybe was where it all started to go seriously wrong. When Jackie referred to Shilpa as 'the Indian' during her post-eviction interview, there were laughs from the audience. Presenter Davina McCall grinned happily along with Jackiey's jokes and told her she was "an awesome housemate". Something didn't seem quite right here. Why was this person being celebrated? What exactly had they done to deserve admiration?

It was starting to seem that the audience was being asked to view racism and hate as entertainment. Ignorance was being portrayed as something cool and funny.

Things got worse. Jade Goody, her boyfriend Jack, Jo O'Meara and Danielle Lloyd formed a gang and made delightful comments about Shilpa which have been reported extensively (calling her 'a dog', and worse).

Had we seen this kind of behaviour from ordinary people in a documentary, I doubt anyone would have cared much. But the fact that these were so-called celebrities - people who expected the support and admiration of the British public - made it far worse.

As did the fact that this was a live, ongoing situation, not a past incident that had been and gone. Viewers wanted this to end immediately, but it didn't, which added to the anger.

But what has been reported less is how the Big Brother producers' actions seemed to make things worse. Presenter Dermot O'Leary questioned whether we were seeing racism at all and asked if it was the much nicer and innocent sounding 'cultural ignorance'. Not when there is so much hatred behind the comments, Dermot. Racism is, after all, just a form of ignorance.

Channel 4 then issued a statement claiming 'no overt racism' had been directed at Shilpa in person so no action would be taken. This further frustrated the viewers who were incensed at the hate-filled, behind-the-back gossiping that was on plain view (later Channel 4 made much of the fact that Shilpa herself had said she did not think the girls were being racist - however she had not, and still has not - heard the worst comments that were made behind her back).

On internet forums, behind-the-scenes information was divulged such as the fact that presenters Davina McCall, Dermot O'Leary and Russell Brand all share the same agent as contestants Cleo Rocos and Jade Goody, the ring-leader of the gang of bullies. It was questioned whether Jade would or could ever be criticized by people so professionally close to her.

These fears were confirmed when Dermot O'Leary presented a spin-off show called Big Brother's Big Brain - at a time when the racism issue was beginning to explode - which was seen as a sustained attack on Shilpa's character and a clear attempt to justify the Jade Gang's bullying of her. "She's brought this all on herself. She deserves it." was the message Channel 4 was trying to propagate. No-one was having it. On forums such as, virtual jaws were dropping at these crude attempts to massage public opinion.

The hatred of Shilpa continued unabated: Danielle handed the actress a dirty towel picked from the floor when she was in the shower, Jade launched a verbal assault against Shilpa during an argument over a stock cube labeling her "a fake and a liar", with aggression that in the outside world would have attracted police attention (Jade, by the way, is reported to have had liposuction whilst releasing fitness DVDs promoting her 'new figure' so the fake and liar comments seem a little bit hypocritical).

The hate campaign only abated when Big Brother warned Jade about her language, and after days of unprecedented news coverage, she was finally voted off the show by viewers on Friday night.

So, does a 'bbc' watching this show have a take on these events which is different to the rest of the audience? Probably not hugely different. I was appalled as anyone at what I saw. One difference is that, in my experience 'bbc's' have never bought into the 'cult of the idiot' that has made Jade a wealthy celebrity. So if that cult is now coming to an end, it's probably not going to change our world.

But I wonder if any other 'bbcs' saw this controversy, like me, from two angles. First it was terrible to see a newcomer to this country treated so badly by a group of Brits. And to see someone who embodied such positive values - elegance, quiet confidence, politeness, intelligence - metaphorically being trampled by British people so obviously lacking those values. I guess you could say this is seeing it from the 'British' point of view.

But secondly, as a Chinese person, I could identify with what Shilpa was going through too. Because the reality of racism as we experience it does not consist of Union Jack waving, BNP skinheads. Perhaps this what Channel 4 meant by 'overt' racism. The reality of racism is that odd look from the other side of the train carriage, that person who will talk to everyone else with a certain level of respect "but not to me", that throwaway 'ching chong' comment from the kid on the bus. In other words, the little stuff. If CBB has done anything worthwhile, its been to highlight this 'little stuff', the disrespect that lies at the heart of it, and showing that a lot of people find this unacceptable.

Another hugely positive thing to come out of the show, I think, is the incredible strength of character shown by Shilpa Shetty. When the hate campaign against her was in full effect, I was horrified at what young Indian kids in the UK would make of what they were seeing - a person of their ethnic background being victimized in such a way. But in the end, Shilpa has provided an object lesson in how to deal with situations like this, and how to maintain your character and dignity in the face of hatred fueled by stupidity.

One last point: I thought it was funny when one commentator said that Jermaine Jackson, despite being black, had escaped any racist abuse "because he's one of the Jackson Five". Yes, readers, for people like Jade, Jo and Danielle, that's what it takes to prevent yourself from being racially abused. Had he not been part of one of the most influential groups in pop history, in the world, ever, I dread to think what the Goody Gang would have made of him.

What next for Jade? I think journey of discovery to India looks almost certain and perhaps she will have dumped Jack and be seen stepping out with an Indian boyfriend in the near future. Stranger things have happened ;)


Anonymous said...

Racism is a manifestation of human bigotry. And it is everywhere.

I hear about the story through the BBC World Service on radio which is broadcasted from BBC Singapore.

I think it's about bullying although it reeks of racism. But people argued that there can be many ways to bully someone and not necessarily by means of giving racist remarks.

I believe, there are elements of racism by Goody's approach and the people can feel it.

Eric and Laura said...

Well written Taiko!
This has made me concerned as I am adopting a beautiful Chinese baby girl in the next few months and I want her to feel accepted and loved here in the UK as she will be accepted and oved in my home. I do have fears for her, but god-willing, we will bring hr up to be aware of ignorance and help her to have the srength to deal with problems. E & L