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Is Britain a racist country?

Let us bury the hasty and unjustified conclusion that Shilpa Shetty?s treatment is proof Britain is racist, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2007 23:50 IST
Sunday Sentiments | Karan Thapar
Sunday Sentiments | Karan Thapar

My answer is no — a resolute and emphatic no. In which case, you might ask, what about Germaine Greer, Martin Jacques, Kuldip Nayar and Vir Sanghvi who’ve said it is? As far as I’m concerned they’re wrong. If you read on you’ll understand why.

But, yes, there are racists in Britain and there is discrimination. Just like India. However, where Britain scores over us is they have a culture that is far more conscious of such lapses and a public opinion that fights them. Remember, 82 per cent voted to evict Jade Goody from the Big Brother house. Most of the 45,000 complaints against the programme were from white British people who responded to Shilpa’s tears with a wave of sympathy.

So let’s bury the hasty and unjustified conclusion that Shilpa Shetty’s treatment is proof Britain is racist. You could make a better case claiming Gujarat 2002, or the killing of Graham Staines and his two sons, is proof India is a communal country. But it’s not. Such facts — Indian and British — need to be properly understood.

Let’s examine what happened to Shilpa. To begin with, her name was mispronounced, no doubt deliberately, and her accent was mimicked. But is that racism? Punjabis delight in mispronouncing Tamil names. Bengali and Bihari accents are mimicked by practically all north-Indians. Yet when we do so no one calls it racism. Then why is it racism when it happens in Britain?

But, unfortunately, that’s not all that happened to Shilpa. She was sworn at, her hygiene questioned, her cooking insulted and her behavior ridiculed. I accept this is more serious. More offensive. Yet it’s still not racism. It may seem like it but it needs to be understood for what it really is.

The truth is that this uncouth, crude, even repellant behavior is an extreme form of British working class culture. Seen through this perspective, Shilpa’s refinement, cultivated accent, genteel behaviour, as much as her bleached hair and sartorial style, seem posh, affected and haughty. In the British context they appear to threaten the working class assumption of equality. To Jade Goody it perhaps also seemed deliberately defiant.

A clash of cultures was inevitable. In fact, Big Brother probably intended to provoke one. But not all clashes of culture are racism. And to see the Goody-Shetty conflict as if it was is to misunderstand it. It may seem racist but its roots lie elsewhere. Therefore to judge Britain in the light of this misunderstanding is not just unfair and wrong, it’s tantamount to falling into a trap of one’s own devising.

At the end of the day this was a television programme. Although they call it reality TV its about as real as the ‘natural’ rise of dough in a heated oven. Flour mixed with yeast rises under high temperatures. But such temperatures are not normal. Big Brother reveals how people behave in a pressure cooker environment. But the world outside — the real world — is very different.

I believe the truth about the British lies elsewhere. They’re probably xenophobic and they’re definitely inordinately proud of the British way of doing things. But I don’t see a lot wrong with either.

The British have pejorative nick-names for practically every nationality in the world — wogs, nig-nogs, dagos, wops, frogs, yanks, nips, krauts. They’re also inveterate snobs. And though many adopt cockney or geordie accents, well-spoken English intimidates them. It reminds them where they’ve fallen short. So if you speak properly and know which knife and fork to reach for, if you don’t crow about your upbringing or show-off your knowledge, and if you have a sense of humour — better still, can laugh at yourself — the British will warm up to you. In fact, most working class Brits would assume you come higher up the pecking order than they do!

There’s one other British quality worth recognising. They have great respect for individuality and, therefore, each individual’s privacy. The Brits love eccentrics. Whilst we in India strive for uniformity, they cultivate differences. We look askance at people who stand out of the crowd. They accept those who dress to attract attention. We squirm at unusual behavior, they see in it the stamp of character.

Of course, if you want to believe Britain is racist there’s nothing I can write that will stop you. But remember this obstinacy cuts both ways. After Gujarat, Graham Staines and Babri Masjid, if someone wants to believe India is a communal country no one can stop them either. However, they would be wrong. That also applies to Britain.

First Published: Jan 27, 2007 23:50 IST