CONTENT NOTE: Please note that this article contains references to violent acts of racism.
Celebrity Big Brother has often used the term ‘celebrity’ rather loosely, with a wide array of so called ‘C’ and ‘D’ list celebrities making up a large part of the line-up. However, in recent years we’ve moved away from members of semi-successful pop groups, ex-politicians, or television personalities to people who are famous simply for having been on another reality show.
So, enter Rodrigo Alves, a man famous simply because he has spent tens of thousands of pounds on plastic surgery. Also, a man who felt comfortable enough with the n-word that he felt he could say it on national television, prompting over 1,000 complaints to the TV watchdog Ofcom.
Channel Five’s response to Rodrigo Alves’ use of a racial slur in front of millions of people was lukewarm at best; an official warning standing in stark contrast to former Big Brother broadcaster Channel Four’s response in 2007 when Emily Parr was asked to leave following her use of the same word. That said, the channel’s completely inadequate response to the racist bullying Shilpa Shetty received in the same year likely motivated their decision. Ofcom received over 44,500 complaints in response to Shetty’s bullying, a UK record, and Channel Four were forced to broadcast an official chastisement from Ofcom ahead of their series of the regular Big Brother later that year.
This year, however, Rodrigo was allowed to remain in the house. This appeared to be done simply to increase ratings; a cynical move that will certainly alienate some viewers, but not enough. For every person who was driven away by the use of racial slurs, there were likely two more eager to see what he might say next.
Racism in all its forms is utterly reprehensible. Although people like Rodrigo Alves may not intend to be explicitly derogatory towards a particular individual with their use of the n-word, they do normalise it. This in itself can make others, who would use it offensively, feel more comfortable using racial slurs in public. Let’s not forget that, for the vast majority of its history, the n-word has been used by violent, dangerous people; those who would lynch black people, those who would feel no remorse about inflicting injuries on someone for no reason at all but the colour of their skin.
Indeed, the efforts by public figures to reclaim the word has almost become too successful; people who aren’t black are happy to sing along to Drake’s music without censoring themselves, yet it’s still not okay for people who aren’t black to use the word. After all, barely 50 years have passed since 14 year-old Emmett Till was infamously lynched in Mississippi simply for being born black.
In the past few days, Rodrigo Alves has apologised, claiming that he wasn’t aware “how offensive what [he] said is in English-speaking countries”, and that may well be true. Although the civil rights movement in America started just 60 years ago, people across the world seem to have already forgotten the dangers of mass racism and the lasting impact that can have on a society.
The world is far from having won any battle against racism, and yet people ask if the n-word has become acceptable to use, or if people overreact to its usage. On this basis, the simple answer? No.