Is Prince Harry a Bigot?
When insults are an issue, cultural context counts.
January 12, 2009 - 12:00 am
Here again we see how cultural context shapes the understanding of prejudice. While Fleet Street screamed “racist” over the term “Paki,” there was less apparent outrage over Harry’s use of “raghead.” Why? This slur is American in origin and found its way into British military slang as designating Arab terrorists via the trans-Atlantic alliance, but apparently is uncommon enough as an epithet among civilian Brits as not to generate the kind of insulted reaction evoked by “Paki.” By the same token, the GI slang term “skinny” for Somalis — the widespread use of which was documented in Black Hawk Down — lacks the power to produce insult stateside, where (a) Somalis, like Pakistanis, are sufficiently rare as not to merit their own national slur, and (b) if an American wants to insult an African, more common slurs are available.
Did Prince Harry mean to insult “our little Paki friend, Ahmed”? Did his use of the word signal hostility to Pakistanis in general? Is Harry a bigot? This is really the question in such cases, as when Joe Biden joked that in Delaware “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” From the context and from Biden’s reputation as a liberal loudmouth, it was quickly deduced that his remark indicated no invidious intent, an assumption that was spectacularly denied to Virginia Sen. George Allen a month later when the Republican referred to an Indian-American volunteer for his Democratic rival’s campaign as “macaca.”
In all the uproar over MacacaGate, no one ever credibly asserted that Allen actually harbored hostility toward Indian-Americans. No Indian-Americans came forward to claim that they had been mistreated by Allen, nor was any evidence offered that his policies as governor or as senator had been harmful to Indian-Americans. Yet his jocular reference to S.R. Sidarth — Allen explained that he was simply using a nickname his staff had given the Democratic activist who was shadowing the senator’s campaign stops — generated a full week of front-page headlines in the Washington Post, and ultimately sank the Republican’s re-election bid.
Again, context is crucial. Allen’s critics sought to portray “macaca” as proof of prejudice by claiming that this was a slur he’d learned in childhood from his mother, whose parents were French colonists in Tunisia, among whom the word macaque (a type of monkey) was supposedly used as an epithet for Africans. No actual evidence for this “French connection” was ever produced, but it didn’t matter, because anti-Allen forces instantly put “macaca” in the context of previous accusations that the Republican harbored “neo-Confederate” sympathies.
Similarly, Harry’s use of “Paki” was immediately contextualized by reference to a 2005 incident in which the prince attended a costume party dressed in Nazi regalia, complete with swastika armband. There was no accusation that this “poor choice of costume,” as the royal apology called it, represented any actual anti-Semitism (or totalitarian aspiration) on Harry’s part. A poor choice of costume, a poor choice of nicknames — charges of racism no longer require evidence of malevolence.
“Yes, it would be very offensive if Harry went around calling people Pakis in a racist way,” Ms. Seward of Majesty told the BBC, “but this was not meant, you know, it was meant more of a nickname.” Ah, the old some-of-my-best-friends defense — a non-starter in the 21st century.
Charges of racism are less damaging to British royalty than to American politicians. It’s not as if Harry risks defeat at the next election or could be fired from his job (would an out-of-work prince be eligible for the dole?), although the fact that the Windsors felt the need for an apology shows how even bluebloods now are obliged to kowtow to public opinion. Despite the media fury, however, it’s not certain that Harry’s political incorrectness has diminished his overall popularity. Many Brits may share London-based blogger Perry de Havilland’s reaction to the episode: “Who would have thought it? Prince Harry is just a normal bloke in spite of the weird circumstances of his upbringing.”
The “normal bloke” probably talks among his friends in the same humorous manner as the prince, without thinking himself a bigot for doing so. The “normal bloke” may be England’s equivalent of what I call the “ordinary American” — the regular workaday person who lives beyond the rarified confines of academia, media and politics, and therefore is indifferent to the fashionable concerns of the elite. Harry’s one-of-the-guys banter seems to have inspired in Fleet Street the same horrified reaction that Katie Couric displayed toward the moose-hunting Alaska hockey mom whom the Republicans nominated as Biden’s opponent.
Such an analogy misses the mark, of course, because of the cultural context. In the same video in which the prince speaks of “Pakis” and “ragheads,” he also pretends to kiss a fellow soldier and asks another, “How do you feel? Gay? Queer on the side?” News of the World played that in the 27th paragraph, indicating perhaps that the English are more tolerant of homophobia than of racism. Or maybe because Harry attended the same sort of boarding school as British newspaper editors, they interpreted his remark as a sincere solicitation of affection.
That was a joke, blokes. Don’t take me out of context.