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    Saturday, 9 June 2007

    Can the 'n-word' ever be innocuous?

    Big Brother contestant Emily has been withdrawn from the show after being heard to ask a black fellow-detainee, 'are you pushing it out, you nigger?'. Channel 4 aired the event in a round-up show (ie not live), with the predictable result that Ofcom will receive hundreds of complaints. The broadcaster explained that it thought it would be inappropriate not to air the clip, as to do otherwise would be to hang Emily out to dry.

    A transcript of the 'offending' interchange is available on the MediaGuardian website. The video excerpt is available to view on YouTube, and is worth watching because it makes clear that the context was one of jocular interplay between friends - Charly was miming being pregnant. This footage also juxtaposes nicely real vindicative sniping between Chanelle and Charly ('I've never met such a two-faced bitch' / 'what time is it, you haven't looked in the mirror for two minutes') with the relatively innocuous comments between friends that have caused the furore. Indeed, Emily went on to say that she and her friends - blacks and whites - regularly refer to each other in such manner.

    The episode reminds me of one response to Reginald D Hunter's Pride, Prejudice and Niggas which ran in the West End and at Edinburgh last year (and was lauded by the critics as 'excitingly intelligent', 'sharp, ambitious and truly powerful'). The Metro effused that Hunter 'holds no truck with sheep-like adherence to established views, whether religious, political or sexual'. The Tube banned his advert from its property.

    Hunter is no Bernard Manning. As a black-man he is deemed free to adopt whatever language he wishes when referring to his own race. Similarly, however, Emily - from what we know of her - is no racist. It seemed that both were using language in a subversive way and by doing so demonstrated that they have no sympathy with sectarianism. See also the adoption of 'queer' or 'fenian' by similarly marginalised groups (of course, this subversion can be taken too far). There was no problem in Charly refering to herself in such fashion. Somehow, it is supposed to make a difference that that Emily is white.

    Make no mistake, discrimination / persecution based on race / gender / sexual orientation, religious-affiliation and the like is anathaema to the desirable society. We possess a terrible history in which people were persecuted, humiliated and murdered on account of their skin tone, and there remains a continuing legacy of discrimination and abuse based on race.

    All this notwithstanding, the point is that as far as the use of language is concerned, context is everything. To consider only bare words as stated is to deny that we are intelligent beings capable of nuance and sophistication in communication. Channel 4 should have done no more than take the opportunity to issue a statement condemning racism, and to distance itself from any inference to this effect that any (egg-shell skull) viewer would wish to draw in the instant case. [To be fair to London Underground the relationship of the banned poster to the subversive, (received) norm-challenging comedy show wasn't necessarily self-evident in the advertisement itself].

    To my mind the various responses to this episode - from that of Emily's friends, to Channel 4, to representatives of the Commission for Racial Equality - are evocative of nothing so much as the response of kids in the (middle-class) playground to an exclamation: 's**t'! So much was implicit in Channel 4's recognition that Emily should not suffer over-strong criticism. It is an infantile society that looks for affront where none is intended. Did I say 'infantile', oh, well I meant INFANTILE.


    Anonymous said...

    Apparently, Ofcom has received 140 complaints concerning the airing of the clip unedited, while almost 1,000 viewers have contacted to complain about Emily being evicted (see 1,000 say Big Brother wrong to evict Emilyhere). There is also plenty of discussion on the Big Brother message boards.

    Andrew Scott said...

    Here's a round-up of the n-word debate from the papers:
    Turbulent history of the troublesome N-word
    Daft? Yes. Racist? Oh, come on ...
    The n-word is never cool
    Our new vice - self-righteousness

    C4 takes no chances, or prisoners
    Big Brother: A brief history of the 'N' word

    and this on an earlier story from New York that I turned up when collecting the above...

    New York activists win ban on 'n-word'

    Andrew Scott said...

    The BBC adopted a sensible 'apologise and distance' approach recently when Iggy Pop referred to 'Paki' shops during a late night interview at Glastonbury - see Iggy Pop comment prompts BBC apology

    Anonymous said...

    she never meant hurt.....unfunny black bastard newsreaders may have gotten away with it mind .....

    Andrew Scott said...

    The above comment cross-refers to another comment left on a different post (News Knight criticised for Manning joke).

    As per the discussion in this post, I take the view that discrimination / persecution based on race / gender / sexual orientation, religious-affiliation and the like is unacceptable, but that as far as the use of language is concerned, context is everything. I'd like to distance MediaPaL from any inference of racism that any reader draws in the instant case.

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