Anya Wassenberg
July 10, 2013

Big Brother, Paula Deen and the Culture of Racism

Julie Chen Big Brother

Julie Chen / Photo credit: Helga Esteb

Big Brother has never really been known for the moral integrity of its contestants, but this summer’s housemates have made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On last Sunday’s episode, it was revealed that at least three of them were prone to making racist and homophobic slurs. Aaryn Gries – who’s lost a modeling contract because of it – infamously told fellow housemate Helen Kim to “go make some rice,” among other choice comments.

Aaryn isn’t the only one. GinaMarie Zimmerman said African-American housemate Candice Stewart was “on the dark side because she’s already dark.” Spencer Clawson is apparently a fan of Hitler’s and also prone to homophobic slurs.

Normally comments like that would be edited out of any TV broadcasts but once fansites began to complain about the behavior they were seeing on their Internet feeds, CBS took the step of outing the racist contestants.

Of course, reality TV stars don’t have the market cornered when it comes to intolerance.

Alec Baldwin closed his Twitter account recently after launching a profanity-laden, homophobic tirade against a British reporter who wrote that his wife Hilaria had been tweeting during James Gandolfini’s funeral.  [I’d] put my foot up your f—ing ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen…   He made an apology to GLAAD but there have been recent calls by LGBT activists for Capital One to drop him as a spokeperson.

Paula Deen

Paula Deen / Photo credit: Kai Hecker

This comes hot on the heels of the last celebrity-racist blow-up – the Paula Deen scandal. Deen found herself a pariah when the release of a court deposition revealed she acknowledged using racist epithets. She’s paid a heavy price for it: the Food Network and QVC, among many other companies, have dropped her — although her book sales are up.

The latter fact and every forum discussion on any of these issues will tell you that opinion at large is still divided on racism – even the casual variety – and even in the post-Obama era.

Big Brother host Julie Chen went on record about her very personal response to the anti-Asian sentiments. She said it reminded her of being bullied as a child in her hometown of Queens, NY, in the 1970s.

Chen’s statements are a reminder of what racism is really all about. It’s not an abstract argument about political correctness (whatever that is) – it’s about real people and the effects on them.

Like Julie, I think a lot of us were assuming blatant racism was a thing of the past. Certainly, it seems just stupid for someone in the public eye on a reality show to be so casually racist and homophobic. But if you look at viewer comments, many seem to have a stance of ‘c’mon, who hasn’t said it?’

Does the backlash go too far? Should people lose their jobs over racist or homophobic remarks?

It’s easy to pass judgment on celebrities who, after all, are strangers. What if it was a friend of yours or someone in your closest circle of friends? Do any of them make those kinds of remarks – joking or not?

Do you?

Would you – do you – give your friends a pass?

Should anyone get a pass?

Let us know what you think.