Almost a year after the Shilpa Shetty-Big Brother incident, another Indian celebrity has complained about racist abuse in Britain. The details of the verbal assault on model-turned-actress Bipasha Basu are less clear, since it took place on a London street corner, instead of in a CCTV-monitored house. But undoubtedly, such reports are an embarrassment to middle-class British visitors to India, whose tendency thereafter is to put the blame squarely on their poor White countrymen.
It is, of course, true that at North London dinner parties, attended mainly by professionals, anything that might be considered racist is taboo. Terms like ‘Paki’ are used more freely in the rougher South London and its suburbs. Middle-class folks cite such use of language as proof that their social inferiors are inherently racist. These people, incidentally, are called ‘Chavs’, which means ‘poor White scum’.
Jade Goody seems to be a good example of this. Her bullying of Shetty was attributed by many to her class. Goody’s roots in the traditionally White working-class borough of Southwark in South London were clear from her accent, vocabulary and bearing.
However, as Michael Collins points out in his book, The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class, evidence seem to run counter to the assumption that the poor Whites are the font of all racism in Britain. Using official Census statistics, Collins illustrates how, on an average, poor Whites are more likely to work alongside, live close to, be friends with, marry and have children with non-Whites than any other social class. Middle-class Whites may be conscious about the language they use, but are less likely to have Brown or Black friends.
The Daily Mail, widely seen as Britain’s most racist newspaper, is also the one that despises the ‘Chavs’ the most and whose core readers are from lower middle-class White suburban families.
In one sense, though, those who commented that Goody’s insults to Shetty were because of her class were right. The British White working-class love to make fun of those who sound or act ‘upper-class’. Whenever I got my hair cut in my poor South London neighbourhood, other customers would mercilessly mock me because of my private-school accent.
The fact that Shetty came across as privileged, regardless of her country, meant that she was likely to be bullied by those like Goody. If she had been a British Asian from East London, it’s doubtful that she would have been picked on at all.
Racism is an undeniable problem in Britain. But the hows and the whys are much more complex than a simple reading of the reports indicate.