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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Little England vs. Celebrity Love Island

CRE head Trevor Phillips has claimed that reality TV shows help to improve 'race relations' in Britain. Ignoring for the moment the sociobiological undertow of the idea that people are divisible into separate races, the statement warrants some investigation.

I've commented before on the daft habit of using the make-up of people's peer groups as a way of measuring the extent of racism in society. Age, geography and social mobility all mediate our groups of friends, along with social attitudes to friendship itself. Some people find it odd that I've been hanging out with same people since 1981, others have friends going back further. The relationship between friendship and the ethnicity of your friends is by no means straightforward.

Equally, hoping for reality TV to perform the CRE's job for it is a strange strategy. To quote Mr Phillips: "It's introduced the majority of the British public to people they never normally would meet," said.

You don't have to like it or think that it's the most wonderful kind of television to accept that actually it is serving a purpose
Trevor Phillips

"For most people, their experience of black or Asian or Chinese people is what they see or hear or read in the media, and historically, black and Asian people in the media have been rather one-dimensional stereotypes."

The problem with this, apart from suggesting anti-racists should go into retirement or broadcasting, is that it seems a risky strategy. What if the black, Asian and Chinese people on reality television invite public hatred through their actions (Slick Vic, BB5) or inaction (boring Vanessa in BB6)? More importantly, what if the pressure to act up for the cameras and stake a claim to celebrity status produces a different sort of one-dimensional stereotype? 'Is it because I is black?' 'No, it's because you're acting like an idiot/media whore on Channel 4.' I don't recall anyone campaigning for the equal right to degrade yourself on national TV.

Britain today has higher levels of inter-marriage than its European neighbours and a higher proportion of multiethnic cities with scope for social mobility (London, Leicester, Birmingham). Things are going in the direction Phillips would like them to, even if he doesn't trust the white majority to play a part in this process without game shows to coach us.


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