The foul-mouthed abuse on Big Brother shows how little we understand about prejudice, and the world judges us for it

So, thank God, Jade has been evicted. Imagine if she hadn’t, that Shilpa had walked the plank? It would have represented a popular endorsement of flagrant racism. The extraordinary fact, of course, is that no one, or virtually no one, ever owns up to racism.

Ron Atkinson described Marcel Desailly as a “fucking lazy, thick nigger” on air and then had the temerity to claim that he was not a racist. Jade Goody called Shilpa Shetty “Shilpa Fuckawallah” and “Shilpa Poppadom”, and then similarly claimed that she is not a racist. Andy Duncan, Channel 4’s chief executive, in a performance which should see him sacked forthwith, claimed on Thursday that “we cannot with certainty say that the comments directed at Shilpa have been racially motivated”. Ron Atkinson, Jade Goody and Andy Duncan are in denial – like, it must be said, millions of other whites.

No one likes to admit they are racist or bear prejudices. Nor do they even like to be open and honest when they witness racist behaviour. Look at the Big Brother housemates: apart from Shilpa, not one has been prepared to call it by its name (though Jermaine Jackson, black of course, patently knows and understands). The fact that hardly anyone is ever prepared to admit to racist behaviour is perhaps a sort of strength: it speaks to the fact that racism is socially inadmissible. But it is also testimony to profound weakness, a measure of how little distance we have travelled as a society when it comes to understanding racism. For if the truth be told, we are a society that is dripping in racism.

This is not in the least surprising. For the best part of two centuries, we British ruled the waves, controlled two-fifths of the planet, and believed it was our responsibility to bring civilisation to those who allegedly lacked it. There is now a belief that all that is long gone, dead and buried, history forgotten in a tsunami of amnesia about our past. But these attitudes live on in new forms, constantly reproduced in each and every white citizen of this country.

We are not alone in our racism, of course. Every race exhibits racism towards those whom they believe to be inferior: India is no exception, nor is China, nor is Africa. What makes Britain – and whites – special in this regard is that we have been top of the global pile for so long, inflicted our brand of racism on so many, and have no idea what it is like to be discriminated against for our colour. When it comes to our own racism, we shuffle our feet, fall silent, become incoherent and pretend it is not true: we don’t get it.

There seems to be some idea in the mind of Andy Duncan and the rest of the denial brigade that racism comes in a pure and quintessential form: the use of the word “nigger”, perhaps, or a blatant derogatory reference to someone’s colour. But that is never the main form.

Racism always exists cheek by jowl with, inside and alongside culture and class. As a rule it is inseparable from them. That is why, for example, food, language and names assume such importance in racial prejudice. And that has certainly been the case in Big Brother. Food is a signifier of difference: so are names, so is language. So Jade and her sidekicks homed in on Shilpa’s cooking and choice of food, made fun of her name and refused to learn it. And with food came the suggestion that Shilpa’s hygiene left something to be desired, that she was unclean (she had touched the food, it was claimed, and “you don’t know where her hands have been”). In other words, not only was she different, but she came from an inferior civilisation. Her colour too – the most obvious manifestation of racial difference – was tangentially drawn into the equation through the comment about make-up and the Indian desire to be white.

Of course, class is central. Race always comes with class. Jade’s reaction to Shilpa has been shaped by her own class background, her racism articulated within that context. The fact that Jade is hardly blessed with great intellectual gifts, that her conversation is littered with profanities, that her behaviour rarely rises above the crude, lacking any kind of subtlety, and that her status as a former winner of Big Brother is her only claim to be where she is, makes it easy for the middle class to dismiss her racism as that of a crude, ill-educated, white working-class young woman, and that the middle classes would, it goes without saying, never behave in that way.

Of course, they would, and do: but they practise it in a genteel middle-class kind of way. Just as Jade’s racism has a class intonation, so does theirs – the asides, the put-downs, and the rest. Indeed, in some ways they are more ignorant – while masquerading as so worldly – because in general they have far less contact with ethnic minorities, unless they employ them as subordinates and/or domestics. They live in different areas, work in different places, and send their children to overwhelmingly white schools.

Almost from the outset, Big Brother’s racism has had a new and novel dimension. Because Gordon Brown was in India at the time, and was asked about it during his trip, the issue immediately acquired an international dimension. In an earlier era, of course, this would have been dismissed as of no consequence: the natives could safely be ignored. But no longer. We saw this just a year ago in relation to the Danish cartoons and their ridicule of Islam. Europe used to ignore what the former colonial world felt. There was no feedback loop. But such was the reaction in the Islamic world that it could not be ignored. That, though, was in the context of the Muslim world which, in global terms, remains weak and marginalised.

Racial abuse of Indians is a very different matter. India is a rising giant; we can no longer afford to ignore, as we once did with impunity, the views and feelings of a country that represents one-fifth of humanity. We live in what increasingly looks like a global goldfish bowl where what we do at home will be seen by the rest of the world – and duly reacted to, in a way that cannot be ignored.

The test of our behaviour, of how racist we are, is no longer what the white British think. That started to change with the self-awareness and growing confidence of our own ethnic minorities. But the matter does not end there. The test now, in this instance, is what Indians in India think, how they perceive us.

As Goody raged and railed against Shetty on Wednesday night’s TV broadcast, she was like a cornered animal, lashing out in every direction against something she clearly detested but also feared and felt threatened by. She was confronted not only with the Other, but a hugely self-confident Other. What could be worse? It was a metaphor for the world that is now rapidly taking shape before our very eyes.