It’s Actually Not That Racist

A friend forwarded me this Julian Baggini article on racism in the UK, which appeared in the Guardian last week. If I could give an award to someone for coming up with the most horribly written piece of drivel I’ve read in a while, it would surely go to this Baggini guy. No, seriously. I’m not being sarcastic.

Baggini tries to argue two things. Well, he rambles on and on and ON endlessly, but I’m taking the liberty to condense his points here. First, he argues that when some white Britons refer to us brown folks as ‘Pakis,’ they don’t really mean any harm. Second, he argues that if only we were to integrate and tolerate one another more, then people wouldn’t use the word ‘Paki’ so often. My response to him is, you’re dead wrong and, it’s not that easy.

This is how Baggini sets up his argument:

The mainstream British mind is not so much misunderstood as not seriously considered. To rectify this, 18 months ago I set out to examine the national “folk philosophy” – the set of beliefs and assumptions that informs how we live and how we think. To help me do this, I found the area with the closest match of household type – young and old, rich and poor, single and married – to the country as a whole. And so I ended up living for six months in S66, on the outskirts of Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

Then comes the subject of the P bomb:

Almost everyone [in Rotherham] used the word “Paki” when referring to British Asians, yet of everyone I got to know, only Neil – happy to be described as somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun – would merit the charge of being truly racist.

First of all, how on earth do you judge whether “no one in this town except X person” is “truly racist?” Did he go around Rotherham with some special racism-detecting gadget that instantly identifies individuals as “truly racist,” “somewhat racist” and “not at all racist?”His logic gets even more absurd:

Although people’s use of the word made me feel uncomfortable, there was a kind of innocence in their use of it that made me react less strongly than I would have imagined. There was no edge to what they were saying. It didn’t take long before I became able to hear it without assuming the speaker was racist….There is no contradiction in asserting that the words someone uses are racist (because they cause offence), but the person is not (because they mean none).

So in other words, if people use certain words often enough without hesitation, it’s not really that harmful. It doesn’t mean anything. If someone uses the word ‘faggot’ often enough, then it’s probably not malicious. It doesn’t mean that the said individual is in any way responsible for his/her hate speech. It’s just the word s/he uses that’s offensive.

Then he tries to argue that ‘Paki’ is not a racial slur:

Many argue that goreh is not at all derogatory, since it literally just means “white”. But then Paki is literally just an abbreviation for “Pakistani”, so that in itself proves nothing. The point is, in what contexts are these words used? Both “Paki” and “goreh” are “our” words for “them”, only used among “us”. It’s certainly true that if you break this rule and use either word in mixed company, the effects are different, but that’s at least in part to do with the fact that most white people don’t know what goreh means and it does not have a history of abusive misuse, as Paki does. In a Britain in which white people and Asians mixed freely, I don’t think we would hear either word very much at all. The use of “Paki” is therefore not primarily a symptom of race hatred but of a divided nation.

I don’t pretend to know very much about the UK; I’ve only been there once, and that too, when I was eight, so I don’t remember much. But I’ve taken enough microecon courses to know that “social mixing” isn’t always cheap, particularly for those towards the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s not as simple as waking up one day and thinking, I’m going to move to the white part of town and away from my Asian ghetto so I can do my part to defeat racism! Most people choose their area of residence not because they want to completely avoid certain ethnic groups but because of proximity to job opportunities, cost of living, and quality of public goods offered in a certain area. Did it even occur to Baggini that maybe Rotherham just doesn’t have a job market that’s lucrative to diverse groups of people? And that’s probably why there’s little “mixing” in that area?

I think what also bothers me is that nowhere in the article does Baggini provide an Asian perspective on what it’s like to hear the word “Paki.” Instead Baggini has his own firm set of ideas on the root of the word, on how it’s said, and what it means for him. The only time an Asian perspective is provided in this article is to confirm that Asians, in fact, use the word themselves. So therefore, it can’t be that bad.

This article is almost as ridiculous as a white American writing a paper on the n word, and concluding, “I’ve heard the word used many times. I don’t particularly care for it, but I really don’t think people mean any ill will when they say it. I know this because people often use the n word in the same unflinching manner as they would to describe someone who is tall or short. Besides, I’ve heard black people refer to themselves as n. Maybe if they didn’t choose to live in Compton or the South Bronx, I wouldn’t have to feel so embarrassed about my fellow white people saying the n word so often.”

89 thoughts on “It’s Actually Not That Racist

  1. Afterthought…coz I’m slightly slow on the uptake. I just took the bait, didn’t I. Right, my knickers are no longer in a twist. I have unravelled my underwear. Ignore previous comment. Carry on peeps!

  2. So Jane, do you get to travel to London to see your folks at all? Like it?

    I go every year and I really do like it for the countryside, history and architecture more than anything else. I lived there for a year back in the 90s and got spoiled because on the weekends I’d go visit my aunts and come back with food to last for the week :-) Hounslow Central baby!!

  3. I can’t ever remember being called a racial slur of sorts, and I grew up in a town which was 99% white.

    I think girls experience less racism than boys so that may explain some of it. Also, for some reason I think that there has to be a critical mass of minorities sometimes for racism to kick in. If an area is 99% white, it is hard to blame anything on 1% of the people. Also, the 1% have to mix more/integrate with the majority and they can’t easily avoid the majority and isolate themselves in cliques.

  4. I thought I was way ahead of the time, he thought I showed up in my PJs and taunted me in the school yard as “paki in her PJs.” The morning after, he woke up with a scratched up face and bruised eye, I woke up to a slap across my face for “fighting with a boy.”

    You go, Saira, that’s an awesome story :)

    By the way, I went to a school with uniforms that allowed “free dress” in regular clothes on the last friday of every month. After my first trip to India (at age 8) I went to free dress friday in a canary yellow salwar kurta with a royal blue silk vest…complete with chappals and all. I felt like I looked so amazing. I expected that I would be the best looking one on that day and I would swim in all the compliments. Instead I spent most of the day explaining my outfit to all of the kids except the one other Indian girl. Undeterred, I wore it in the family photo that year. :)

  5. “”Some people may disagree with me but there would be less racism if more immigrants did a better job to assimilate into the mainstream culture. I think that is where alot of racism now in Europe is coming from that issue.”"

    It’s ludicrous, to say the least. The biggest case of assimilation into “mainstream” culture was the German Jew. And look what happened to him. First of all your “racism will always exist” statement makes it seem like it springs up from a magic waterhole, and all people get sprayed by it. Rather than it being a deliberately contrived method of separating people, particularly by those of European descent against those not.

  6. This topic is pretty timely, what with the latest “famous last words” out of Joe Biden’s mouth. (Apologies to those of you who don’t follow US politics).

    As a demonstration of how rife racism is in America, you might recall that Biden made that statement about how you couldn’t go to a 7-11 unless you had an Indian accent.

    Even if nobody is throwing around the “p” word, it’s amazing how close to the surface this type of stuff is for some people.

  7. HMF I was talking about Europe in the year 2007 and not the year 1939. And yes europe has many history of racism in its past, but it is not the only place in the world where racism exists.

  8. “It didnÂ’t take long before I became able to hear it without assuming the speaker was racistÂ….There is no contradiction in asserting that the words someone uses are racist (because they cause offence), but the person is not (because they mean none).”

    Actions convey purpose and words convey intent. This is how humans started forming societies to live together and language was developed.

    So until humans evolve to do away without language and can actually read minds, words are what we have and people have to take responsibility for their choice of words.

  9. Some people may disagree with me but there would be less racism if more immigrants did a better job to assimilate into the mainstream culture. I think that is where alot of racism now in Europe is coming from that issue.

    The problem with this approach is that the determination of what is “mainstream” is not an objective process. Moreover, those that are members of the “mainstream” culture by default (because they were born into it, etc) are often treated by society as though their culture is the standard and that the things that deviate from the standard are “wrong.”

    Consider for example, the conversation on clothing. A sari or a salwar kameez is a beautiful garment. I mean this in an objective sense. If made of good quality, the fabrics are luxurious, the craftmanship is of good quality and the colors are often vivid, mirroring the shades found in the most beautiful flowers, jewels and precious metals. Why, then, are these garments considered strange, and in some circumstances, inappropriate by the “mainstream”? If the desi community were to do a “better job” of assimilating, these clothes would be put away in favor of the suits, jeans and sweater sets of the mainstream. In addition, why does celebrating and continuing our culture make us less American (or British)? I think that the wonderful thing about countries that have immigrant populations is that nothing is ever the same. You don’t eat the same food at everyone’s house, not everyone wears the same clothes or listens to the same music or sounds the same. I would hate to think that someday, American celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, Holi, St. Patrick’s Day, Channukah or any number of culturally “other” celebrations would stop because everybody had assimilated. Well, that’s just my two cents.

  10. I think girls experience less racism than boys so that may explain some of it.

    Please. sa, what did we just see on Big Brother? Just because it’s not jackboots in the ribs doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful and deeply damaging, esp. over time. There’s been quite a lot of work done on how girls operate differently, it’s called relational aggression. Here’s

  11. Meena

    Look at the employment rates, lok at the average income in UK/US compared to say Germany or Scandinavia. I know I used to live in Sweden. It’s not a bad place, not at all. I like Sweden, but UK/US and other anglo saxxon countries is better for an asian minority. That is a bloody fact.

    Red Snapper

    Fair enough, there is racism. I don’t think I ever stated that there wasn’t. But your comment about using the N word to black people was my point. When Jade Goody calls Shilpa the P word, it’s Jade Goody that feels insecure about her place in society. She kicks up, to some one who has a better standing in society than her. That is generally how white trash racism works in UK. The N word is not used in that manner.

    I don’t like being called Paki, it’s uncomfortable, but when it comes from Jade Goody it’s very easy to ignore. But when my job application is sorted away because I have an Indian sounding name (as it often happens in Sweden if you are a foreigner) it puts me down and makes me frustrated. That is what I call racism and that is something you see far less of in UK or US compared to any other society that we migrate to.

  12. and what really irks is that while we discuss candy floss racism as some one so eloquently called it 15 indians are hanged yearly in Saudi Arabia without anyone burning any effigies or making Lok Sabha discuss it.

  13. Urban Dictionary.com: Afro-Paki: a doobie or joint that has been lit on a slant cause it to burn fucked-uply.

    “Shit ni**a, i sparked me an afro-paki again.”

    People racist? Sure. Drugs racist? I never knew…

  14. I live in Jackson Hts, Queens, and I ONCE heard a teen girl casually tell a guy that “I’m Paki” when he drove up in his car and hit on her and her friend. These 3 were all desi mind you.

    As for this comment: My daughter (15) refuses to wear anything Indian.

    Don’t worry too much about this- I grew up w/ young people like this too. They turned out just fine, but DO NOT identify as desi. We all have different ways to fit in in the world!

  15. And placing one “paki” and “gora” on the same level shows a lack of awareness that racism is about history, context, and structures – and that words mean different things depending on who’s using them.

    “Gora” seems to me to be on par w/ “gringo” b/c it’s NOT that bad of a term to most people’s ears. Also, I never heard everyday people use the word “gora” except in BIG cities!

  16. I really find it funny, that due to action of some whites, many people don’t have problem blaming all whites. Yet when its the other way around they can’t handle it.

    My sis used to say that a lot too! But I think people usually mean “the man” or “the establishment” when they lay this type of blame. So those terms should me used instead!

  17. When I talk about intergration and asslimation in Europe and other mostly anglo-saxon countries, I’m just saying what other people tell me.

    This Christmas break I had a chance to catch up with 2 people, who I have been friends since middle school. One of my friends live in Holland, and the other one in Denmark. They both told me that many Dutch and Danish people are not happy with the policy of multicultrism that has led to immigrants not at all asslimating into the mainstream society.

    I look at my parents when they came to India and moved to Canada in the early 70′s. The area then and 30 years later to this day is still 95% white, where my parents live. Yet my parents never had a problem. When I was young my parents signed me up to play hockey and ski just like the other mostly white kids. When I want to school and made friends, my parents made the effort to become friends with those kids parents. Yet my mom never stoped to wearing indian outfits. Also my friends would invite my people over to eat indian food and get to know other people.

    Another thing about the area I grew up. Was that in high school that was 95% white, that in 4 year span 3 of those years the student prime minster was a desi including my sister. And at the most there was 7 or 8 desi students in school. Yet a school of 95% white students would elect 3 brown students prime minster in 4 years should say something about the postive side of intergration.

  18. Paki, Ni**er, blackey, whitey, spic, kike, jap, redskin are horrible words and offend most decent intelligent human beings. They should never be used.

  19. “Gora” seems to me to be on par w/ “gringo” b/c it’s NOT that bad of a term to most people’s ears. Also, I never heard everyday people use the word “gora” except in BIG cities!

    I think you’re right. Another equivalent is “honkey” or “cracker” in the United States. These are feeble attempts to meet words like “spic” and “ngger” and even “sand ngger” – which I think is indicative of white bigots slipping in their craft (Take an old racial slur and slap an adjective in front of it? Voila, new racial slur)

    But words have power not because “we assign it to them” they carry with them entire social histories of past usage.

  20. “Gora” seems to me to be on par w/ “gringo” b/c it’s NOT that bad of a term to most people’s ears. Also, I never heard everyday people use the word “gora” except in BIG cities!
    Paki, Ni**er, blackey, whitey, spic, kike, jap, redskin are horrible words and offend most decent intelligent human beings. They should never be used.

    I’d add, if it’s not something you’d use to address the person to get their attention, then why would you use it out of that person’s earshot?

  21. Honkey is not a neutral term like dude, yo, or their brit equivalents (mate?) but it’s nowhere near equivalent to the minority counterparts.

  22. The problem with analyses that just focus on immigrants’ efforts to assimilate is that they ignore how much autonomy the host society allows them in that process. Assimilation isn’t just a spectrum, with “immigrant” on one end and “fully assimilated citizen” on the other. People adopt some elements of their host culture, adapt some, and completely ignore others. You might speak perfect English, wear Western clothes, date white people, listen to alt-rock, and yet still be a Muslim. Or whatever. But the host culture has a say in how it lets you integrate. If they don’t like you standing tall outside of your neighborhood, if they don’t like you “adapting” by dating their kids, if they don’t like you “taking their money” through special English classes, and if they force you to seek protection through group identification, THEY are preventing you from acculturating.

    Racial language has to fit into that dynamic. These words are meant to single people out, to label them as alien and worthy of less respect. People may or may not use them directly to hurt anyone, but the underlying meaning of the words remain. As long as the wider social “mainstream” accepts the use of dehumanizing, threatening language, people will seek protection outside of that mainstream. Which leads to the formation of alternative forms of protection. In the US in the 1960s, this led to the formation of street gang culture. It seems that something similar is going to in the UK today.

  23. But the host culture has a say in how it lets you integrate

    I’d go even further, and contend they have the final say.

  24. Many argue that goreh is not at all derogatory, since it literally just means “white”. But then Paki is literally just an abbreviation for “Pakistani”, so that in itself proves nothing.

    It is surprising that there is no mention of what exactly “Paki” means. The name “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure” in Sindhi, Urdu and Persian. “Pak” means “pure” and “Paki” means “to be pure” or “to be of the pure.” The connotations to do with purity, cleanness, and the exalted moral virtues attached to the word “Paki” can not be undermined, as it is obviously connected to a sense of nationalism and patriotism beyond a jingoistic realm.

    The point is, in what contexts are these words used? Both “Paki” and “goreh” are “our” words for “them”, only used among “us”.

    If anything, the word “Paki,” to ‘us,’ is seen as an ethnocentric term used in a “holier than thou” sort of way.

    It’s certainly true that if you break this rule and use either word in mixed company, the effects are different, but that’s at least in part to do with the fact that most white people don’t know what goreh means and it does not have a history of abusive misuse, as Paki does.

    Rather ironically, the rules of use and the “history of abusive misuse” have tainted the word “Paki,” but not the meaning itself. While it may be a derogatory term in the context of those rules and that history, it remains to be a word of great value to many Pakistanis who are “proud to be Paki.”

  25. I think the context and more importantly the intent of the word determines its offensiveness. I wonder which is more offensive: Ignorance – calling an Indian a Paki because of the color of their skin (like calling someone Chinese even though he is from Japan/Korea/Vietnam/Thailand) OR Malice – knowing someone is from India and calling them a Paki in order to play on the historical animosities between the countries. If it’s out of ignorance, does the person being called the name have an initial obligation to educate the “name caller” before being offended? If it’s out of malice, does the “name callee’s” negative reaction really reflect his own racism and perpetuate the negative connotation?

  26. The connotations to do with purity, cleanness, and the exalted moral virtues attached to the word “Paki” can not be undermined, as it is obviously connected to a sense of nationalism and patriotism beyond a jingoistic realm.

    Great, Land of the Pure, meaning all those who had to leave the land were ‘impure’? What a brahminical concept!

    Oh the ironies mount up and ever higher.

  27. Great, Land of the Pure, meaning all those who had to leave the land were ‘impure’? What a brahminical concept!

    Since when do brahmins have a monopoly on the concept of purity?

  28. Well you know, CQ, since whenever, don’t be offended by it, just not worth it.

    I just get startled when people elevate their purity as a virtue, especially a nationalism based on purity, that’s all. I worry about the impure.

  29. Why are people so offended by WORDS? I never understood why curse words were bad just like I never understood why “slurs” were bad. Especially “Paki:” it’s just short for Pakistani. Why should I be offended by that? Some people (mostly white people strangely) find the word “black” offensive. Well guess what? They are black and that’s what they call themselves. Not all blacks are Africans, and not all Africans are black.

    People are too damn sensitive. If you were sure of yourself you wouldn’t find random words offensive (like macaca which, even though no one knew what it was they were still offended). It you ask me, any intelligent human would NOT be offended by words. It really is the pussification of society when we have to use euphemisms for EVERYTHING.

  30. Why are people so offended by WORDS?

    NotConfused…WORDS are the cornerstone of society..its the tool by which human beings communicate their feelings, thoughts, emotions…When WORDS are used to communicate hate. It is as powerful as a slap to the face. If we consider ourselves civilized and humane we would not traffic in hate through actions or WORDS. Or do you think a little hate now and then is a good thing? Keeps us tough and less ‘pussified’?

  31. The question is not “Why are people so offended by words?” but rather “how can we reduce the hatred and the hurt?” That being said, some people are more sensitive to words than others and will always feel more hurt when a racial epithet is used. You can’t stop someone from communicating his ideas of hatred, but what you can do is change how you react to them. The more offended and hurt you are, the more power you give to the person using the words and to the words themselves. It’s simple playground bully psychology – ignore the person, realize in your heart that he is ignorant and malicious, and don’t let him get the upper hand by seeing you react. The less you are offended, the more the word’s negative connotation gets diluted. Compare your reaction to a 5 year old calling you a stupid-head when you were 5 and when you are older. What has changed?

  32. It really is the pussification of society when we have to use euphemisms for EVERYTHING.

    Abhi, does this get todays award?

  33. It’s simple playground bully psychology – ignore the person, realize in your heart that he is ignorant and malicious, and don’t let him get the upper hand by seeing you react.

    Did this ever actually work? Usually the bully is just intent on stomping someone either way…

  34. Great, Land of the Pure, meaning all those who had to leave the land were ‘impure’? What a brahminical concept

    Although a “Paki” may leave the Land, they are still of the Land, therefore still a “Paki.”

    I just get startled when people elevate their purity as a virtue, especially a nationalism based on purity, that’s all. I worry about the impure.

    The pure/impure dichotomy, on the one hand and at the very base level, is extended to personal hygiene, whereby, the “Land of the Pure” is also the “Land of the Lota-User.” On the other hand, this dichotomy quite seriously addresses matters of salvation, whereby, the “Land of the Pure” is also the “Land of Believers.”

    In the end, these are the attributes that make a “Paki” who they are, not simply being a “Pakistani.”

  35. Folks,

    I may be about to repeat what some other commenters have perhaps said, but here’s my 5 cents anyway since this thread is about Britain:

    1. “Gora” is not an expletive and is not equivalent to “Paki”. It’s a direct, albeit slang, translation of the description “white people”, and is not a swear word in itself. It’s frequently used in a neutral sense, in the same way that “Kale” (or “Kale log”) is a direct translation of “Black people”. Of course, both can be used in a derisive, insulting manner, and they often are. But not all or even most of the time.

    However…..

    1. In Britain, “Paki” IS the equivalent to “nigger”, in both its offensiveness and its intent. Especially when you bear in mind the colonial history that the UK has with both ethnic groups, along with the associate racism stretching back centuries.
    I am constantly amazed by some of the contributions on this blog, the blind witlessness, the clueless disconnect with real lived experience, the smug assumptions and extrapolations, it wavers between hilarious and unbelievable.

    I agree completely with Red Snapper’s observation and have made similar remarks a number of times recently — speaking generally, not necessarily specifically in relation to this thread. But there is a marked, noticeable pattern of behaviour in some quarters of this blog’s commenting population. The most pronounced examples are some of the reactions to the Shilpa Shetty affair, although it’s happened on several other topics too.