Let’s get one thing clear about the Prince Harry “Paki” row: this was not a case of “political correctness gone mad,” a phenomenon that, Lord knows, I’ve railed against a few times here at PJM.
The word “Paki” is extremely offensive to British Asians, a fact which has come as a surprise to many Americans. In his piece on the subject for PJM, Robert Stacy McCain admitted that he hadn’t realized the term was viewed as hateful, and many commenters wondered what the fuss was about. This is understandable, as in the U.S. the word “Paki” is used simply as a contraction of Pakistani, with no malice attached. (A few years back, not realizing this was the case, I was surprised when reading Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down to read about “Pak” soldiers attached to the UN helping to rescue the besieged American troops in Mogadishu).
In the UK however — despite the protestations of some that “Paki” is no more than mildly disparaging shorthand, just as “Jock” is used to refer to Scottish people or “Taffy” to refer to the Welsh — the word is loaded with racial significance and is analogous to the N-word in the U.S. As Murad Ahmed writes in the Times, the word was coined as a catch-all term of abuse for Asian immigrants and harks back to a period when violent attacks on both Asians and blacks were commonplace. While a generation of British children innocently used the term “Paki shop” to refer to small, open-all-hours grocery stores run by Asians, most of us grew out of the habit.
So yes, it was offensive; and yes, Harry was stupid to use the word. But in mitigation it should be remembered that the incident occurred three years ago, when Harry was 21. He made the remarks out of earshot of his Asian colleague and clearly never expected them to be heard outside his circle of close colleagues. He was clowning around and probably trying to overcompensate for his privileged status by trying to act like “one of the boys.” How many of us can say we haven’t been guilty of similar indiscretions, particularly in our youth? It should also be remembered that this is a young man who has fought for his country in Afghanistan and done good work for charity, including setting up a fund to help African AIDS orphans — hardly the actions of a racist.
Members of the royal family tread a fine line in terms of how they’re portrayed by the media — and how they’re viewed by the public. If they err on the side of discretion they’re maligned as “aloof” and “out of touch” with their subjects. Recall the outrage — some of it genuine, much of it stirred up by the press — when the queen was seen as failing to display sufficient anguish over the death of Princess Diana. But if a royal tries too hard to be “ordinary” they risk criticism for being insincere and patronizing, or ridicule for their lack of familiarity with the everyday lives of us common folk — this while being pursued by a media eagerly waiting for them to screw up.