What We Owe Jade Goody

Two years ago, when the UK reality TV star Jade Goody was being scapegoated for all British racism, historic and contemporary, I wrote the following:

“I wonder if our society will ever be ready to treat public figures as human beings. A 25 year old woman with a difficult family background, whose public persona, lest we forget, was carefully nurtured by the huge corporation responsible for ‘Big Brother’, made reference to the ethnicity of someone she was mocking on television, possibly because she is not mature enough to hide what others in the public eye might. She became therefore the target of violent threats, and eventually physically collapsed under the stress of being made to pay for the un-acknowledged guilt of a nation. There has been little or no serious discussion of the meaning of racism in our culture, nor what we might together do to address our own bigotry. One has to wonder if the hugely disproportionate reaction does not reveal more about repressed post-colonial self-loathing on the part of the British people, perhaps especially that held by its tabloid editors. If you have not have heard of her medical distress, it may be worth asking why some sections of the media were happy to report her public mistakes, but not her personal tragedy. We seem caught in a cultural paradox, where certain kinds of public vulnerability are not only welcome, but seen as a path to credibility; while other forms of honesty appear to prove Seamus Heaney’s adage that ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’”

Now, with the announcement of her terminal cancer, there seems to be nothing left to report but her tragedy. There’s a sense, as the news of Jade’s sorrow is absorbed by the public (and the media mavens who made her first a figure of fun, then hatred), of a quiet guilt descending. The sort that a bully might feel after seeing the impact of their actions, realising the fact that no matter what they might have previously thought, the power dynamics in which they were involved have produced immutable proof of something ancient but almost always true: that two wrongs don’t make a right.

I wonder if it’s too much to ask that we might see this woman, Jade Goody, as something more than a figure of fun, or of accusation, or even of pity. Could we instead ask ourselves if the dehumanization of our culture might finally have exhausted any right to sustain itself? That instead of trivializing her further, we might let our sister Jade Goody have some peace to be with her loved ones; and instead of using her illness as a reason to feel some kind of emotional catharsis, we might consider ourselves privileged to have the chance, the space, and the health to reflect on how we ourselves (and I mean to start with me) will respond to the questions of humiliation, finger-pointing, prejudice (not only the racism she was accused of, but the bigotry she faced because it was convenient to label her ‘stupid’), and the human brokenness that her sad story evokes?