More than an ordinary four-letter word

Our little Paki friend… Ahmed.” Oh boy. I’ve heard that one before.

But not as recently as the friends I spoke to yesterday in Oldham, a place where racial tensions spilled into riots not long ago. Apparently, they still get called Paki all the time. By whom? “Oh, just little kids on the street. What can you do? They’re only children.”

Prince Harry is not a child. He is unlucky only in that, unlike most young men, his worst moments end up splashed across the front page of newspapers. That he thought it acceptable to use the word Paki to refer to a Pakistani colleague represents a pathetic failure in his upbringing. Someone, somewhere along the line – a wise grandparent perhaps – should have told him to cut it out. These days the word Paki is used only by those who don’t know any better, rather than by those who should.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission thinks that we need an inquiry into the Prince’s behaviour. What would we discover? That the third in line to the throne is a bit of an idiot? That is an open-and-shut case. But we should have an inquiry about the word Paki.

Prince Harry’s three-year-old remarks have opened up a new debate about words. Some people have asked why, if it is acceptable to use “Brit” to refer to British people, and “Aussie” to describe an Australian, what’s wrong with using Paki for Pakistanis?

Simple. It’s because of history.

Paki is a word from a different age – one where it would be spat out just before an Asian received a swift Doc Marten boot to the head. It was more often heard in the phrase “go home, Paki” than “my Paki friend.”. It was intended to be a form of violence and intimidation towards immigrants who had come to these shores from the Indian subcontinent. It became, through its very use, racist.

To put it politely, anyone who thinks that the word Paki is acceptable is unaware of this sordid history or unable to understand its significance. Put another way, if you think that it’s all right to call someone a Paki you’re ignorant or stupid. See how using words in a certain way can come across as insulting or cruel? That’s the point. Words are powerful, and we should take care how we use them.

Some Asians call each other Paki, just as some black people call each other “nigger” – to reverse the exclusion that each term implies. “A white man’s nigger is my brother,” they are trying to say and, therefore, they are the only ones allowed to say it. Anyway, I still remain unconvinced that Asians have embraced the word Paki as a form of cultural pride. Five years ago a fashion designer created a clothing label called “PAK1”. It never caught on. Many thought that having the word emblazoned across their chest merely invited abuse or legitimised the word.

And even when Paki is used within the Asian community, it is still considered hurtful by many – an all-purpose, generic insult, applied to Indians and Bangladeshis as well as to Pakistanis, without the relief of any positive, postmodern connotations.

Context is key. It can be funny to make light of racism and the stupidity of it, but it is a delicate game. Whenever a photograph of a suspected al-Qaeda operative appeared in the paper, a colleague would point it out and say, goofily: “That’s your dad, that is.” He was ridiculing the stereotype: Asian-man-plus-beard-equals-terrorist.

In return, I jokingly called him an infidel. It might not be your brand of humour, but we found our banter hilarious. I can imagine it being OK to use the word Paki ironically – but only if the joke was on the racist, not on the brown person.

With Prince Harry’s comments, while his use of the word Paki is offensive, taken in context, his use of the word “raghead” – referring to Arabs – is not. Raghead is commonly used in the Armed Forces, to refer to the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. If someone is shooting at you, it’s understandable that you might come up with a term for them that is less than flattering. Like no other place, the battlefield really is a “them and us” situation, where politeness and racial sensitivities are not high on the agenda.

That’s why the focus is on the word Paki.

It’s not just another nasty four-letter word. The outrage isn’t another example of creeping political correctness. It’s about the experience of immigrant communities in Britain and the struggles that they endured when they came here in the Sixties and Seventies.

For Asians, there was once a time when it was no surprise that an authority figure, speaking in the Queen’s English, would call someone a Paki. Just get on with it, thought many, we’re the outsiders here.

Now that we are in the mainstream, Brits, Asian or otherwise, bristle when they hear the word Paki, because its use is so rare and outrageous. The tabloids capture this mood across the country. That, at least, is progress.

Murad Ahmed