by Carmen Van Kerckhove
The UK’s Celebrity Big Brother reality show has made international headlines because of the racism endured by Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty at the hands of her housemates, particularly a woman named Jade Goody, who has since been evicted. (Thanks to Rochelle, Vandia, Rob and Rachel for the tips!)
As of 16 January 2007 this series has attracted the largest ever number of public complaints to the UK broadcasting watchdog Ofcom about a Big Brother series. The complaints received detailed concerns that housemate Shilpa Shetty had been subjected to bullying, allegedly with undertones of racism. As an example, one English woman even called a fellow Indian participant “a dog” and that she should “fuck off home”. This sparked widespread anger and demonstrations in India, where the alleged racism was reported on the news, and led Big Brother’s main sponsor Carphone Warehouse to sever ties with the show.
It’s been interesting to see some of the similarities between US racism scandals and this one in the UK. It appears that there’s a set of rules that people follow when accused of racism. Now obviously these are not the only three techniques for deflecting accusations of racism or suppressing conversations about race. Be sure to check out How to Suppress Discussions of Racism and Jeff Yang’s terrific breakdown of the typical non-apology, or what he calls the Rosie Carolla defense. But these are three tactics that seem to come up most frequently.
Michael Richards went on David Letterman to apologize but simultaneously declare that he is not a racist. Rosie O’Donnell apologized for her “ching chong” remark while expressing skepticism that it was considered a racial slur. By calling into question the racism of the remark, she of course defused accusations of her being a racist.
According to the BBC, a spokesperson for Goody said: “Jade will be mortified when she comes out to learn that her conduct is being interpreted as racist. Anyone who knows Jade knows that she is not a racist.”
2. Invoke your non-white relative or romantic partner as proof that you’re not a racist.
According to the same BBC article, Goody’s mother Jackiey Budden suggested that Goody couldn’t possibly be racist because she’s mixed: “Jade has never been racist, she is mixed race herself and suffered racist abuse as a youngster.”
We’ve seen plenty of examples of people denying accusations of racism by pointing to the fact that they have been in interracial relationships before and/or have mixed race children, or (my personal favorite) that they live in the Dominican Republic.
Newsflash: Interracial couples and mixed race people can be racist too. Which by the way, also means that increased numbers of both does not mean our society is heading towards an inevitably racism-free future.
3. Point to a non-white person (preferably the focus of your remarks) who was not offended by your behavior as proof that you’re not a racist
After Arnold Schwarzenegger was caught on tape discussing state assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia’s spiciness (“I mean Cuban, Puerto Rican, they are all very hot…They have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it”), he trotted her out at a press conference so she could say that she was not at all offended, and actually refers to herself as a “hot blooded Latina”.
Rosie O’Donnell also used this tactic. At the end of her non-apology, she pointed to two Asian women in the audience and said, “You two weren’t offended, right?” and used their smiles and applause as evidence that she was in fact, not racist.
According to this report (hat tip to Angry Asian Man), Shilpa Shetty is taking back her earlier statement that she felt like a victim of racism by saying instead, “I don’t feel that there was any racial discrimination happening from Jade’s end … I think there are a lot of insecurities from her end, but it’s definitely not racial.”
I’m sure that by the time this post comes out, someone will have said: “See? Shilpa doesn’t think it was racist, so it must not be.”