Not long ago, Prince Harry, son of the late Princess Diana and third in line for the British throne, unleashed a storm of controversy after a three-year-old home video was released in which the prince used the terms paki and raghead. The video was shot while Prince Harry was still a cadet at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy.
In the first scene the prince pans his camera over fellow soldiers waiting in an airport departure lounge, pausing on fellow cadet Ahmed Raza Khan and referring to him as “our little paki friend.” In another scene, he tells another soldier that he “look[ed] like a raghead.” Prince Harry rightfully caught flak and did the right thing by promptly apologizing, but he’s had more than his fair share of apologists who want us to believe that calling someone a paki or raghead is not really that offensive. But they’re wrong: directing a racial slur at someone is always offensive.
Rod Richards, a former Royal Marine and Foreign Office minister in the Conservative government of John Major had this to say in defense of Prince Harry’s use of the slurs:
I am a Welshman and it was quite common for people like me to be called Taffy. Similar nicknames are also used for people from other parts of the world. The use of the word ‘Paki’ doesn’t surprise me but in a military context, it is not derogatory. People are making an issue out of something that is not an issue.”
And this was the response of Michael Evans, Defense Editor of the Times Online:
Prince Harry was clearly not attempting to be deliberately offensive towards his Pakistani colleague but appeared to be using the pejorative term in a light-hearted way. Similarly, the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Richards and Evans, and the many others who defended the prince, are missing the point. Paki and raghead are not mere pet names that can be tossed around willy-nilly. They are racial slurs and that makes them offensive. For starters, paki and raghead are used solely in reference to South Asians and Arabs/Muslims respectively, and never as terms of endearment or respect. Furthermore, calling people names based on their skin color, ethnicity, language, or region of origin is plain wrong. Even kindergarteners know that. After all, nobody chooses their skin color or where they were born, and nobody should be called names because of things over which they have no control.
But the bigger issue here is that unlike nicknames, which may stem from an individual’s height, weight, or hair color, racial slurs are used against entire populations. And, unlike nicknames, racial slurs are created and used in specific historical and political contexts. In other words, they are created in a context of inequality in which one group (let’s call them the namecallers) creates and uses a slur while simultaneously doing violence to, marginalizing, exploiting, or otherwise denigrating another group (let’s call them the namecallees). For this reason, it is impossible to separate a racial slur from the context in which it was created.
Take, for example, two common American slurs—nigger and gook. These words were created, and came into popular use, at a time when the namecallers were doing some kind of violence to the namecallees. Nigger came into use at a time when Africans were being captured and sold into plantation slavery in the New World, and continues to be used as a derogatory term to this day. Gook came into being as long ago as 1899 and has been used sequentially against Filipinos, Japanese people, Koreans, and Vietnamese people. Is it any coincidence that these uses followed the sequence of America’s wars in Asia?
Similarly, paki came about at a time when newly arriving South Asians were experiencing hostility, to say nothing of violence, at the hands of native-born Brits. Is it any wonder, then, that attacks against South Asian immigrants came to be known as paki bashing? Michael Evans, the Times editor, lent (perhaps inadvertently) support to this point when he reminded his readers that “the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Put another way, this means that British and American soldiers are doing violence to Arabs and Muslims, all the while referring to them as ragheads.
Wars might end and time—to say nothing of equal rights legislation—might pass, but racial slurs do not cease to be offensive, nor do they lose their power to denigrate. Because they are conceived and used in violence, they can never go back to being mere words. To call someone a nigger, a paki, a gook, or a raghead is not just to remind them of the violence done to people who shared their skin color, religion, or birthplace. It is also to point out that they are different, that they do not belong, and that they will always be outsiders in the dominant culture. After all, can nigger be separated from the brutality of the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, and Jim-Crow segregation? Can anyone honestly claim to have successfully divorced paki from paki bashing? When will gook lose its connotation of napalm and free-fire zones? And, long after the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan come to an end, what meaning will raghead retain? Will it really be possible to draw a neat, sharp line between the word and the violence done by British and American soldiers to the people they called “ragheads“?
To be clear, this is not to argue that anyone who uses a racial slur is a racist. The question, ultimately, is not whether it is possible for someone to use these words and simultaneously not be a racist, but whether it is decent to do so in the first place! After all, racial slurs on their own do not constitute racism but their use is an essential component of it. Using racial slurs is an exercise of power by the namecaller, used to establish his dominance over the namecallee and everyone else who shares his skin color, religion, language, or birthplace. In addition to being reminders of past violence, racial slurs let the namecallee know that he does not belong, that he is inferior to the namecaller. The intended use of a racial slur is immaterial: the context in which it was created—in other words, how it acquired meaning and thus the power to offend and demean—is what really matters.
So while Prince Harry may not be a racist (although showing up to a party wearing a swastika armband does little to rule out the possibility), his casual use of racial slurs proves that a top-notch education does not necessarily endow its recipient with common sensitivity, let alone common sense. As for Ahmed Khan, Prince Harry’s “little paki friend” (now a captain in the Pakistani army), there is no way to know how he feels about having been called a little paki: the army has barred him from discussing the matter.
At the end of the day, Prince Harry’s affinity for swastikas and racially insensitive language says a lot about his level of cultural sensitivity, but at least he has enough sense to apologize when he has caused offense. That’s much more than can be said of the people who rallied to his defense and tried to argue that paki and raghead aren’t so offensive after all.