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.”
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.