The racism meted out to Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, on the Channel 4 television programme Celebrity Big Brother has (at the time of writing) provoked 27,000 complaints to Ofcom, the British broadcasting regulator. Television viewers all over Britain - presumably from all ethnic backgrounds - have protested that purposefully mispronouncing the actress's name or implying that Indians are unhygienic is unacceptable.
They are right, and no amount of hand-wringing over the extremities of political correctness will change the fact that several of the inmates don't like Shilpa because she is dark-skinned, eats with her hands, and is basically "not one of us". The ubiquitous Germaine Greer, writing in the Guardian, argues that the behaviour of the "housemates" reflects "widespread bigotry in British society" ("Why does everyone hate me?", 17 January 2007). However, her comment that "Jackiey's inability to pronounce Shilpa's name had less to do with failure to conceal her own racism than the fact that she has no idea how to spell anything" also subscribes to the tired, self-serving belief that racism is the unique problem of the ignorant working class.
More significant is the reaction from both the private sector and government. In this context, Greer - whose own appearance on Big Brother in 2005, like that of other would-be "serious" people, can only be put down to desperation - is again a test-case of intellectual narrowcasting. Her remark that "every time someone sends in a complaint to Ofcom about racism in the Big Brother house, the profile of the show is raised and Shilpa earns a bit more of her huge fee" (translation all Shilpa cares about is her fame and her wallet - she is after all a veteran of the tough, misogynistic world of Hindi movies) rightly focuses on the cynical calculation of the show's organisers, but is also too reductive.
For the rejection of racism by the programme's sponsors, the Carphone Warehouse - leading on 18 January to its suspension of its contract with the show - is testimony to the belief that being labelled a racist is bad for business. The private sector sells an image of itself as diverse, multicultural and therefore cool. In the world of cars, mobile phones, sportswear and other luxuries, it's only the colour of your money that counts. If more dreams can be sold in cellophane wrapping by painting it in all the colours of the rainbow, no one at Carphone Warehouse will argue with that. In the 21st century, all can buy into the myth of success ... in three easy monthly instalments.
Alana Lentin is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Sussex. She is the author of Racism and Anti-racism in Europe (Pluto Press / University of Michigan Press, 2004) and (co-edited with Ronit Lentin) Race and State (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006). Her website is here
Also by Alana Lentin on openDemocracy:
" Multiculturalism or anti-racism?" (September 2004)
"The intifada of the banlieues"
(17 November 2005)
The uses of diversity
The British government has adapted equally well to the new market-driven realities. In its and much of the establishment's discourse, "diversity" is the buzzword of the day. It sounds so much more holistic than "multiculturalism", which has come to sound both aridly academic and (an astonishing reversal of initial impetus) socially separatist.
While multiculturalism seems evocative of a world of non-communicating ethnic enclaves, diversity - a catch-all that covers everyone from transsexuals to Pakistani grandmothers without attending to the pernickety details - is the chosen vehicle to raise enthusiasm for the relaxed, inclusive, post-everything society that New Labour would like Britain to become (or to appear).
The promotion of diversity is useful in a further way, as a replacement for fighting racism, which too has come to seem passé and negative: why be against something bad when you can be for something good? The idea that a cosy, tolerant society in which diversities coexist happily is evolving or has been created implies that those who deny or challenge this comforting portrait are letting the side down.
Hence Tony Blair's insistence, in reaction to the events on Celebrity Big Brother, that Britons "must oppose racism in all its forms". Any ugly shows of racist prejudice on TV are regrettable because they give the impression that British people are not playing their part in the "happy diversity" show. Blair's likely successor as British prime minister, Gordon Brown, made equally clear what is at stake; during his tour of India, in the eye of a media firestorm, the image of Britain abroad was his fundamental concern rather than what the programme revealed about the country's reality. Britain, Brown stated, "should be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance".
No one would question the aspiration. But if the Jackieys and Danielles of this world view non-whites in a racist manner, could this have anything to do with the prejudiced, ignorant, stereotyped and often downright racist messages they are exposed to from much of the broadcast and print media, and from politicians' more cleverly coded insinuations?
Blair and Brown's vision of cosy diversity, after all, stands at total odds with their policy of "managed migration", their denial of the right of asylum, and a security agenda mired in racial profiling. The message to non-whites (and especially Muslims) is: integrate or be cast out of society; side with us, embrace a British way of life (whatever that may be - watching Celebrity Big Brother, presumably), or go back to where you came from.
This is not rhetoric; it is policy. In reality, diversity is - as the saying goes - only skin-deep. It looks great on billboards but does little (as the new head of the government's Commission for Equality and Human Rights, Trevor Phillips, would say, for "social cohesion").
The sad fact emerging from this circus is that in post-multicultural Britain there is really only one way of being racist, or only one form of racism that deserves any attention. It is as if the crass comments made by three third-rate wannabes on a puerile television show have become the exclusive sum of what racism today can be associated with. The persistent discrimination against black and minority ethnic people in this country and the appalling treatment of migrants have been wiped clean of the taint of race. Too often these are attributed to "isolated incidents"; increasingly, would-be "commonsense" views that advocate closed borders or associate immigrants with terrorism are recycled without question.
The outrage may continue to mount over the treatment of Shilpa Shetty, and her own superior merits be proclaimed in a media-driven "backlash". Meanwhile, other less famous "Asians" continue to be stopped at airports, packed into detention centres and deported out of sight. Diversity, after all, has also to make good TV - and for that, Celebrity Big Brother wins hands down over a frank discussion about what racism is really about.