We shouldn’t be surprised at the racism on Big Brother when we spend our time cultivating and celebrating ignorance. Martin Luther King Jr said “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Jade Goody has been catapulted to fame precisely because of her lack of knowledge about the world around her. Thinking that East Angular (sic) was abroad, and that Rio de Janeiro was a person, became something to admire. Even fame and fortune has failed to widen her horizons – when asked what the one thing she wanted to know in all the world was, Jade asked why Eskimo’s didn’t die from the cold and whether they sounded like dolphins (thinking they lived in Antarctica). If she hadn’t asked that, she would have wanted to know whether mermaids ever existed.
But ignorance extends further than a poor grasp of geography, and Celebrity Big Brother has shown us where it can end up. As Jade, Jo and Danielle ganged up against Shilpa earlier this week, it was clear that their fear and loathing of her gave way to a nastier exposition of their lack of cultural understanding. Shilpa is a beautiful Bollywood star who is haughty and often extremely aggravating, but we shouldn’t expect this to give rise to racism in itself. Jo, formerly in S Club 7, suggested that Indians were thin because they undercooked their meat which gave them the squits. Nothing to do with malnutrition and lack of access to clean water then? She added helpfully “they eat with their hands in India don’t they - or is that China?”. Danielle, formerly Miss England, replied “you don’t know where her hands have been”. Yet eating in Indian culture is incredibly sophisticated and anything but primitive or dirty. Yes, Indian food is best enjoyed eating with your fingers - how else can you use a naan to mop up your chicken tikka masala? But it is also considered quite rude to touch the food of others, and some Indian etiquette suggests that eating with your left hand is unclean.
We ought to be positive about the fact that around 7,600 people have complained to Ofcom about the racist remarks – I doubt we would have witnessed such an outcry thirty years ago. Let's give Jade, Danielle and Jo the benefit of the doubt too: they probably would not consider it acceptable to attack Shilpa directly for having brown skin, and they would not use the vile racist epithets which used to be commonplace in the 1970s. I would guess that when they emerge and learn that they've been widely accused of racism, they will be astonished and affronted. Racism is not as open or virulent as it once was. But what we see here is racism nonetheless - the racism of cultural ignorance.