Socialist Worker

A racist reality check

Why was 'racism as entertainment' given airtime by a public service broadcaster? Stephen Philip sees the profit motive at every turn

Issue No. 2035

(Pic: Tim Sanders)

(Pic: Tim Sanders)

For a moment reality TV made good on its promise as Celebrity Big Brother showed us a postcard from reality – the banal everyday racism in Britain.

The ever present murmur of racism that is often detected in streets, playgrounds and workplaces was finally given the international spotlight last week.

Jade Goody and her fellow contestants' racist haranguing of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty caused a storm of complaint.

The ball passed to and fro in newspaper columns. Is it racism or mere bullying? they asked. But surely the slam dunk answer was to conjoin the two issues – it was racist bullying.

What else should we make of the questioning of 'the Indian's' hygiene, the mimicking of her accent and calling her Shilpa 'Fuckawalla'? Yet Channel 4 denied it was racism. Perhaps their diversity officer was locked in a broom cupboard last week.

The media and the government protest that this is not modern Britain, these racist women are a throwback. So did I miss something? I know the winter has been dark, stormy and strange, but I wondered if I had slipped unwittingly into an alternative universe.

You know, that world where racism is but a bad nightmare and Martin Luther King's dream has been realised.

Most of the kinds of things we heard on Big Brother were, and are, the insidious dark chatter of everyday life. This is what racism looks like for so many people of colour – the childish taunts, the groan-inducing ignorance, the occasional 'I think she should fuck off home', and the ambiguously phrased insult, 'She looks like a dog.'

In the racist taxonomy, 'the other' is always that much nearer to the animal kingdom. It reminds me of my time in school in the 1970s when the white boys felt my name just wasn't good enough and decided to call me 'Gus', based on a comic book character called 'Gus the gorilla'. The name followed me through all my grammar school years.

For some these crude taunts are the typical coinage of 'uneducated, dayglo white trash' and it's generally assumed to be a world away from the 'cultured' white middle classes.

But surely I cannot be the only black person to have been the butt of posh, slimy sarcasm masquerading as humour but containing barbed racist insults.

The middle class know well how to disguise their bigotry and there are other methods to their madness. When I hear the phrase, 'This is political correctness gone mad,' I have an involuntary clench, a steeling of the nerves, and then I think, what colonial garbage will follow now?

The bigoted members of the middle classes can also use their wealth and social position to avoid contact with blacks and Asians. They live in gated communities and place their children in private schools to avoid the 'rough underachievers'. Those blacks and Asians who aren't deemed to be 'one of us' find themselves blocked in their efforts for career advancement.

But why was 'racism as entertainment' allowed so much airtime by a public service broadcaster? Could it be that the Big Brother franchise is Channel 4's banker and they were facing a ratings crisis?

Chairman Luke Johnson was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about the affair and refused to be drawn into any defence or discussion of the issue. Utterly contemptuous, Channel 4 executives only answer to profit, not the enraged public.

Endemol, the producers of Celebrity Big Brother, are similarly hypnotised and didn't see fit to intervene and challenge the racist bullying until the very last minute. Both remain arrogant, unrepentant and grubbily fixated at all costs on shareholder value and advertising rates.

On the other hand Gordon Brown was obviously upset that his plans for increasing trade with India were to be scuppered by this untimely programming – otherwise why would he comment on it?

This is the same Gordon Brown who said we should not apologise for the British Empire – his thoughts reported in papers that daily screech with xenophobia about asylum seekers and Muslims. Where else do Jade and others get their silly ideas from?

Out of all this nonsense shines a beacon of hope that can be seen in the unprecedented numbers of ordinary people who were disgusted by Channel 4's cynical handling of the event. This can only work to put the bigots on the back foot and give renewed confidence to those fighting racism.

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Sat 27 Jan 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2035
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