By: Neil Fawcett
Very few people can have escaped the whirlwind of controversy surrounding the newest series of Celebrity Big Brother by Channel 4 in which Jo O'Meara, Danielle Lloyd and Jade Goody have either been accused of awful racism or alternatively simple bullying. The criticism stems from comments made by the trio either to or in respect of Shilpa Shetty an award winning Bollywood actress who is also a contestant on the show.

Shetty was initially referred to as “The Indian” after Goody’s mother, who also appeared on the show refused to direct her intelligence to the pronunciation of Shetty’s first name. Since then, Goody, O'Meara, Lloyd and Jack Tweed - Goody's boyfriend, who also appeared on the show, have spent their time forming a group apparently dedicated to the slow but steady character assassination of Shetty- complaining about her and making fun of her accent.

Criticism followed after Shetty prepared a chicken for the housemates to eat and which Goody, O’Meara and Lloyd claimed had made them ill. "No wonder I keep getting the shits", commented O'Meara, the former “S Club 7” singer. A comment was also made by O’Meara, suggesting that Indians are always ill as a result of not knowing how to cook their food. When Shetty picked some chicken off another housemate’s plate, Lloyd, the former Miss Great Britain, complained: "You don't know where those hands have been", giving rise to a brief discussion about Indians eating with their hands.

There have been numerous other reports of racist behaviour, including a comment that Jade made when she was called to the diary room and asked about a conversation with Danielle in which she called Shilpa 'Shilpa fuckawalla' and 'Shilpa Poppadom' and said that she wanted to head butt her. There has been victimisation of various kinds including Shetty being deliberately handed a dirty towel from the floor by one of the trio, when she asked to be passed a towel while she was in the bathroom and the incident where Shetty was told to “fuck off home” by Lloyd. The incidents of such behaviour are too numerous to be adequately documented here and in some cases too sensitive for Channel 4 to continue to broadcast.

The comments have led to a staggering level of complaints to Ofcom, at the time this article was written, totaling almost 30,000 and set to rise. There has been police involvement. There have been questions in the House of Commons, public comments by Members of Parliament, the Leader of the House, The Chancellor and The Prime Minister. The Government of India has expressed its serious concerns. Goody has been dropped by an anti-bullying campaign and “The Perfume Shop”, a national perfume chain, has withdrawn her fragrance from their shelves, much to the disappointment, presumably, of those who wanted to smell as she does. Lloyd has been obliterated from the promotional material of motorcycle insurance company, Bennetts, which has cancelled her modeling contract and The Carphone Wearhouse has cancelled its sponsorship of Channel 4. There have also been protests on the streets of Patna where Indians burned an effigy representing Celebrity Big Brother.

By the end of the Second World War, Britain's labour market was depleted. Nurses and engineers, as well as other industrial workers were in great demand. Many veterans of the recent war returned and the government began attempts to attract workers from all over the world. During the 1950s 1960s and 1970s there was a great deal of immigration to the UK. By 1956, a little over 40,000 Caribbeans had come to live in here and by 1961 over 100,000 Indian and Pakistani nationals had taken up residence.

In the case of Caribbean immigrants, Local authorities attempted to cope with the problem of racial discrimination by accommodating new arrivals in hostels and temporary camps. Housing was scarce as wartime bombing had decimated residential property. There was almost no local authority housing available for newcomers, and racial discrimination on the part of landlords was routine. Typically, many landlords displayed signs and notices that stated clearly 'no Blacks' or 'no coloureds', perhaps testament to the British public’s capacity for change.

During the 1960s and 1970s South Asian immigrants received no warmer a reception, often being treated in an overtly racist way both in person and through the media who argued that they were a drain on public resources, in much the same way that asylum seekers and Eastern European labour migrants are being vilified today in neo-fascist newspapers like the Daily Mail and Evening Standard.

Since the post-war waves of immigration there has been a sustained and intense movement for racial acceptance by both Blacks and Asians in the face of daily discrimination in every aspect of life. Blacks and Asians have had to be highly conscious of their skin colour and ethnicity every day at work and in the daily course of life due to sustained racial insults, racial violence and overt discrimination in various forms.

Because of the partial success of that ongoing campaign, the law and ruling society has taken a very negative view of racial discrimination and it is not generally accepted that racism can be tolerated. In fact being accused of being a racist carries such stigma and is seen as such a terrible thing that it would be a very serious matter indeed for someone to be so accused, perhaps so much so that in polite society racism is a taboo rarely approached. Other reasons for behaviour are always found. Accepting an allegation of racism, especially for the sort of people who are racists, is obviously never easy.

“Racism is a really bad thing. Racists were people like Hitler. I’m not a racist, you’re not a racist none of our friends are racists and in fact none of us has been anywhere near such a creature, seen one, heard one, smelled one- in fact… what is a racist? We’ve only read about these creatures in horror stories and to think that Anthony Godfrey-Warblast-Smith QC of A Very Respectable Chambers, Chancery Lane, could be accused of being (of all things) a racist, why that’s absurd. You must think the moon is made of green cheese. Granted, he told you to “go back to bongo-bongo land” and that was a very unfortunate comment which should be looked into. But he wasn’t being racist by any means! Who do you think you are, anyway?”

Almost gone are the days when a Black person would come to a hotel and find a “No Blacks” sign on the outside or when an Asian person would be asked to leave a shop or would be called a “Smelly Paki” at school or by their employer because people are so terrified of being accused of racism that such overt racism is rarely any longer on show in any respectable part of society. Does this mean racism is not around?

“I’m not a racist or anything, but I don’t really find Black people attractive. I really only go for White girls. Indians aren’t too bad though, but definitely not Chinese. It’s just a matter of attraction- not something a person can help.”

The above comment, recanted many a time to me be many people is not what many people think indicative of a racist. Racism, surely, is only when a lunatic with a swastika tattooed on his forehead runs into an Indian shop with a petrol bomb shouting “go to hell Paki, you people with your brown skin and filthy children sicken me!”.

Can a simple matter of personal taste about with whom one has a relationship or a friendship really be racism? I think it can. It is a matter of personal taste that I don’t like Marmite. However, it would absurd for me to suggest that I don’t like all nutritious spreads based on the experience of one. In a similar way, if Tom, a White boy, decides he dislikes all Black girls based on his experience with Yetty, a Black girl, most right thinking people would say Tom conformed with that well known adage “The greater the generalisation the smaller the mind”, exploiting his lack of experience to further his ignorance.

“Well, if Tom decided he just didn’t like people with brown (Black) skin? It’s just his preference- he can’t help what he finds attractive and what he doesn’t.” you may ask. As it happens I have a dislike for all yeast based nutritious spreads, not just Marmite. I just don’t like yeast and I can’t help it. However, I am under no illusion that the extent of my relationship with my Marmite will be anything other than spreading it over my toast in the mornings and in the absence of any remarkable scientific discovery, this remains a distinct possibility. Marmite will not be in the least bit emotional because yet again I walked briskly past its supermarket shelf. Nor will it shed tears when I point at it in disgust with a pained look on my face while saying something nasty about it to a friend within ‘earshot’ of it. Nor will it sigh that inner sigh when I consistently choose its fruit-based preserve counterparts over it.

The reality is that people, regardless of their skin colour have feelings and deserve to be treated as we wish to be treated ourselves. Were Tom to exclude an entire section of women (based only upon their skin colour) from those with whom he might have a very meaningful relationship, he would be thought of by most people, who weren’t racists, as a very shallow human being. With any of those women who he excluded, he may have had a stable and loving relationship with someone who he admired and respected, the benefits of which (maybe for the rest of his life) would be monumental to him and her, in comparison to the triviality of that attribute which he used to exclude that potential benefit. Sadly for Marmite, the only potential (and by comparison trivial) benefit lies with the pet dog who has to eat the rest. Tom made an irrational and ignorant decision based on race. Tom is a racist. Not only is he a racist but he is foolish and self-defeating, concepts which go hand in hand.

In today’s society, Blacks and Asians live their daily lives having to put up with people like Tom and his very subtle forms of racism. They find that for some reason they just don’t feel comfortable in the company of certain groups of people. They find that they are quite often looked up and down or given nasty looks while their white friends are not. They find that a lot of white people are not insulting to them, but by no means want to be friends with them. They find that it is more difficult to make progress in their careers because consistently they are overlooked for promotions and appointments to positions while their white counterparts just seem to do better. They regularly encounter snide comments with tinges of reference to race, culture or religion. This is particularly so for anyone who might look like a Muslim (anyone with a South Asian or Middle Eastern appearance) in the atmosphere since the World Trade Centre attacks and the subsequent “War on Terror”.

I myself have been told by numerous white friends who come from perfectly respectable backgrounds that their families would not be at all happy if they were to be in a relationship with someone who was Black.

Recognising the years of appalling overt racism from the same people who are today involuntarily silent, it is no wonder then that Blacks and Asians are always aware of their skin colour and always aware of that niggling possibility of being confronted with a stern and unhelpful face or a nasty look or the prospect of not making any friends or not getting a job or that snide comment.

The reason for the public outcry over the actions of those contestants in the Big Brother House, is in my mind perfectly understandable because it is precisely what many Blacks and Asians suffer every day and is no less a type of racism than that which is overt. It isn't just a big fuss over nothing, as many people have suggested. We shouldn’t shy away from calling it racism because no-one has said “Paki" or "Nigger”.

It seems odd to me that some seem to belittle the severity of what was said by suggesting that the comments might be "culturally motivated" as Channel 4 has tried to do to in order to escape controversy. Racism has always been intended to have a far broader meaning and it seems strange that it has now been restricted to simple discrimination based on genetic characteristics, as if to suggest that insulting a Hasidic Jew because of his black hat and long hair is OK because it's nothing to do with his race. It is still blatantly racist within the realms of common sense. It still affects people’s lives and limits us all- far better to recognise it and correct it.

Congratulations to Channel 4 for bringing such a widescale problem to the public's attention, may the debate go on!

Fawcett & Pattni Solicitors at http://fp-law.com Links