Wednesday, June 13, 2007

And now it's time to reclaim the p-word

Following hot on the heels of debate about the dreaded n-word, this article in the BBC news magazine, takes a look at debate in the Asian community (Is there really such a "community" or is that a dubious label itself?) about the word "paki". Here's a brief excerpt:

The origins of the P-word, as its known in polite society, are far more recent than its black equivalent, which dates back to the 16th Century.

Its first recorded use was in 1964, when hostility in Britain to immigration from its former colonies in the Asian sub-continent, was beginning to find a voice.

Despite being an abbreviation for "Pakistani", its proponents tended to be less discriminating about its application - directing it against anyone with brown skin, be they Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Sometimes even non-Asians who happened to have a dark complexion found themselves on the receiving end.

Forty years on, use of the word is still highly sensitive and has the potential to cause great offence. Earlier this year, it was alluded to in unbroadcast material from the Celebrity Big Brother house, when Indian housemate Shilpa Shetty became the target of racist abuse.

The whole issue of words being used by one group in an offensive way and by another group as a term of solidarity seems to be too much for some people's minds to cope with, and two responses to this article suggest that it's causing brain meltdown and hurrumphs about "political correctness gone too far" in sections of white society (Again, is there such a thing as white "society", or even a "white community"?):

I understand the sentiment, but surely it's mad to have a word thats "OK" for some groups to use, and highly offensive for everyone else? Either a word is offensive to some people, or it isn't.
Andrew, Glasgow, Scotland

It is racial discrimination for one race of people to be able to do something when others cannot. Either the terms are racist and should be condemned whenever used or everyone should be able to use them without fear of reproach. The current situation of supposed political correctness is illogical.
Alex, Colchester, England

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change


hema said...

i think a lot of people use the word out of laziness more than anything else (pakistani is four syllables after all), without really thinking of the negative connotations it used to have/still has?
i think it depends on context. there is a big difference between someone screaming the word at you down the street, and a friend(of any race) saying it in a conversation.
i personally wouldn't ever use it in public in case it offended anyone (of any race), but have used it in private amongst friends "eg you're such a paki", "that's such a paki think to do".

Dan said...

It seems perfectly normal to me for members of the labeled group to use the term about themselves (ie an Asian woman to use the term to describe herself) but I don't think it's a term that's ready to be "reclaimed" in the same way as nigger/nigga...and I still have big doubts about that one too.

It's all about context, isn't it? I used to have a mate a while back who was affectionately known to his mates as "wanker", so he would be greeted by this term whenever he appeared. It was ok for his mates to call him this, but it would have caused trouble (and probably a few spilled pints and vague threats) if a stranger were to address him as such.

Ditto "paki" and "nigger". The terms might be ok to use within groups of people who get on well with each other and share an ethnic/social/subcultural identity, but it would be, at best, naive and, at worst, blatantly racist to use that kind of term with a stranger (see Emily and the Big Brother scandal).

Then again, I'm not even sure lots of white people even accept that "paki" is racist. At least with "nigger" there has been acceptance that it's a really bad word for some time. How can a word be "reclaimed" when it's not even securely defined as racist in the first place?