Of course, I never ever watch Celebrity Big Brother, full as it is of vacuous has-beens whining about their personal life. However, yesterday evening I just happened to walk into the living room, when a freak bolt of lightning turned the TV over to Channel 4, at coincidentally the exact moment when I tripped over a wild hamster. Prostrate on the floor, I randomly caught sight of this strange TV programme out of the corner of my eye. I leapt up, and immediately turned it off after only an hour and half viewing.
I could not help rubber-necking the foreigners’ car-crash into the British class system. Neither A-Teamer Dirk Benedict, or Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, sees anything wrong in laughing at the poor diction of some of the other housemates. They did not seem appreciate that their comments are seen as snobbish. Nor did not understand when those ‘down-to-earth’ housemates predictably turned sour, mercilessly criticising Shilpa’s naive attempt at roasting a chicken.
It is a shame some of the comments flung in her direction were disparaging to India and its culture, prompting accusations of racism: apparently over 10,000 people have now complained.
Its interesting that the celebrity version of Big Brother should prove a microcosm of the country as a whole, an illustration of the race debate in the UK. What is crucial here is that the offenders (in this case, Jo, Jade and Danielle) genuinely do not believe they are racist. They are not picking on Shilpa because she is Indian. Her transgressions, such as they are, seem real to them, and crucially nothing to do with her race or nationality.
When so-called culture wars periodically blitz the media, the examples of cultural conflict are stark, dealing as they so often do with life-changing issues such as marriage, sex, or the role of religion in political decision-making. They are noticeable. What goes unremarked are the tiny issues, the little differences, than can turn two people off each other. There is nothing wrong with using spices in food, or using your hands to eat it. This is part of Shilpa’s culture. Jade, Jo, and Danielle, who are ignorant of Shilpa’s culture, do not understand this. When they criticise her, they do not for one moment believe their comments have anything to do with her being Indian. They think they are criticising her. They do not realise the subjectivity of their criticism. They do not even realise that they are actually criticising a part of Shilpa’s culture, and others by association. The ‘racism’, such as it is, lies in these ignorances (I would prefer to call it an ‘unwitting prejudice’).
Whether one has any time for the ‘racism’ charge depends on whether you believe the invective levelled at Shilpa was directed at her alone, or her cultural practices in general. Those who said them would passionately, genuinely argue that the former is true. Those who heard them, would say the latter. Neither would be completely correct, however. Like a blunderbuss, no matter how careful and ‘genuine’ the aim, you will always hit something you did not intend. The problem is caused by shooting the invective in the first place! It is a kind of second-degree racism: the Indian viewers of Celebrity Big Brother have been caught in the cross-fire of a domestic spat. They have a genuine greivance, even if the mens rea is absent.
The same argument can, I think, be applied to the remarks about the accents of certain housemates. You can appear to be a snob without realising it. But just like culinary practices, the way someone speaks is a matter of culture and upbringing. To laugh at it is to laugh at everyone who does it.
We’re all guilty of second order prejudice on some level, because it is impossible to know what is going on everywhere in the world, or how everyone lives. The key to reducing this, is to make an effort to learn more about the people who you live with (whether you live in a multi-ethnic democracy, or the Big Brother House). To avoid learning more about others, or to declare it unnecessary, is the real prejudice.
India actually has its own version of the TV show, called Bigg Boss. I haven’t seen it myself, but those who have tell me it is actually more interesting, with nudity and frolicking at a minimum, and the contestants getting stuck into political debates instead.