Oh, Brother

Time for a break from these trivial conversations about supposed Asian invasions, supposed Muslim invasions, intimidation (by government officials) of white shoe lawyers, intimidation (of potential jurors) by white shoe lawyers, Canadian parliamentary maneuvering, New York legislative non-maneuvering. Enough with all of this frivolity, already — it’s time to talk about something consequential. Yes, it’s time to talk about Bollywood, Reality TV, and the Law. (And no, despite how it sounds, that’s not a course that I have either taken or taught.)

Now that the “Celebrity Bigot Brother Big Brother” kerfuffle has hit the paper of record, some of you may already know a smidgen about the drama rocking the UK, the Subcontinent, and the South Asian diaspora this week. (Primers here and here, and for the pathologically obsessed, up-to-the-minute updates here.) The show features a couple of Hollywood has-beens low on media attention these days — Jermaine Jackson, of those Jacksons, and Dirk Benedict, of the old Battlestar Galactica. But more importantly for our purposes, the lineup also includes Shilpa Shetty, a significant Bollywood star, and three fading British luminaries, Jade Goody (famous for being famous), Danielle Lloyd (a former Miss Great Britain), and Jo O’Meara (of the band S Club 7). To make a long story short:

Jackiey [Jade’s mother] called Shilpa “the Indian” and asked if she lived in a shack, and then Danielle told Jade that she thought Shilpa was a dog and then Jo refused to eat the chicken that Shilpa had cooked because she had only put it on for 45 minutes, and she didn't know where her hands had been, and now, well, now she knew why all Indian people were so thin, because they couldn't cook properly, ... and then Danielle said that Shilpa wanted to be white... [link]

Oh yes, and Jade’s boyfriend may or may not have called Shilpa a “Paki,” Danielle definitely did say that Shilpa “should f*** off back home” because “she can't even speak English,” and Jade told Shilpa to “go back to the slums” and later called her a “pappadum.” Shilpa, though not exactly speechless, was left to ask (in English) “Is this what today’s UK is? It’s scary. It’s quite a shame really.” Faster than you can say “Michael Richards,” all hell breaks loose — effigies burning in India, official protests by the Indian government to the British government, calls for the show to be cancelled immediately, front-page headlines screaming about the possibility of a “bitter race war” between the UK and India, colloquies with Tony Blair about racism on the floor of the Commons during Question Time....

Hai rabba, stop the madness! Believe it or not, however, there is more to this story than celebrity gossip, political opportunism, and tabloid sales. As Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai has noted, for many British South Asians, who now constitute 4 percent of the UK’s population, the episode touches a nerve because it vividly calls to mind their own day-to-day experiences with racism in the UK over a period of many years. The public hangama has resulted in tens of thousands of formal complaints, more than any TV show in British history and enough to shut down the website of Ofcom, the British broadcast regulator. Ofcom and the police are investigating possible violations of (among other things) laws banning broadcasts intended to incite racial hatred. These reality shows are notorious for manipulating the social dynamics among their participants — remember the “Law & Order” episode covering this ground? — and if the show’s producers have deliberately provoked racial conflict on the show, an investigation might be useful in bringing that to light. Still, all of this seems to fall well short of incitement, and people calling for the show's cancellation are probably missing the point. Certainly the entire obsession with l’affaire Shilpa misses more than one point, since there are far more consequential issues involving racism and inequality in British society than the bullying of a multimillionaire actress. But given the choice between shutting the show down and letting the spectacle unfold for everyone to see, it’s better for Britain to hold up a mirror and see just how ugly what the Independent has called its “barely submerged xenophobia” can sometimes get.