Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Social Concerns


Big racism

Much as we would like to believe that racialism is dead in Britain, the Channel 4 Celebrity Big Brother show revealed that there was still a side to the island nation which was not exactly tolerant to brown or black skin. The on-going episode of what is called reality television conveyed this beyond reasonable doubt.

Shilpa Shetty
Unlike in the U.S., where racism exists in the extreme fringes of society -- like what we saw during Hurricane Katrina when white supremacists ill-treated the black underclass -- it is an everyday affair in Britain. In the U.S., built on immigration, one is an American first and a black or a brown next. But in the U.K., you are an alien unless you can moan about the weather or talk about tea to prove that you are British and “propah”.

Indian Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, who is part of the Big Brother show, was racially abused and taunted.

Celebrity Big Brother brings together several contestants, who live in a house fitted out with cameras. Their patience and tolerance are tested as they mix and mingle with strangers. The winner is the one who outlives the others, who may either walk out or be voted out by a viewership poll.

Jane Goody, a British actress and participant in the show, called Shetty a “Paki”, a derogatory term for the people of the Indian subcontinent, and used other forms of verbal abuse, including bitch, that clearly bordered on racism.

Shetty was in tears, and the show may have continued on such a note of ugly prejudice had not Gordon Brown’s visit to India coincided with the episode of reality television.

Brown is Britain’s Prime Minister in waiting, and when he suggested while he was in India that a call to oust Goody would be a “vote for tolerance”, five million viewers responded. As much as 82 per cent said that Goody must leave the house. She was then evicted.

The uproar against Goody found an echo in the British Parliament, when Prime Minister Tony Blair had to make a statement during question time. British Education Secretary Alan Johnson argued that "British values" need to be taught in schools to combat the "ignorance and bigotry" seen on the show. Senior managers of Channel 4 are now debating whether they should do away with this programme.

Big Brother is a popular reality television format, where for around three months, a number of contestants (normally fewer than 15 at any one time) try to win a cash prize by avoiding periodic publicly-voted evictions from a communal house.

The show, a kind of “real life soap” invented by Dutchman John de Mol, was developed by his production company, Endemol. It has been a prime-time hit in almost 70 countries. The show's name comes from George Orwell’s 1949 novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, in which Big Brother is the all-seeing leader of the dystopian Oceania.

However Big Brother appears to have degenerated into a racial slurring match. This was apparent this time, when Shetty chose to get closeted with Goody and others in the House.

The question is, does the Big Brother show reflect what is actually happening outside on the streets of Britain. Renowned Indian writer and television producer, Farooq Dhondy, who has lived in Britain for a very long time, told the media recently that he and his family had been targetted by English racists. He said that once he was beaten up only because he had happened to dance with three white women. In an other incident, his daughter was all of a sudden jeered at and ostracised by her school mates, who said that she smelt of “curry”. The little girl was traumatised.

But to accuse Britain alone of racism may be a trifle unfair. A young friend of mine studying in Australia’s Sydney University was spat upon by a group of boys and called names, because he was brown.

Even in America despite its liberal outlook, the post 9/11 period saw a spurt in racial attacks that arose largely out of anger against what Islamic fundamentalists had done. Unfortunately, Indians, sometimes non-Muslims among them, faced the wrath of some misguided Americans.

In France, moderates were appalled when the television personality and self-appointed social commentator, Pascal Sevran’s recently published book included the obscenely racist idea that the "black [penis] is responsible for famine in Africa." Elaborating in a newspaper interview, Sevran said, "Africa is dying from all the children born there" to parents supposedly too sexually undisciplined or dumb to realise they could not feed them all. The answer to the problem? "We need sterilize half the planet".

Sevran's prurient opinions are but the latest addition to the growing racist chatter in the French mainstream. A month earlier, a Socialist political kingpin in the Montpellier region sparked fury — and possible expulsion from the party — by lamenting that France's national soccer team fielded "9 blacks out of 11" starting players. "I'm ashamed of this country," in which "the whites are lousy," he groused.

In South Korea, a reader recently wrote a letter to a newspaper editor saying how her job resume to a company had been rejected because she was not white. The reader added that the firm had the audacity to tell her that South Korea had always been a racist nation, and blacks like her had no place there.

Admittedly, man has always lived with racism. The Jews faced persecution. So did the infidels during the Crusades. But Big Brother House has merely magnified it for the world to see. And, feel a sense of shame.

(Posted on this website on January 27 2007)