Shilpa Shetty

There has been quite a furore over the last few days, both here in the UK and in India about the alleged racist behaviour amongst “Celebrity Big Brother” members towards Indian Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.

It has become the most controversial programme in British TV history with over 30,000 complaints so far after the comments by some house members about and towards Shilpa were perceived as racist by viewers.

The story was even picked up in India where the show is not even being transmitted. Shilpa is being seen by the Indians as their “Small Sister” being bullied by “Big Brother”. Some effigies were burnt of the show producers – presumably they just made up some dummy models of the producers, as no one would have had any images of their faces:-)

At the same time, Shilpa and the other participants will also “survive” the programme, especially as they are all being paid hefty sums to be on the show. (Shilpa is reputedly being paid around £300k which is a king’s ransom in India).

The events this week do however raise a number of key points.

Firstly, the programme has brought to public debate key issues about racism in Britain today. Such a debate was probably needed as we now live in a country where our community is so cosmopolitan and enrichened by such a vast diaspora. Yet such racist attitudes, however distasteful do persist and it is time we confronted the truth. “Islamaphobia” over the last few years has probably hardened some attitudes and like it or now racism and prejudices exist in our community.

Big Brother has brought to the surface many prejudices which were just tentatively simmering away and the programme does bring to light the sort of behaviour that many Asians have had to put up with over the years, though personally I have not experienced it as such for a few years now.

It does however remind me of the time 30 years when I arrived in the UK with my family from Kenya and all the white kids at school demanded that I showed them how to play the bongo or African drum. It was quite an intimating experience during my first week at school, but I had the last laugh as I came top of the class in a science test in only my second week at school. Gone were the ignorant jibes, to be replaced with jealousy, but that is another story.

african drumming

Some of the Big Brother contestants can’t even be bothered to pronounce Shilpa’s name properly. Yet, it is one of the easiest Indian names to pronounce!

If Shilpa had been South Indian or even Sri Lankan, her name might have contained almost all the letters of the alphabet. The contestants would have then probably given her an Anglo nickname like Sam or Sarah :-). Again, something that some Asians have had to get used to – literally a loss of true identity.

A lot of the time it is just ignorance and also perceived cultural differences. Even one of my best friends, a die hard Englishman has had his outlook challenged.

When I visited him in Hereford many years ago, he was really worried about what he would feed me. See, at that time there were no Indian restaurants in Hereford, a sleepy agricultural town!

I thought he knew me quite well, and yet he had this vision of me eating curry three times a day. In the end, he was relieved as we all went to Pizza Hut :-).

The point is that we all have our prejudices, insecurities, fears, usually based on ignorance and a lack of awareness and knowledge about other people. Ultimately I believe that we all have goodness at our core.

Racism has no place in our society today – and it is high time we all did our bit. And the Asian community has to do its own bit too.

Indians have to accept the prejudices in their own community, not just towards the white community but also amongst themselves. Indians have so many divisions within their own community, based on religion, language, caste and even the village of origin.

Without in any way condoning the behaviour of Shilpa’s protagonists, Indians should also clean up their own house as they complain about the goings on at Big Brother house.

Should the show go on?! I even wonder if the whole thing was not a cynical PR exercise by Channel 4 and if so, it has misfired badly as a major sponsor Car Phone Warehouse has pulled out.

I do believe Channel 4 should take responsibility for their programme and accept that the fine line has been crossed. It is up to our broadcasting companies to maintain some semblance of morality and good taste.

At the same time, perhaps there is no limit to how low our taste can get – do the viewers not have anything better or constructive to do then watch all these so called celebrities bitch about each other?!

If nothing else, it does show that under the veneer of their so called celebrity status, they are just as ordinary, fragile and clueless as the rest of us.

Channel 4 may decide to pull the Big Brother show. But whatever happens within a few weeks it will be over and we will probably forget about Shilpa and her housemates. But the lessons learnt about racial unity and acceptance of others have to be learnt and applied.

Let the show go on till it’s scheduled finish or let it be prematurely shut down – but let the lessons of racial unity, tolerance and acceptance live on.