Reality Racism: Challenging Racism in the Era of Big Brother

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Racism and Reality TV

That certain tabloid newspapers promote racism ('floods of immigrants', 'a tide of refugees and asylum-seekers'; 'threats to our way of life'; 'tests to become properly British') will not be news to English, Drama and Media teachers, who have a long-standing and admirable history of confronting and undermining racism and other isms/phobias (Cole, 2007a). However, for NATE members, it might be worth highlighting a particularly nasty new development: the covert legitimising of racism in 'reality TV'. This represents a new challenge for all antiracists, and a particular challenge for NATE members. In January 2007, Jade Goody was evicted from Big Brother, after calling Indian actor, Shilpa Shetty, 'Shilpa fuckawhiler' and 'Shilpa Poppadom' (astonishingly the tabloid which is one of the most instrumental in promulgating and upping the barometer of racism, The Sun, (for an analysis, see Cole, 2004a; Cole and Virdee, 2006) mobilized its readers to campaign for Goody's eviction). More recently (June, 2007) Emily Parr, a drama student, was removed from 'the show' after asking fellow housemate Charley Uchea: 'are you pushing it out, you nigger?' Here we have examples of long-standing anti-Asian racism, and equally established anti-black racism. How long will it be before some 'reality show' or other outlet provides an opportunity for someone to vent his or her spleen against the latest category of exploited migrant labour--East European workers?

In this article, I begin with a brief examination of the concept of 'race' and conclude that it has no scientific validity, and that it is not meaningful to divide populations into distinct 'races'. I then look at manifestations of twenty-first racism, before offering my own definition of racism, which is a wide-ranging one to accommodate the multi-faceted nature of contemporary British racism. I conclude with some suggestions for good anti-racist practice in schools.

'Race'

There is a consensus among certain geneticists and most social scientists that 'race' is a social construct rather than a biological given. Why this is the case is explained succinctly by Steven Rose and Hilary Rose (2005) and I will summarise their arguments here. They point out that 'race' is a term with a long history in biological discourse. Given a rigorous definition by the evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky in the 1930s, 'race' applied to an inbred population with specific genetic characteristics within a species, resulting from some form of separation that limited interbreeding. They go on:

  In the wild this might be geographical separation, as among finches
  on the Galapagos islands, or imposed by artificial breeding, as for
  example between labradors and spaniels among dogs.

Early racial theorising also divided humans into either three (white, black, yellow) or five (Caucasian, African, Australasian, American and Asian) biological 'races', supposedly differing in intellect and personality.

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However, in the aftermath of Nazism, the UNESCO panel of biological and cultural anthropologists challenged the value of this biological concept of 'race', with its social hierarchies. When, in the 1960s and 1970s, genetic technology advanced to the point where it was possible to begin to quantify genetic differences between individuals and groups, it became increasingly clear that these so-called 'races' were far from genetically homogeneous. In 1972, the evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin pointed out that 85% of human genetic diversity occurred within rather than between populations, and only 6%-10% of diversity is associated with the broadly defined 'races' As Rose and Rose explain:

   [m]ost of this difference is accounted for by the readily visible
   genetic variation of skin colour, hair form and so on. The everyday
   business of seeing and acknowledging such difference is not the
   same as the project of genetics. …