A storm in a tea-cup 

22 January 2007 tbs.pm/183

Anyone who, having just arrived back from a visit abroad, switched on Radio 4’s The World Tonight last Friday (19 January 2007) would have been forgiven for thinking that a grand re-organization of the radio frequencies had taken place. This august programme, for years Radio 4’s answer to Newsnight, has covered some of the most serious and fundamental issues of modern times. Last Friday, the topic important enough boldly to claim its place at the top of the running order merited about fifteen minutes (out of the forty-five available) of discussion, analysis and debate, yet our jet-lagged traveller would have been left scratching his head and asking: who is Jade Goody?

“I realize now that my life is going to fall into two different segments. There’s the segment which ran from my birth until last Tuesday when I didn’t know who Jade Goody was, and had never had the pleasure of seeing or hearing her, and the three rather haunted and miserable days since when she has encroached upon my moral and mental radar.” Thus Simon Heffer on Any Questions, co-incidentally broadcast on the same day. I am sure that many of like mind will sympathise with Mr Heffer. However, he and his fellow panellists missed an opportunity: were any of the contestents in the Big Brother house actually being racist?

Let us first dispense with what racism is not. Being foul-mouthed to someone whose skin colour is not your own is not, of itself, an example of racism. The concise Oxford English Dictionary defines racism thus: discrimination against or antagonism towards other races. This definition quite accurately sums up racial discrimination (as opposed to racism per se). However, I have always thought that any act in respect of another person is racist if the race of that third party is a motivating or contributory factor.

For example, if a political party introduces all-women short-lists for a constituency, that policy is explicitly sexist. The “affirmative action” or “positive discrimination” (read: reverse discrimination) policies, advocated by some educational establishments, attempt to correct an imbalance of the representation of ethnic minorities within an institution vis-à-vis the general population. They are, therefore, explicitly racist, although such policies seem to slip below the radar of much of public opinion. But the key facet of both examples is motivation. Whatever your views on their merits (or lack thereof), both types of policies are motivated by the intention to favour one sex over the other or one race over another. They aren’t viewed officially as being sexist or racist, perhaps because it is assumed that they are attempting to redress old wrongs rather than create new ones. Not sexually or racially discriminatory, no – at least, not to women or ethnic minorities. But they are sexist and racist in spades (and, some might argue, discriminate against white men in particular).

I guess that much of the furore over Big Brother would have been averted were people not prone to conflate racism with racial discrimination. The security guard at Heathrow who decides not to challenge an incoming tourist is being racist if the race of said tourist is a motivating factor in his decision. The shop assistant who allows a customer to jump the queue is being racist if he would not have done so had the customer been a different race. The box-office teller who routinely holds cash notes up to the light to check for forgeries is being racist if he gives in to the fear that someone might play the race card. Again, these examples don’t usually count as racism to the public. But they are examples of racism.

So, back to Jade Goody. Were her remarks racist? Having not seen any of it myself, I hesitate to offer any opinion. However, in the absence of any explicit racism, the behaviour in the house would qualify as racist only if the target’s race was a motivating factor. And let us not forget that the other person at the centre of this row, Shilpa Shetty, isn’t only a different race from the girls who were ganging up on her; she’s from a different culture, a different background. It is possible that when two groups clash, the cause is attributed to visible differences (such as race), even though the actual cause might be something more subtle or invisible. I think it possible that Miss Shetty’s race is tangental, at most, to this fuss. Rather, the row was caused by a clash of cultures, and rather than attempting actually to understand what’s at the root of it all, people look for simple (and simplistic) explanations. In short, people are playing the race card. A prosecution barrister attempting to prove, in a court of law, beyond reasonable doubt, that the bullying, deplorable though it was, was racist, would have his work cut out.

It’s all a nine-day wonder, mercifully. Hopefully, by now, The World Tonight will have regained some sense of perspective, of sobriety, and our poor jet-lagged traveller can rest assured that Radio 4 still resides at 93-95 FM.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Thursday 16 May 2024