Remember Jade Goody, but remember Shilpa Shetty too

I remember bristling with discomfort, aged 9, listening to the news relay the latest on the Jade Goody controversy. Jade was a contestant on season 5 of Celebrity Big Brother back in 2007, who alongside other contestants made racist comments towards Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood actress and fellow contestant. ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ – I always remembered that one.

It was enough to make anyone feel intensely, exquisitely uncomfortable, but being a little brown girl myself, the feeling was particularly jarring. For some, racism was an abstraction. For half of my family, an immediate reality. Watching the latest Channel 4 documentary on Jade – the painfully self-conscious feeling is still the same.

I’m shocked when the documentary mentions offhand that Jade, like myself, is mixed-race. But I’m not really sure if this changes anything. On Twitter, I see people defending her in the style of her mother: ‘She wasn’t racist; she was mixed-race herself!’ As if that’s some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. On top of that, Jade is quite clearly white-passing, but what that entails is another matter altogether.

How the final part of the documentary will choose to frame her remains to be seen, but I’m wary of any overly sympathetic portrayal of the race row. A lot of the focus remains on Jade and how she felt at the time, but I can’t help but notice a glaring omission in this recollection of the events of 2007:

What about Shilpa and how she felt?

“I’m not a racist!” Jade sobs in a ‘News of the World’ interview which would probably warrant some sort of punishment for its invasiveness in this day and age. Juxtaposed with clips of Jade (as well as Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd) screaming at Shilpa, mocking her accent and purposely mispronouncing her name, the assertion is discomforting. If not that, what do people think racism is?

In (mis)remembering Jade, it seems to me that Shilpa, the actual victim of Jade’s racism, has been somewhat forgotten. In focusing on Jade’s feelings, we forget Shilpa’s. Though Jade’s tears of remorse were thrown in front of cameras upon her exiting the house, we can’t forget the private agony Shilpa endured. Racist acts are nothing short of traumatic. Shilpa was gracious enough to forgive Jade – but who’s to say she doesn’t still bear mental scars from 2007?

Jade epitomised British culture

While people are free to use the ‘Jade was mixed’ card as a means of defending her, I feel it falls flat. The fact that many are shocked that Jade herself was ¼ Jamaican says it all – the girl was, and in many ways still is, emblematic of British culture. The publicity shots of her with chips in a newspaper; her WAG-style outfits comprising of designer sunglasses, colourful boob tubes, and pink lipgloss; her endearing Bermondsey accent – culturally, she couldn’t be anything but British. Even the racism, petty and xenophobic in nature, offered a glimpse into the nasty, rotten underbelly of our sceptred isle.

‘‘Racism’’ is a big word but translated into real life it comes out as small actions. Even if you didn’t relate to her, like her, or even watch Big Brother, Jade brought issues of social and racial discord to light – issues which have now compounded in this age of Brexit, Trump, and BoJo. Jade was impossible to ignore. Gordon Brown found himself scrabbling to make a statement on a woman he’d never met who was on a programme he’d never watched, so pressing was her impact. We still see racism and colourism on reality TV today even if it isn’t as overt as Jade’s attacks, most recently in the treatment of Love Island’s Yewande Biala.

Jade is far from trivial and unimportant. On the contrary, I think she is probably one of the most influential women from the last decade. But in remembering her, I implore everyone to remember her accurately, and most importantly – remember Shilpa Shetty too.

Image: Bollywood Hungama

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