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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 10:57 GMT
When does ignorance become racism?
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Shilpa Shetty and Jade Goody
A clash of cultures?

Big Brother contestants have been accused of racism in their attacks on housemate Shilpa Shetty. But when does ignorance end and racism begin?

The treatment of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, a contestant on the Channel 4 reality show, has attracted more than 30,000 complaints, caused a minor diplomatic incident and prompted the show's sponsor Carphone Warehouse to pull out.

Three of the contestants - Danielle Lloyd, Jo O'Meara and Jade Goody - have been accused of bullying and making racist comments but friends of the three women, who are locked in the house, have said they are not racist people.

On Thursday night, Goody was challenged by Big Brother about calling Shilpa "Shilpa Poppadom". She denied it was a racist comment and apologised for any offence.

Even before this outburst, remarks such as "you don't know where those hands have been" and Shetty being told in foul language to "go home" were enough for some people to make up their minds that this was a row fuelled by Shetty's ethnicity.

Giving her personal view of Channel 4's role as broadcaster, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said: "To make entertainment out of racism is disgusting."

I think it would become racist if they were to be disparaging of Shilpa Shetty because of her being Asian
Sunny Hundal
Asians in Media website

Yet Shetty herself has told housemates she does not believe the attacks on her are racially motivated.

And among the thousands of viewers who have emailed the BBC website, many said they thought the comments - before Jade made her poppadom remark - reflected ignorance rather than racism. So where does one end and the other begin?

In the eyes of the law, Shetty would have a case to make under race legislation, says solicitor Chris Boothman, an expert on race law.

He believes the complaints are not yet serious enough to warrant a criminal prosecution, which requires harassment over a long period, but he believes Shetty could have a case to pursue in the civil courts.

"If I was advising her I would advise to sue Channel 4 under the Race Relations Act.

"The major area of risk for Channel 4 is that they have done little or nothing to intervene or try to stop this behaviour. They have a responsibility to intervene."

Culture clash

Other leading lawyers have said Shetty would also have a case to make under employment legislation, as a "worker" of Channel 4.

Before Goody made her remarks on Thursday, Channel 4 said there had been no overt racial abuse, and unambiguous racist behaviour would not be tolerated.

But many commentators believe race has played a part. Sarfraz Manzoor, a British broadcaster of Pakistani origin, says he initially believed it was a "clash of culture and a clash of class" but changed his mind after a few days of viewing.

"It's too easy to say that if Shilpa Shetty was pink or blue or green she'd be getting the same treatment - I don't think that's true."

Liz Carnell of the Bullying Online charity says: "I don't think that the remarks would have been made to someone from a white background. I think they have been made because of her culture."

Papers showing Big Brother stories
The subject has gripped the media

But what constitutes racism can be a matter of interpretation and others have been more cautious in their assessment.

Before the language used in the Big Brother house escalated on Thursday night, Sunny Hundal, who edits the Asians in Media website, offered some comfort to Goody, saying he believed she had been misquoted.

"She is quoted as telling Shilpa Shetty to 'go back to the slums', referring to India as a slum. I think she actually said 'go to the slums', referring to her own upbringing.

"Of course, if she was referring to India as a slum, then that would certainly be a racial slur."

But some viewers told the BBC Goody had said "go back to the slums" on a separate occasion.


Mr Hundal said Lloyd and O'Meara had made racist statements. A short transcript of an exchange which features foul language appears below.

O'Meara declared Indians were thin because they undercooked chicken.

And Lloyd said Shetty should "fuck off home" and could not speak English properly.

Protests in Bhopal
Protests were sparked in India

"I think it would become racist if they were to be disparaging of Shilpa Shetty because of her being Asian or being Indian or coming from a Third World country, and saying 'you are Indian therefore your are not as important'. That would be racist," says Mr Hundal.

"Jade hasn't said anything along those lines. But I believe the other two have."

People in Mumbai, Shetty's home city, were asked by BBC Radio Five Live whether they thought she was a victim of racist bullying and some said they thought it nasty without being racist.

When Goody was called into the house's diary room to explain her latest comments, Goody said: "She is Indian so will have an Indian name."

Shortly afterwards, Shetty told housemates: "When I actually thought about it, I know it's not a racist thing... people say things in anger."

She does not know all that has been said behind her back, but Goody later told her she had called her "Shilpa Poppadom" and the two women hugged in a gesture which suggested a truce.

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