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Is Prince Harry a Bigot?

When insults are an issue, cultural context counts.

by
Robert Stacy McCain

Bio

January 12, 2009 - 12:00 am
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Prince Harry of England has been forced to apologize for calling an army comrade a “Paki.” His reference to “our little Paki friend, Ahmed” — captured in a video recorded three years ago, when Harry was attending Sandhurst military academy — was almost universally denounced.

David Cameron of the Conservative Party called the term “a completely unacceptable thing to say,” while Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats said the prince’s remark had “obviously caused considerable offense.” The Ministry of Defense huffed: “This sort of language is not acceptable in a modern army.” (Bombing foreigners, OK; insulting foreigners, not OK.)

Taking the prize in the indignation derby was British Muslim activist Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation. “I am deeply shocked and saddened at Prince Harry’s racism which upsets and offends many British Asians,” Shafiq said in a statement. “The use of this sort of racism has no justification and I am saddened by those that are advocating using this term is not racist. … It’s time for real remorse.”

Among Harry’s few defenders was Ingrid Seward of the royal-watching magazine Majesty, who told the BBC that the prince and his academy friends “were having fun and … calling each other nicknames.” She pointed out that Harry’s reddish-blond hair had earned him the nickname “Ginge or Ginger.” (In the video, the prince-lieutenant pretends to give orders to his army comrades and then asks if there are any questions, to which one of them responds: “Are your pubes ginger, too?”) Alas for Harry, “gingers” don’t have quite the kind of ethnic clout in Britain as Pakistanis these days, and the revelation of his nickname prompted no demands that anyone apologize.

The incident illustrated, among much else, how ethnic epithets and other manifestations of prejudice (real or alleged) are rooted in cultural contexts. Until Harry apologized for the remark — first reported by the tabloid News of the World, I had no idea that the word “Paki” was regarded in England as hateful.

The term is almost unknown in America, not necessarily because Pakistani immigrants face less prejudice here, but simply because they are not so numerous as to merit their own specific slur. Mark it down to geographic ignorance of the subcontinent, perhaps, but most Americans don’t know the difference between an Indian, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi.

Trans-Atlantic differences in ethnic designation were apparent in Shafiq’s reference to “British Asians.” In Old Blighty, “Asian” is used as a generic term for those from the Indian subcontinent — a demographic reminder of the erstwhile empire — whereas in America, the word “Asian” calls to mind primarily the Chinese or Japanese, with Vietnamese or Filipinos as secondary associations. And unlike the Pakistanis, some of these groups have been sufficiently distinguished in the American mind to merit their own national epithets.

When I declared on my blog that I was unaware “Paki” had attained slur status in England — “How does the omission of two syllables change this from a description of someone’s nationality to a racist epithet?” — a commenter retorted: “There’s no way an American would use the word ‘Jap’ to describe a Japanese, or ‘Chink’ for Chinese.” Good point. One observes that, as with the condensation of “Pakistani” into “Paki,” both “Jap” and “Chink” have the effect of abbreviation, and perhaps there is a derogatory intent implied in depriving these groups of an extra syllable or two.

Derogatory intent is central to the controversy over Prince Harry’s reference to his “little Paki friend, Ahmed.” The video that sparked the uproar was full of juvenile joking by the prince, who was 21 at the time. At one point, pretending to phone his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, Harry says, “Got to go. God save you” — an irreverent reference to the British national anthem. During a field exercise, he points his video camera at a comrade (“Dan, the man”) wearing a camouflage hood and says, “F**k me, you look like a raghead.”

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