When is a Racial Slur not Offensive? Never.

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.


9 thoughts on “When is a Racial Slur not Offensive? Never.

  1. Raghead is not offensive, unless the person says it with malice. It’s like someone above me said, Why isn’t Ginger, or other terms merely nicknames? My Mexican friend calls himself “Beaner” and introduces himself that wasy. I know loads of Mexicans who consider that as non-offensive; like saying Raghead or GInger.
    No, people who are offended by Paki or Raghead are the same people who want to force their religion or ideology on everyone else.


  2. I dont understand how calling someone a ginger, or a lanky or a fatso is a “nickname” fat people may have underlying reason why they are fat so have no choice, tall people have no choice about being tall, and why is skin colour so different from hair colour? Ginger people are surely originally from a “race”. Sounds to me like your playing the race card like the media to to make a story out of nothing. All very tedious. All three categories are also prejudiced against. I’m not ginger or fat, I am very tall and have been bullied and called lanky many times. Do I like it? No, but do I moan about it all the time. No (apart from in this response to your article) Oh and I am also half irish and get called a gypsy a lot too as did my immigrant father. Get on with your lives and lose the chip on your shoulders.


  3. Pingback: Dr. Laura Sorry For Saying The N-Word…But The Boondocks Are Not!!!… « Jerrybrice's Blog

  4. Harry is racist and stupid. Whats wore is he goes to Africa and pats little African children on the head while the British murderous are killing millions in neighbouring Congo.

    He hasn’t been 100% since they killed his mum.


  5. Hey Abdul,

    Great to have you back doing your blog! As always, excellent worki I want to comment on all your posts, and I shall try, but decided to start with this one.

    As a Paki, this does not surprise me. I have visited the UK more than once, and one can overtly see how the South Asian (Desi) population is treated. My cousin works there and was lucky enough to land a management job in a bank, which did not used to be that common, although things are changing there. The South Asian population in the UK is large, and they have many businesses catering to their own community, and entrepreneurs are spreading out to the wider public. They even have their own BBC Channel (http://www.bbc.co.uk/asiannetwork/)!

    However, a mentality remains that South Asians were brought over to do blue collar work, and it was accepted that they could only climb so high. As the community continues to grow, so does their acceptance. There will, however, always remain this undercurrent of low social status. And of course, feelings of entitlement from higher social classes and the larger indigenous population, will always emerge, much like here where there are still those who see black people in the same way.

    Hopefully, Harry’s little “gaff” will make him more aware of his insensitivity, and the growing clout of Britain’s South Asian community, and their relations with South Asia.


  6. Hey Chris,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t think it is ever OK to use a racial slur, even among friends. “Shit” and “Bird shit” in the case you outlined are ordinary words used by two friends to make fun of each other. Fine. That’s up to them. But paki and raghead are words that were made up specifically to insult and denigrate entire populations. And historically, these words have been associated with significant violence.

    This is exactly why it is never OK to use such words.

    Moreover, I have no way of knowing how much of a friend Ahmed Khan was to Prince Harry. They may have been in the same unit but that does not mean Ahmed was Harry’s friend, or that he enjoyed being called a paki.

    Clearly, you think racial slurs are no big deal. That’s your right. I happen to think using racial slurs is a huge deal.


  7. Hey man,

    I don’t think that Prince Harry is racist. That is absolutely incorrect. He is not the sharpest tool in the box he shouldn’t of said what he said on camera, it has caused a lot of controversy.

    But if it is ‘nicknames’ within a social group between friends – which is was! Than I don’t see the problem.

    When I was growing up I knew a white guy who was best friends with a Black guy, the White guy called him ‘Shit’ the black guy called him ‘Bird shit’! Obviously in any other context this is racist, but because its being used between two friends who are clearly confident saying it I don’t think it should be an issue.

    I think you are making a mountain out of a molehill!

    Chris, UK


  8. Hey Abdul,

    The media was disgustingly apologetic about that little racist shit who couldn’t be less deserving than to be born in family where he’s being groomed to have powerful position on the world stage one day. One can only assume that the media owners liked his opinions and share his viewpoint.


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