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Another ‘race row’ in multiracist Britain?

by Dhiraj Murthy
7 May 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Celebrity Big Brother [1] | Commons
 

“Racism does exist. Just because when you walk down the street, you don’t get spat on in the street, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” – DJ Kayper, BBC Asian Network [1]

Despite New Labour’s efforts at papering over the cracks, racism towards Asians in Britain was brought to the fore by the ‘Shilpa Shetty affair’. Shetty, the prominent 31-year-old Bollywood star was a surprise contestant in Celebrity Big Brother. By the height of the ‘affair’, several of the show’s contestants had called Shetty ‘dog’, ‘paki’, and ‘Shilpa poppadom’. Jade Goody, a serial reality television ‘celebrity’ and the most truculent of the ‘housemates’, rounded off her vitriol with a call for Shetty to ‘go back to the slums’. These incidents were met by extensive global media coverage. Even small local Indian television networks picked up on the scoop due to Shetty’s fame in the subcontinent. Scattered protests in India ensued and branded Britain a racist country.[2] Tony Blair and Gordon Brown limply tried to defuse the situation, affirming Britain’s inclusive multiculturalism (in spite of the dominant discourse declaring the death of multiculturalism).

The real ‘victors’ of the incident have been Shetty’s newly invigorated acting career and huge financial rewards (hardly a pyrrhic victory!), Endemol’s share price, and Big Brother’s rocketing viewership. Unsurprisingly, Shilpa’s ‘winning’ of the Big Brother contest has not translated into real gains for anti-racism. Hasn’t the opposite has been true? Jade Goody emphatically did not learn her proverbial lesson. Rather, for her ‘apology’, she approached the popular Asian women’s magazine, Asiana, and asked to pose in a sari as their cover girl with a “desert backdrop of camels and palm trees” [3] Goody not only rehashes imperial exoticizations of Asian, but does so thinking that her Orientalist PR attempt will endear her to Asians. Notwithstanding the offensiveness of her supposed gesture of reconciliation, Goody’s behaviour subsequent to her eviction from the Big Brother house has exemplified the cultural ignorance and outright racism found within some segments of Britain. Of course, the British National Party (BNP) has known this all along and has been converting this ignorance and hatred into political capital.

So has this been just another ‘race row’ in multiracist Britain? Perhaps not. Shetty’s notoriety awakened some of the more complacent of British South Asians to the changed, but real racisms of Britain. DJ Kayper’s comment at the beginning of this article exemplifies this discourse. Moreover, there are few, if any, opportunities for Asians to gain prominent national coverage of the kind of racism they have continuously experienced. Big Brother inadvertently gave voices to Asians who are normally invisible in public political discourse. CNN, Sky News, and the BBC all featured reports with comments by Asian passer-bys, who remarked that the racism and exclusion experience in their everyday lives is finally being aired on television. Notably, Keith Vaz, an Asian Labour MP for Leicester East, was given significant television coverage on his opinions of the row and racism in Britain. Usually, ethnic minority politicians are relegated to the sidelines, (though are often reeled in for their expertise on all matters concerning race). However, what is disconcerting is that a failing reality television show was the vehicle that brought about a recognition of everyday anti-Asian racism, a sentiment echoed by Bobby Nihal, a BBC Asian Network DJ, when he states:

“Where else is it [racism against Asians] being addressed? It is more of a sad indictment of our [national] discussions about race that it has to be Big Brother that opens it up to us.[4]

We can safely say that Big Brother raised the visibility of racism towards British Asians during the media spectacle surrounding the issue (an argument made by various staff on the BBC Asian Network). However, this ‘outing’ of racist Britain has not resulted in any kind of lasting triumph for anti-racism. Not that it is supposed to of course. But Jade Goody’s ridiculous PR exercises and the vocal public response on websites such as YouTube and MySpace, which claim that the row was an example of political correctness gone too far, disturbingly leave a lack of consensus on what the incident has actually changed (if anything?). On MySpace for example, there are numerous sites set up as ‘campaigns’ to prove Goody did not make racist comments and was ‘forced’ to apologise.[5] Awareness of racism is, of course, important, yet Big Brother is hardly the best vehicle for such transformations. So Shilpa appears to slide into celluloid history as (an)other victim of entrenched British racism (while uniquely becoming immensely more wealthier along the way). One is left with little doubt as to whether ordinary British Asians are any better off.

Notes

1. The Hype Show, Broadcast on BBC Asian Network 17th January 2007. DJ Kayper commenting on the racist comments made by Big Brother participants towards Shilpa Shetty [↑]

2. An effigy being burned in Patna in January 2007 is one example of the Indian protests. See http://www.spiegel.de/img/0 ,1020,779911,00.jpg for a Reuters photograph of the event. [↑]

3. Millar, C. (2007) ‘Sari Jade, We Just Don’t Want You!’ Daily Star (14 March 2007): News [↑]

4. Nihal, B. (2007) ‘Celebrity Big Brother’s Little Brother: Day 17′, in Big Brother’s Little Brother, London: Endemol, 20 January 2007. [↑]

Dhiraj Murthy is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. He is currently a visiting Research Fellow at the Critical Theory Institute, University of California, Irvine. His research focusses on South Asian dance musics, ethnicity, and discourses of ethnic essentialisms.
All posts by: Dhiraj Murthy | Email | Website

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