At last a political excuse to post on Big Brother! I notice that Shilpa Shetty has been the victim of that harmless English past time of casual racism and bullying. Ellee does a good job of filling out the story here so I'll be brief on the detail.
The papers have concentrated on the name calling. There is some dispute over what was said The Mirror says she may have been called a "fucking Paki" but the Guardian leaps to rescue and claims she was only called a "cunt" and gives space to Germaine Greer to call Shilpa a "cannibal", defend the housemates oh so hilarious mockery of Shilpa's accent and voice her inability to understand why the term "Paki" is offensive. Thanks a lot Guardian.
What there seems little dispute about is that Shilpa, one the most beautiful, refined and charming personages to ever grace the Big Brother set was described as a "dog", various references have been made about how crap Indians are at everything and a gang of firm friend bullies sit round telling each other how much they hate her.
Unsurprisingly there have been a barrage of complaints (more than 13,000 so far), I hear a rumour that Carphone Warehouse are considering withdrawing their £3 million sponsorship - now that's a message Endemol (makers of Big Brother) would actually listen to. MP Keith Vaz is tabling a motion about it (!), it's been raised at PMQs and even Gordon Brown says he's been bombarded with questions about this during his trip to India. To all of which of Blair must immediately respond with his own press release.
The row has gone global with BBC reports that "Anand Sharma, India's junior minister for external affairs, said: "The government will take appropriate measures once it gets to know the full details. Racism has no place in civilised society.""
Some have expressed admiration about her willingness to stay in the show rather than walk out like three other contestants have so far, including arrogant tossbag Leo Sayer. However, the fee of £367,500 she is being paid would be forfeit if she did walk and I for one would stick far worse out for such gargantuan sums. It should also be noted that these would be bullies should play their cards rather more carefully as Shilpa is thought by some to have extensive mafia connections which may come in handy once she leaves the house. Licks lips.
But why is racism such a powerful phenomenon? Can it really just be reduced down to name calling and bullying? I think not, and I'd like to build on my earlier post (about Engels) to extend that framework to race.
I think it's difficult to understand racism without understanding it as a interlaced series of discriminations rather than one single current. Society has been permeated with myths, stories and lies which justify, reinforce and sometimes directly produce inequality. But whilst being called a "Paki" is no doubt unpleasant its social significance is only realised by its connection with systematic political and economic discrimination. If this wasn't the case every jibe about someone having red hair or coming from Birmingham would be evidence of new forms of racism rather than simple boorish bad manners.
As an aside, if correct where would this leave Lindsey German's analysis of a hierarchy of racisms? Well, nowhere really. The important factor is the discrimination suffered by a socially defined ethnic group - the only significance that some groups may face worse / different kinds of discrimination than others is the power that fact has in playing us off against one another.
Apartheid's intermediate category of "coloured" between "black" and "white" was not simply some complication, it was important in building a working hierarchy in society where some people may not be white, but at least they are not black. As it were.
Whilst anyone arguing that the "main" problem with Apartheid was the treatment of the "coloureds" specifically would be an idiot, the category was part of the framework of oppression. The category mattered even though "coloureds" were granted "privileges" that blacks were not. The division made the whole structure harder to resist.
Just as football fans might chant "I'd rather be a Paki than a Turk" capital finds it very useful to have a range of oppressions to draw upon. It helps keep wages down, it helps keep the right people in political power, it helps that we keep finding new enemies that have nothing to do with why we are unhappy with our lot.
Racism against Jews may not effect the numbers that Islamophobia does, nor are its effects as apparent by a simple reading of the daily press, but the moment we start to regard some racisms as less objectionable is the moment we've stopped fighting racism and begun only to resist aspects of it. This is bad not just because it effects our ability to combat prejudice, build solidarity and all those other tasks the left agree are important but also because racism in what ever form is wrong.
Let's stamp it all out.
The Chinese Community, the Poles, the Latin Americans and all the other groups - they suffer the effects of racism in all three of its aspects (ideological, political, economic) are we genuinely to say that discrimination against any of these groups is tolerable? Will this shield them from the effects of long hours, poor pay, possible assault and all the rest? And what would we expect a Jewish co-worker to say to us if we tried to denounce some Islamophobic outrage if the day before we had tolerated anti-Semitic remarks as simply mistaken?
The main victim of racism shifts. In 1905 the Alien's Act was passed as a direct attempt to prevent Jewish Immigration from Tsarist Russia. By 1962 the CommonWealth Immigration Act was put in place as a fear of black people. Now it's clear as day that the press and the state have a penchant for anti-Muslim bias over and above other discriminations, all the better if they are asylum seekers though.
The way that racism operates on a number of qualitively separate fields is important. To counter Daily Mail rants against Eastern Europeans we don't deploy arguments about the Holocaust. To combat the effects of extreme poverty pay among immigrant rural workers we use different methods to when fascists leaflet our estate with anti-Muslim bile.
These different areas bleed into one another but are not identical by a long chalk. They are separate strands in the same rope and it's no coincidence that the fault lines of racial inequality follow those of capitalism.
The logical conclusion to all of this is that we need strong, autonomous campaigning organisations that work hard in their specialised field whilst maintaining a strong current on the left that attempts to politically generalise whilst performing a useful and specific function inside of these groups. Abstract anti-capitalism, even when it takes an apparently concrete form (a demo for instance) is worthless for this. It's those who get their hands dirty in the soil who get to plant the seeds of the future.