It’s just a clash of cultures, say Channel 4’s bosses in response to complaints against the reality TV show Big Brother. It’s not really racism, they assure us, just a “culture clash”.
But all this talk of a “culture clash” raging in Channel 4’s twisted world evades the crucial point – that a gang of white contestants are using racist abuse precisely in order to assert the superiority of “their” culture over that of Shilpa Shetty, the Indian contestant.
How else should we understand the taunting of Shilpa Shetty with the phrase “Shilpa Poppadom”, or calls for her to “fuck off home”? A language problem? A misunderstanding?
This constant stream of low level racism emanating from the Big Brother house has taken many a commentator by surprise. “How unrepresentative of modern, multicultural and tolerant Britain those contestants are,” they say.
Yet for millions of black and Asian people in Britain, the whole affair has had a frighteningly familiar ring to it – it takes them right back to their school days.
If you were one of a handful of non-white kids in a suburban school in the 1970s and 1980s, you were almost certainly subjected to a mundane diet of this type of racism. The constant sniping and casual abuse would have shaped the kind of person you have become.
The idea that racism is somehow alien to the British tradition will come as news to everyone who has to carry the effects of this racism around with them everyday.
Another variation on the commentators’ theme is to say that the racism exhibited in the Big Brother house is confined to Britain’s “lower classes”.
Apparently the middle classes long ago understood the need for tolerance and now shy away from such vulgar expressions of racial prejudice.
But for many people racism never stopped after they left school. Your prospects of getting into further and higher education, getting a decent job and finding a place to live have continue to be determined by the colour of your skin, your name and your “culture”.
Yet the type of people who implement this form of racism – hiring, firing, choosing and excluding – are generally from a very different social class to the racists in the Big Brother house. They hail almost exclusively from the polite middle classes.
The wave of outrage that has greeted the racism in Big Brother pays testament to the fact that millions of people in Britain – black, Asian and white – recognise and reject racism when they see it.
They oppose not just the overt racism that is expressed in hateful language, but also the low level background bigotry that stunts schoolchildren’s aspirations and blights peoples’ lives.
Britain is a battleground on the question of race, and the Channel 4 bosses and newspaper columnists who seem to have missed this must be walking round with their eyes closed – deliberately.