Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A word of caution: Don’t use the “P” word

Many Pakistani Americans do not know the negative connotations of the “P” word. I was astonished to see many youngsters in New York proudly calling themselves Paki—during the Pakistan Day Parade. The 2nd and third generation Pakistanis in America who have not lived in Britain see no harm in suing the short form of Pakistani. While the word equates to the “N” word in England—it has no significance in the USA. Stupid Bigoted Bharatis (aka Indians) don’t know that the “P” word refers to all South Asians including the Indians. Many Bharatis on the internet use the word in front of unsuspecting Pakistanis—and think that they have gotten away with murder. In fact when one minority denigrates another, all minorities suffer.  While Indians are facing severe problems in Australia, they continue to use the “P” word to denigrate Pakistanis. As one Australian said same sh**, different bucket. For the racist bigot, there is no difference between on brown man or another.

Earlier this year, a homemade video of Prince Harry, the impish grandson of the British Queen whose colourful exploits have earned him tabloid darling status, was leaked to a delighted UK press. Training to be a soldier in Her Majesty’s Army, Prince Harry is shown referring to a British Pakistani Muslim colleague as ‘our little Paki friend,’ amongst other questionable remarks. Headlines exploded, the Pakistani community went on the offensive, and race relations experts came out of the woodwork in force to attack the prince.

Prince Harry unreservedly apologised for his comments, and Clarence House, the prince’s representatives, issued a statement explaining that he had used the term without malice. Still, columnists across the political spectrum criticised the prince and even the Daily Mail, the usually contrary voice of conservative Middle England, said the prince ‘had shown incredible crassness… and he can expect no more chances.’

Within the British blogosphere and on newspaper website comment sections, the row blazed on for weeks. Some commentators dismissed the criticism against the prince, claiming it was symptomatic of the prevailing political correctness in society. Others downplayed the prince’s comments and simply equated ‘Paki’ with other jocular terms denoting British regional identities, such as ‘Scot’ (someone from Scotland) or ‘Geordie’ (someone from Newcastle). Former army officers boldly said Prince Harry was just following the grand military tradition of endowing his colleagues with nicknames so that his colleague, Lieutenant Ahmad Khan, was simply ‘Paki,’ just as Sir Henry Havelock, who recaptured Kanpur during the Indian rebellion in 1857 was ‘Gravedigger’ and Philip Chetwode, the Commander in Chief in India in the 1930s, was nicknamed ‘The Bart.’

What the episode outlined – apart from Prince Harry having inherited the gaffe-prone gene of the Windsor dynasty (grandfather Prince Phillip to British students in China during a state visit in 1986: ‘If you stay here for much longer, you’ll go slitty eyed.’) – was that the contention surrounding the word ‘Paki’ was very much alive. Its connotations, context, and usage remain unclear even to desis themselves. The question is, why does the word continue to cause such offense?

For the Pakistani ensconced back home or visiting the UK, the word seems no more than a jovial contraction. Of course, it’s more than that. The word ‘Paki’ is loaded with the UK’s precarious and somewhat violent record of race relations in the late 1960s and 1970s, when immigration from the Indian subcontinent reached its apogee.
The first sensationalist and press-endorsed flogging of Pakistanis came in the early 1960s, during a reported smallpox outbreak in Bradford, where many Pakistanis had settled. A few unvaccinated Pakistanis did fall ill, but, according to Dr. Derrick Tovey, a practicing physician at the time, the press exaggerated the situation. Reportage was ‘often irresponsible,’ with headlines such as ‘City in Fear’ or ‘Keep Out Pakistanis.’ The public response reasserted essentialist – though disproved – colonial ideas about the ‘non-white’ embedded in the national psyche by Victorian science during the height of the British Empire.

Resistance to South Asian immigration materialised more coherently in the 1970s with the rise of nationalist parties and militant outfits like the British National Party and the National Front. These groups pamphleteered in white communities where immigrants had settled, urging Britons to support policies on repatriation and even accusing South Asian communities of stealing jobs and state-funded housing.

While the 1965 Race Relations Act made racial discrimination illegal in public on ‘grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins,’ the Conservative MP Enoch Powell compared such legislation to ‘throwing a match on to gunpowder.’ He actively encouraged the repatriation of settled immigrants, even if they were UK citizens, inflaming national sentiment even further.

Despite race legislation supporting immigrants, many Pakistanis in the UK at the time, will recall the term ‘Paki-bashing,’ used to describe the sordid pastime of working-class white youths, or ‘skinheads,’ who would attack unsuspecting individuals from South Asian communities.

These racial tensions came to a head in 1979, when a teacher died of head injuries during a confrontation with the police in a protest by thousands of anti-racist campaigners. The protestors had assembled against a National Front meeting, which controversially took place in a town hall in Southall, a suburb in south-west London with one of the UK’s largest Asian communities.

Over the years, though, British Asians have moved into the mainstream. They are well represented in professional fields and in the media, and no doubt pleased by a declaration in 2001 by Robin Cook, the erstwhile Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair, that chicken tikka masala is the national dish of the UK. Such developments make it apparent that desis are here to stay and indeed add significant cultural and material value to British society.

Still, the usage of the word ‘Paki’ is as offensive as ever. Last year, on a rather staid UK reality show, Strictly Come Ballroom, where couples contest in ballroom dancing, slick-haired contestant Anton du Beke was accused of racism for dropping the P word. He said that his fellow dance partner, the actress Laila Rouass, who is herself of Indian and Moroccan extraction, ‘looked like a Paki.’ Heavily criticised by the press, Du Beke’s comments were shocking and reprehensible in twenty-first century multicultural Britain. And in July last year, white supremacist Neil Lewington was convicted of preparing for acts of terrorism, and was widely quoted as saying, ‘the only good Paki is a dead Paki.’

But we shouldn’t forget that the use of ‘Paki’ was once fair game on mainstream British television in the 1970s and early 1980s. Take a 1981 episode of Only Fools and Horses, which some critics say was among the best UK television comedies shows ever made. In the offending episode, a white, working class, and slightly befuddled character Uncle Albert says, ‘The Paki shop won't let us have nothing on tick (credit)! Says it’s part of his culture!’ His nephew Rodney replies, ‘Don't think it's got anything to do with the 46 quid we already owe 'em, do you?’

Some may argue that Rodney’s response illustrated the burgeoning resistance to racist syntax prevalent in the 1980s by demystifying Uncle Albert’s flawed assumptions of ‘Paki’ culture. Yet in a period of difficult race relations, in which the use of Paki was commonplace, it is hard to discern an altruistic purpose in the scriptwriter’s decision to use the word ‘Paki,’ whether comically or not.

It’s obvious to say that ‘Paki’ is an offensive, catch-all racist term that seeks to attack, offend, and alienate those of South Asian extraction in the UK. Yet in a post-9/11 – or post-7/7 world with regards to the UK – the term is beginning to connote a new prejudice in which Islamophobia takes centre-stage.

In November 2009, The Guardian reported the launch of a police investigation into a series of attacks on Muslim students at City University in London. According to the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, the gang responsible for the attacks comprised about 30 white and black youths and shouted ‘get those Muslims’ and ‘Pakis.’ Meanwhile, a BBC Panorama documentary aired in November followed two South Asian reporters who had gone undercover being abused in terms such as ‘Paki’ and ‘Taliban’ by the residents of an estate in Bristol.

It is clear that ‘Paki’ in these instances is interchangeable with derogatory anti-Muslim jibes and encompasses religious affiliation as well as ethnic origin. This will be increasingly true in a society facing down Islamist terrorism and inundated with examples of fanatic, semtex-clad British Pakistanis. Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.’  Change a few things around and you have the Bard hitting it on the nail.

Of course, this isn’t to say its all doom and gloom. Attempts to reclaim and appropriate ‘Paki’ as a positive, even fashionable term have gained ground amongst South Asian youths in the UK, in the same way ‘nigger’ was reclaimed by black hip hop artists and filmmakers in the US. At cricket matches featuring Pakistan, one can regularly see banners by Pakistani youths proclaiming ‘Paki-Power.’ Indeed, ‘Paki’ now encompasses a range of meanings, though that doesn’t lessen the offense the word can still cause

That said, there are few examples within the cultural output of British Asians to suggest a consensus has been reached as to what Paki could mean. In 2005, British Asian artist Aki Nawaz, of the band Fun-da-Mental, agreed to be interviewed for a BBC documentary titled British, Paki and Proud. Once the film was completed, he said, ‘I'm disappointed with the title. I was told [about it] last week. If I had known the title in advance I would have said, 'I will not do it under that title.' The term being endorsed I have a real problem with, it is absolutely unacceptable.’

When it comes down to it, the legitimate use of Paki really depends on who says it or not. It may be acceptable for one South Asian to call another a ‘Paki.’ But change the colour of the speaker and you have racism, it seems. The UK has arrived at the point where there is a sufficient understanding of how ‘Paki’ could be offensive and few are oblivious enough to use the term without an awareness of the ensuing impact.

It’s also worth noting that the term ‘Paki’ is part of a mix of more subtle and sinister forms of racial prejudice that are prevalent in the UK today. Take the race scandal in which Jade Goody, the late contestant on British reality show Big Brother, referred to Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty as ‘Shilpa Poppadom.’ Though not outwardly racist, the culinary reference (a popular appetizer for the British at curry houses) was intended to highlight Shetty’s ethnic origin and, in the malicious context of Goody’s bullying campaign, was no doubt racist.

Of course, as keen as some may be to highlight racist attitudes in the West, our native shores are hardly unfamiliar with prejudice that peppers everyday behaviour and language. They say that charity begins at home and we should look to the mirror for how we view the world. It’s a two-way road. The P Word By Khuroum Ali Bukhari Sunday, 17 Jan, 2010

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