Wednesday, January 17, 2007

When's it OK to call someone a "c*nt"?

...when you're not calling them a "p*ki", apparently. Racist language is all over the front pages of the papers today as the Celebrity Big Brother row over Shilpa Shetty’s treatment by other housemates goes supernova.

Having bleeped out Jade Goody’s unfortunate boyfriend, Jack Tweed calling Shilpa a nasty four letter word, newspapers in India (Shilpa’s home country) started claiming that the bleeped out word was “p*ki”; Big Brother producers claimed it was actually only “c*nt”. So that’s alright then…

But the racism allegedly exhibited by the three main culprits (I say “alleged” as I don’t watch it) seems to be more than just a question of words. No one seems to be claiming that the three women at the centre of this – Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara – have actually used the p-word themselves, but that their ignorant and racist attitudes towards Shetty have been reflected in some of their unpleasant comments. Snide remarks about her touching their food, not cooking her food properly and having a strange accent, all seem to suggest that they view her as weird and alien, and probably a bit foreign and dirty. So what’s worse, using an offensive four letter word, or treating someone like scum?

If Judge Paul Darlow had anything to do with it, we’d all just get over racist language and see it as a bit of banter, or something like that. In a separate story about the dreaded p-word, The Guardian reports how Judge Paul Darlow, sitting at Exeter crown court, said he had found it "rather odd" a racism charge was brought against a man who called a police surgeon a "f*cking Paki" and had said Imraan Jhetam should have "let the matter roll off his back". He also had advised the defendant, Matthew Stiddard, to moderate his language. Next time, said the judge, "call him a fat bastard, and do not say anything about his colour".

According to the paper, the judge has since apologised, saying "My comments were not intended to make light of racist remarks. I fully accept that, in a circumstance and time, they can be both offensive and distressing to those to whom they are addressed."

But all of this raises some interesting issues about language and representation and the harmful effects of words. Are the words themselves “bad” and so poisoned with racist attitudes that they can’t be used without causing distress? I have problems with this notion, because in the process of discussing this topic we have to use words like “p*ki” and by doing that we’re not being racist but attempting to be analytical.

Then you have the notion of reclamation: many contentious and previously problematic words such as bitch, the n-word and queer have been reclaimed by some of the previous targets of the words themselves, but by no means all. Even the word “p*ki” has - it has been argued – been reclaimed by some Asian people, its racist power removed in their mouths. I’m not convinced. And does a debate over racist language actually divert us from the “real” racism which is exhibited not through language necessarily, but through our actions and behaviour around other people of different ethnicities?

The latest developments appear to be a comment made by Shetty that she is experiencing racism at the hands of the three white women (see here) and the issue leading to demonstrations and effigy burnings in India on Gordon Brown's first trip there.

Useful for: ENA1 Language & Representation

p.s. I'm bleeping out swear words and not racist words, not because I think they're worse (I don't) but because most filters block these words first and I'd like you to be able to read this.

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