The real story is not so much whether the Celebrity Big Brother housemates are being racist or not, but about what national image Britain is reflecting to the rest of the world. Even though Big Brother still flaunts one of the most racially varied casts of any British television programme, it also beautifully demonstrates how racism remains a strong part of our culture. This dark undercurrent is currently making for uncomfortable and yet compulsive viewing.
The Shilpa affair is big news, not just in the UK but also in India. It has become a fully-fledged diplomatic row, involving Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. An effigy has been burnt in India in protest and demonstrations have taken place in Patna. Shilpa has become a symbol for India. Gordon Brown, who has just arrived in India, has said today that he hopes the message that ‘we are a nation of fairness and tolerance’ comes across.
Petitions are doing the rounds. The debate is raging on an international level. Where once television narrated the nation to itself, the whole world is now watching. There is a big question about what national image we are choosing to project to the rest of the world.
The current brouhaha appeals to our inner liberal selves. The common reaction has been one of surprise at these four depressingly average young people acting like racist bullies. Why are we shocked? I am merely surprised that they are not more media-savvy. With the cameras rolling, PR people and agents to deal with, one may have hoped they would know a bit better. Or perhaps they have taken note of past high-profile celebrities who have been linked with claims of racism.
Your opinion depends on what your definition of racism is and whether or not you recognise racist patterns and processes.
For my mother, the group formation and bigoted comments remind her of the workplace culture in the education sector in the 1960s and 70s, when fellow teachers would quiz her about whether or not they had books in India. For my cousin, it has stirred up memories of the school playground in the 1980s. For my Filipino friend, new to this country, it reminds her of how she has been made to feel by others in the past few months. It is unlikely that many of Endemol’s bigwigs would have shared those experiences. For us to expect them to be the ones identifying the situation, as racism is highly misguided, particularly when they have a vested interest in saying it’s not.