Friday, December 22, 2006

The skin factor: X Factor and reality TV racism

Leona Lewis is going to be the Christmas No. 1, and we have X Factor to thank for unearthing the new Maria Carey or Whitney Houston. I must admit I'm not sure we need a new Maria or Whitney, but then I'm not sure I needed the old ones. I don't watch X Factor- if I wanted to hear indifferent cover versions of 80s hits, I'd listen to Girls Aloud. But I would in any case be put off by the blatant manipulation of the ever-lengthening pause for the 'and the winner is...', a trend started by Davina and Ant&Dec, but now universal. I now avoid all results shows on principle. Imagine how fresh and shocking it would be if someone were to revert to saying simply 'hand up who's not been evicted - no, not you'. However, we also have the X factor to thank for killing off a tendentious strand of comment arguing that the UK public was too fundamentally racist to ever allow a black contestant to win a reality contest.

This view was first advanced by Faria Alam, philosopher, social commentator and person-famous-for-having-sex-with-slightly-more-famous-people to her Celebrity Big Brother housemates Dennis Rodman and Traci Bingham. She told them the British public would "never let a black or Asian win"; we were denied the opportunity to find out, since the public decided that it wouldn't let Americans or ex-PAs who they'd never heard of win, regardless of colour.

The Guardian's Comment is Free forums then spent the summer bickering about it: white liberals suggesting that the dismal record of non-white contestants was due to chance, their individual performance, or, perhaps, the tendency of the voting public (mainly the old and silly or the young and silly) to promote those who were most similar to themselves (although until BB6 I wouldn't have guessed there was such a large consituency of Portguese transsexuals in the UK). But now we can say straightforwardly that it is not true: the British public will vote for a black contestant. I never really accepted the argument: I think, and hope, that politeness and tolerance are virtues fostered here. I always feel a surge of pride when visiting London to see its astonishing casual cosmopolitanism (a word whose meaning is presumably being shifted towards 'very very interested in sex and make-up').

But what do we really think? The Freakonomics authors have looked at how people behave on the US version of the Weakest Link, to see who gets voted off despite scoring well. They conclude, perhaps surprisingly, that blacks are not discriminated against; the old and Hispanics are, though. There's all sorts of methodological pitfalls with studies of this kind: just how fixed are these racial categories? Are they self-descriptions, or based on the researcher's opinion? Is it based on skin colour, country of ancestry, language, name? But if they are describing a real phenomenon, I'm still not sure that their analysis is correct. They say that the reason that blacks are not discriminated against is because it is no longer socially acceptable to behave in an anti-black way. Why can't they accept that (white) people might not be anti-black?

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