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Time to evict official anti-racism

The row over Celebrity Big Brother shows that hysterically witch-hunting 'racists' is a new British sport. Plus: Brendan O'Neill on Pete Burns.

Neil Davenport

Topics UK

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Jade Goody may have been evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother house on Friday, yet the bizarre controversy surrounding her rows with Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty continues to rumble on and reverberate. And the acres of handwringing commentary in the tabloids and broadsheets suggest that Ms Goody is not the only one who is firing-off ill-judged opinions.

Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, waded in on Sunday with demands that Channel 4 be overseen by supernanny-in-waiting, Tessa Jowell. In his eyes the refusal of Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson to describe the Goody/Shetty fallout as ‘racist’ should be a sackable offence. Elsewhere, the granddaddy of race monitoring, London mayor Ken Livingstone, sought to slap Channel 4’s wrists. And according to Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley, apparently the Big Brother freakshow is all New Labour’s fault anyway – or at least Tony Blair’s, whom she accuses of nurturing a public culture as cruel as any that existed under Thatcher.

It is a measure of the disrepair of political and public life that so many public figures, including Blair and the PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown, feel compelled to comment on Celebrity Big Brother. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out, the speed with which commentators (over)reacted to Goody and her sidekicks’ outbursts reveals their own blinkered prejudices about the white working class as a whole (1). Pundits have gleefully pounced on this incident as insurmountable ‘proof’ that nasty racial prejudice is alive and kicking among the great unwashed.

In fact, the most striking thing about Celebrity Big Brother is that it simultaneously tells us very little about British society and an awful lot about brass-necked opinion makers.


Why wasn’t Pete Burns the subject of ‘national fury’?, asks Brendan O’Neill

On last year’s Celebrity Big Brother, a white housemate slated a black housemate for the way she looks and talks – yet it didn’t even hit the front pages, much less cause an international storm. Pete Burns, the botoxed and lip-inflated transvestite who was a pop star in the 1980s, laid into Traci Bingham, the black American actress most famous for her slo-mo appearances in Baywatch. He was far more cruel than Jade Goody was to Shilpa Shetty.

‘You’ve got a short shelf-life. I know black don’t crack, but ultimately you get dusty hair’, Burns told Bingham, referring to black people’s skin texture and afro hair. ‘I can’t believe the absolute diarrhoea that’s dripping from your mouth’, he continued. ‘Your whole culture, everything you come from, everything you aspire to be is repugnant to me.’ He told Bingham she was ‘insincere to the point of nausea’ and ‘just fundamentally a fucking LA whore’. He called her a bitch, and when she protested he said: ‘I know the meaning of bitch, it was just black terminology, it’s fundamentally your language.’ He left the room and boasted to the other housemates, ‘I just attacked Traci for the hell of it’, while Bingham wiped away the tears.

It makes Jade Goody’s use of the word ‘Poppadom’ look…well, like the idiotic outburst it was. Why didn’t Burns v Bingham cause a storm? Maybe because it didn’t fit today’s chav-bashing script. Burns is the tongue-in-cheek pop star whose ‘acidic wit’ went down well in certain liberal circles, while Bingham is a black American known for posing in a swimsuit – and who could feel sorry for a person like that? Jade, on the other hand, is coarse ‘white trash’ and Shilpa Shetty is respectable and refined, ‘just like us’.

So Burns gets away with his spiteful rant while Jade is buried alive by politicians and the media for hers. It seems it’s not what she said that really matters, but where she comes from and what she represents.

It is clear to anyone with eyes and ears that race no longer has the same corrosive impact it once had in British society. Indeed, many of my students who have Indian backgrounds say that Goody’s clanking comments are hardly representative of their experience of living in Britain in the twenty-first century. They can shrug off the Goody v Shetty row precisely because race doesn’t impinge on their lives. However, high-minded pundits cannot shrug off the idea that Big Brother exerts great ‘influence’ on all the ‘couch potatoes’ out there. Germaine Greer thinks the masses who watch the programme were probably cheering on Goody’s taunts, seeing Shetty as just another ‘Paki bird’. Leaving aside the risible ‘monkey say/monkey do’ implications here, it’s worth questioning whether Big Brother is as popular or influential as pundits claim.

Prior to this year’s race controversy, viewing figures were down to a paltry 1.4 million, before climbing to a still unremarkable four million. Even at the height of the non-celebrity Big Brother ‘mania’ during the summer months, viewing figures hover around the seven million mark. If soap operas or flagship dramas like Prime Suspect pulled in those kind of viewing figures, they would be deemed as failures and possibly dropped. So why is Big Brother seen as ‘required viewing’ for the mass of the population, when, in fact, relatively speaking not that many people watch it?

The truth is that Big Brother’s core audience is teenage girls, students, and fashionistas/style journalists who can’t let go of irony. It is this (largely) youthful audience that makes BB appealing to advertisers, as well as celebrity magazines and tabloids and broadsheets seeking a new generation of readers. For older generations of working people, Big Brother is largely irrelevant and a somewhat bizarre spectacle. Ironically enough, it is because Big Brother is a media rather than social phenomenon that all kinds of outlandish claims can be projected on to it. And in the Goody v Shetty debacle, reams of half-baked rubbish have been spouted about the ‘Vicky Pollards’ who supposedly populate both the show and its audience.

The response to this year’s Celebrity Big Brother shows how forceful official anti-racism has become as a conforming mechanism. Whether it is through televised autopsies or wankathons, Channel 4 has long courted rather prurient ‘controversy’. But engineering racial and cultural tensions has been a step ‘too far’ for even staunch supporters of this increasingly idiotic channel. It seems Channel 4 can dabble with any taboo it likes, apart from the new orthodoxies surrounding race. There is a baying hysteria in contemporary ‘anti-racism’. As Goody herself said after the eviction: ‘I’ve never been so terrified in all my life.’

Far from striking a blow for racial equality and freedom, official and tyrannical anti-racism nurtures fresh divisions and fosters a culture of unfreedom. This was reflected by one anti-racist group’s statement that ‘private utterances should be viewed in the same light as public ones’ – that is, what people say behind closed doors, or presumably even think in their own minds, should be subject to rules and regulations in the same way that public speech too often is. The reaction to the Goody/Shetty farce has popularised such a dangerous and nonsensical idea, with its blurred distinction between a private argument between two people (filmed and aired, of course) and the wild claims made about what this reveals about our public culture.

The commentary on Goody/Shetty has become a vehicle for expressing a broader anti-human sentiment. If some pundits are sceptical that Goody is consciously ‘racist’, nearly all agree that she is a ‘bully’. For Jackie Ashley, it is bullying rather than overt racism that is the single defining characteristic of contemporary British society. So much so that even ‘Jade-the-bully is then vigorously bullied and abused by the same newspapers that so recently found her funny’ (2). In this light, Celebrity Big Brother is portrayed as a reflection on how rotten the (unregulated) human subject really is. Apparently if you put humans together the essential desire to dominate ‘the other’ will always win through. And for many, racism naturally follows bullying as the primeval urge lurking within us all. Celebrity Big Brother popularises the idea that, in the words of actor/director Gary Oldman, ‘we all need therapy’.

For many pundits, the problem with Goody is that because of her ‘poor breeding’, she is apparently more pathologically prone to hateful outbursts than others. Goody’s blubbering, confessional interviews with both Davina McCall and the News of the World shows how quickly she has internalised the therapeutic mode.

The furore over Goody’s crass behaviour towards Shetty has been a heaven-sent opportunity for half-witted commentators to obsess over an imaginary underclass. In truth, the tantrums inside the CBB house say nothing about what’s happening in multi-racial Britain, though the furore reveals much about the nasty prejudices of certain commentators. If the Goody/Shetty incident reveals anything about the state of Britain, it is that official anti-racism has become an hysterical and authoritarian force. Far from fretting about Goody and Co’s infantile behaviour, isn’t it time we put that up for eviction instead?

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

(1) One form of prejudice reveals another, Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 22 January 2007

(2) The Blair court has presided over this new rottenness, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, 22 January 2007

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Topics UK

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