Shilpa Shetty and Racism - 'No Big Deal' For Some

January 20, 2007
Anindita Sengupta

Everyone knows about it by now. Racist remarks targeted at Shilpa Shetty on the reality TV show, Celebrity Big Brother, have created a furore in two nations with exhaustive coverage in the media, a huge number of enthusiastic debates in the blogosphere, and the likes of Germaine Greer and Hari Kunzru writing articles on the issue.

Ofcom - the independent regulator and authority on the UK's communications industries - has received over 22,000 complaints of racist behaviour and there have been protesters in India burning effigies of Big Brother's producers. Politicians including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron drawn into the row, while 35 MPs have signed a motion condemning the programme. Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights says:

What we are seeing is a noxious brew of old-fashioned class conflict, straightforward bullying, ignorance and quite vicious racial bigotry.

The incidents, which mainly involve Shilpa Shetty being picked on by other participants Jade Goody, Jo O'Meira and Danielle Lloyd include such gems as her being repeatedly referred to as 'The Indian', discussion about how she eats with her fingers, and ridicule because she bleaches her face.

There is much debate about whether this is bullying or racism and how much of it is driven by envy because Shetty is more beautiful and classier than the other girls. Interesting coverage in the blogosphere by Sepia Mutiny, Sonia Faleiro, Shoefiend and Mangs. Meanwhile, some see this as an opportunity to increase India's tourism revenue.

On the racism issue, Mark Lawson at the Guardian points out:

While their comments were probably made more inflammatory by editing juxtapositions, the stupid hatred of these white women for a brown one was real enough. Put a hidden camera in pubs and clubs most nights and you would pick up similar footage, quiet racists saying things to friends that they would never voice to surveys or TV reporters. The humiliation game-show, quite unexpectedly, has performed a journalistic service.

and then:

A comment almost as wilfully stupid as the original anti-Indian remarks was Channel 4's statement that the comments complained of were not racism but the result of a "culture clash". But what is racism if not a culture clash? Cultures clashed in the creation of South African apartheid and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The argument is not over whether the Big Brother comments were racist - slurs over appearance, accent and sanitation are standbys in the Ku Klux Klan handbook - but whether TV has a responsibility to reflect reality or an ideal.

I am more than a little puzzled by some of the views expressed closer home."She is only a Bollywood actress. What's the big deal?" Is racism acceptable as long as it is targeted at a Bollywood actress and not a, say, IT professional? Are we saying that by virtue of being a public persona, Shetty deserves racist bullying? How does being a celebrity somehow entitle her to less than her full share in terms of basic human rights?

"I'm sure Shilpa Shetty expected no less when she agreed to be part of this show." Er, really? This will not be the first time that someone has been taken in by nebulous legalese in appointment contracts in that case.

"Anyway, she's getting paid shitloads of money. She can always leave the show if she wants." I suppose if the CEO of a multinational corporation faces racism, it's okay as long as she's being paid a lot of money.

Racism is a problem that needs to be addressed seriously no matter who the person is and whether you like them or not. Whether she is a Bollywood celebrity or not, how many hit films she's delivered in the recent past, how much money she makes, and whether she is annoying or not are totally besides the point. Really.

"Why is it such a big deal? It's an isolated incident and should not be turned into a big discussion about racism." Well, an Indian celebrity has been subjected to racist remarks in a highly public international setting. It has upset the sentiments of thousands of Indians living in the UK. The media in the UK is certainly paying attention. I would find it surprising if we didn't.

Personally, I'm glad that this has evoked reactions. It means that people are becoming more aware of issues surrounding identity and more protective of their rights. They are willing to protest against issues such as racism, challenge powerful institutions and demand redress. All of these are good signs.

I don't think we are over-reacting at all. Now, this is an example of over-reaction. Besides, what would you rather read about? How Sush is delighted about Abhiash's engagement?

Whether or not the government should have any control over the media; what Channel 4 should do under the circumstances considering this is, after all, a 'reality' TV show; who holds entertainment media accountable are thorny issues with no easy answers.

Interestingly, at the same time, Grey's Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington was reprimanded by TV network ABC for using an anti-gay term against a co-worker. The network said in its statement it had "a longstanding policy to maintain respectful workplaces" for its employees. Washington apologised.

Anindita Sengupta is a freelance writer and journalist. She lives and works in Bangalore and can be contacted at anu.sengupta[at]gmail[dot]com
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January 20, 2007
01:53 PM

Thank you for correctly understanding the issue. You have rightly pointed out the unfair, and often snide, attitudes of some journalists towards this issue. Till now, Shilpa has behaved in a way which has surprised me, very pleasantly indeed. She's nothing like the average Bollywood actor and her intelligence and good nature will carry her through this crisis.

Regarding her retraction of the racism allegation, I'ld like to point out that she still doesn't know the nature of the racist remarks made against her behind her back by the bullying contestants. This fact has been highlighted by several British journalists while most Indian journalist have exhibited a kind of perverted pleasure in denigrating her for retracting her earlier allegation.

I just hope that she survives this experience with her dignity and self-respect intact, like she hoped before entering the BB house. Thanks again for standing up for her.

January 21, 2007
01:39 PM

RV, I don't really know enough about Ms Shetty to stand up for her. But I've been disturbed by many so called intellectuals dismissing this issue and presenting flawed logic for doing so. Racism is a very big issue in today's world, more so than ever because we are interacting more closely with countries like the US and the UK than we have done before (barring the time we were colonised, of course).

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