The weekend I flew back to the US from the UK a major international storm blew up over an incident on the British edition of Big Brother. Now, I’ve never seen the show, although I have heard of it (ironically through the great new series of Doctor Who with Christopher Eccleston!). But apparently there are people trapped in a house and filmed a la reality TV and voted off every week. Anyway.
This season’s cast includes a famous Bollywood star Shilpa Shettyand someone who won it in the UK previously, Jade Goody (so now we have celebrity Big Brother, geddit). The storm that has arisen revolves around some comments made between these two people which have been interpreted as having racist overtones (eg., Goody called Shetty “Shilpa Poppadom” when she couldn’t remember her last name). Goody has apologized and said she is not a racist, although also admitted these comments were racist.
India has made diplomatic protests to the deputy Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was traveling there, there have been questions in parliament, and the BBC received over 30,000 messages on the event. 40,000 complaints were also logged at the industry watchdog, Ofcom.
The point of this all is what is going on when people say “I’m not a racist… but,” or as Kramer put it recently after his outburst was captured on cellphone at the Laugh Factory “For me to be at a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, I’m deeply, deeply sorry. I’m not a racist. That’s what’s so insane about this.”
Beyond the obvious element of having your cake and eating it too is what happens when these statements are allowed to pass unexamined. In other words is it possible not to be a racist but also to do and say racist things?
Wouldn’t it be great if someone actually understood Goody’s words to mean “I’m not a racist, but I was being racist”? You know, I think even she might agree with that.
The Foucault is Dead blog takes up the story:
The sad fact is, I think Amish is right – Jade probably would agree with that. Just as Mel Gibson might be okay with the idea that he is not an anti-Semite, but was being anti-Semitic when he was pulled over for drunk driving. So we are simply returned to Zizek’s original point in his article ‘Mel Gibson at the Serbsky Institute’ in which he posits the following paradox: the more we treat instances of racism as an expression of an individual’s pathology, the more we let (our racist) society off the hook and, conversely, the more we treat instances of racism as a result of social causes, the more we let individual racists off the hook.
The row over this has another dimension which I’m not getting into here, namely how this incident was then exploited politically, and how it was used to shout out racism by politicians, and how class distinctions in the UK operated (see FiD for all that).
The bottom line here is simply that you don’t have to be a racist to act racist and perhaps that goes on a bit more than we’d like but we let it off the hook.