The BBC website is reporting that Bruce Forsyth has said that people should have a “sense of humour” about the Strictly Come Dancing race row involving professional dancer Anton Du Beke who admitted calling his show partner, actress Laila Rouass, a “Paki”. Forsyth says that in the past the “slip up” would have been treated in a more light-hearted way. Talking to TalkSport he said:
“You go back 25, 30, 40 years and there has always been a bit of humour about the whole thing. Americans used to call us ‘limeys’ which doesn’t sound very nice, but we used to laugh about it. Everybody has a nickname.”
Is he right…???
Well in many ways, the arguments are irrelevant given that the word ‘Paki’ is one that is socially unacceptable. And no matter how many argue to the contrary, calling a colleague ‘Paki’ would – for the great many – result in them losing their job and possibly even facing prosecution. It does however raises an interesting point about who owns language, especially those terms such as ‘Paki’ and ‘nigger’?
Whilst the term ‘Paki’ is widely accepted as being derogatory, there are some that are beginning to argue the need to ‘reclaim’ it as indeed some have (tried) with the term ‘nigger’, despite both terms being routinely leveled as racial – and racist – slurs. The problem is that this type of argument is inherently exclusive: possibly even racist.
When arguments are put forward that suggest that only certain ‘types’ of people – based on their ethnicity or heritage for example – are allowed to say certain things and that it is only they who can determine what can and cannot be said, they are extremely similar to those arguments that are put forward by racists and bigots who try to justify who can and cannot be ‘British’ for example. Neither side however seem to recognise the most obvious of similarities.
The problem is that whilst some within black communities have sought to ‘reclaim’ the word ‘nigger’, many remain absolutely horrified about its usage in any way whatsoever. Indeed, some will be shocked and distressed by the use of the term here, something that can be seen in the way that elsewhere, the term is routinely written down as ‘n*gg*r’ or even the ‘N-word’ as a means of trying to avert offence.
The same applies to those British Pakistanis who are now in a similar quandary about the ‘P-word’ and the inappropriate appropriation by some from within their own communities. The flaws in the reclamation argument can be highlighted by some interviews with young British Pakistanis on the BBC website:
Young Pakistanis are increasingly using the word to associate and differentiate.
Zak, a 17-year old from Leyton, east London, says he and his friends think nothing of calling each other, “My Paki brother”.
“Paki is just a short-form of Pakistani,” continues Talha, 16.
“But only Pakistanis should be allowed to say it,” adds Adeel, 17.
Ask them about the historical significance of the word and they look blank. But they have strong views on how the word is used and by whom.
Ahsan, 15, says the P-word could be classed as racist if used by anyone else, including other Asians.
Last year filmmaker Navdeep Kandola was forced to change the name of his work from Paki Slag after Screen Yorkshire threatened to pull funding and criticism from West Yorkshire Police.
But, in a further complicated twist, that is exactly how some non-Pakistani Asians are using it – as a term of abuse. Sixteen-year-old Dinaz, who is of Bangladeshi origin, says at his school in Ilford Bangladeshis and Indians don’t use the P-word, although their Pakistani peers do.
“It’s accepted for Pakistanis to use it,” he says, and they use it in a similar fashion to how rappers use the N-word.
Whilst Dinaz – and others – suggest that it is acceptable for Pakistanis to use the term, what is the reason for this? Beyond ‘because we can’ there seems to be very little justification or rationale whatsoever. Consequently, questions about where, when and how these boundaries are created remain, as do questions about whether anybody else can determine who can and cannot use certain words in certain ways and circumstances.
If ‘they’ can do it, then why can’t ‘we’ is the overly simple retort that comes from those that prefer to use the term pejoratively.
So is it fair for ‘whites’ to rightly condemn the ‘racism’ of Blackburn player El Hadji Diouf when he recently referred to one of Everton’s ball boys as “white boy”? If all communities have the same right to create boundaries as to who owns and is able to use certain terms and words, then why not do the same with ‘white boy’?
Likewise, following the Prince Harry ‘P-Word’ debacle earlier this year, one newspaper claimed that Prince Harry’s colleague ‘was happy’ for him to call him ‘Paki’. Does this then make it ‘acceptable’ if sanctioned or permitted by a Pakistani?
Sadly, if the line of argument that seeks to justify reclaiming the term is pursued, then it could be that both of these examples are seen to be acceptable. If some Pakistanis – and indeed others – are able to determine their own and others’ usage of the term, then if one or more determine that a ‘Prince’ can also use the term, using the same line of argument would suggest that the Prince was perfectly right to do so. As Laila has apparently accepted Anton’s apology, should we even be discussing this matter anymore?
For those who use the term pejoratively, they do so in broad and indiscriminate ways, directing it against anyone with brown skin, whether Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Even dark-skinned non-Asians – including some Arabs and those from the Meditterranean – find themselves being called the same. As such, the pursuance of such reclamation justifications fails to challenge the pejorative, discriminatory use of the term and so ensure the continuation of it as a term that insults and derogates.
When ‘Paki’ is used in this way, it is grotesque and stereotypical: conjuring and reinforcing a whole host of negative meanings and understandings that have been acquired over the past three or four decades. Despite trying to ‘reclaim’ either Paki and nigger – by Pakistani or black communities respectively – the terms continue to allow those usages that indiscriminately attribute and associate. It neither rights the wrongs of the past nor does it replace the pejorative associations with their meliorative equivalent.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.