“Call someone a Brit, nobody bats an eye, Call someone from Pakistan a ‘Paki’, and there’s an outrage. There shouldn’t be double standards here”, went a tweet by the Blackpool North and Cleveleys Young Conservatives in England. But they are not alone in thinking this.
It reminds us that many English people consider the racial slur ‘Paki’ to be casual innocuous banter or a harmless abbreviation of the word ‘Pakistani’. Some, like the Blackpool Torys, even go so far as to imply that Brown British people find any excuse to be offended in a world where their “freedom of speech” is lost more and more every day.
Perhaps they need to refresh their memory as to why this slur causes many to flinch; the brutal history undergone by waves of immigrants in 20th century Britain, and how the word has resurfaced after Brexit during racial attacks against English citizens with Brown skin.
As belated discussions about race have been pushed to the foreground due to the perpetual barbarity of exterminating Black people in America, I believe we should seek to expose all kinds of racial injustice, to all non-White people, in all countries.
It deserves justice particularly in a country where White ignorance prevails more than ever before, overwriting the history of such a foul word.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death (and many like him this year), the English people have been far too comfortable pointing the finger at America, proudly insinuating that we are an ‘obviously anti-racist’ nation because the police don’t hold armed weapons and regularly kill people of colour.
I suppose it is easier to engage in idle ‘slacktivism’ surrounding the recent Black Lives Matter campaign, rather than take the opportunity to confront one’s own implicit biases; particularly when feeling threatened by individuals of Brown and Black skin, or being present in a situation where they could have easily challenged public displays of racism.
Even from personal experience, every time I have experienced a racial attack by being referred to as a ‘Paki’ in public, a White person had never done anything to challenge it — including my White friends.
They awkwardly walked along avoiding eye contact, perhaps silently condemning it; enough to assure oneself that they are a good, non-racist, open-minded individual, but not enough to actually stand up for people of colour.
So I hope this article jogs all of our memory; both into the origins of racial abuse against Brown British people, and the post-Brexit world which has resurfaced this same abuse, illuminating the prominence of racism in today’s Britain.
Paki-Bashing: the origins of South Asian immigration
The in-depth history of the British Empire’s occupation of India (known as the ‘British Raj’) can be discussed in another article, but the crucial point, for now, is that they adopted a ‘divide and rule’ strategy on Indian citizens. To maintain authority over a state which wasn’t there, an effective strategy was to create divisions between Hindu and Muslim Indians so much so, the British would be able to easily occupy the country.
The infamous feud between Hindus and Muslims in India is still present today — but it was far more ferocious back then, leading to mass killings and rapes between the two majority groups of Indians.
This soon led to the creation of Pakistan, a country devised by Muslim-Indians who increasingly felt their livelihood threatened by a majority Hindu-Indian population, leaving the only available option to partition the once united India into separate provinces.
What is lesser known is that the animosity between Hindus and Muslims was a recent creation rather than an age-old rivalry; a direct result of the divide and rule strategy utilised by the British Empire. Markandey Katju recounts that:
“Up to 1857, there were no communal problems in India; all communal riots and animosity began after 1857. No doubt even before 1857, there were differences between Hindus and Muslims, the Hindus going to temples and the Muslims going to mosques, but there was no animosity. In fact, the Hindus and Muslims used to help each other; Hindus used to participate in Eid celebrations, and Muslims in Holi and Diwali.
This shocked the British government so much that after suppressing the Mutiny, they decided to start the policy of divide and rule…All communal riots began after 1857, artificially engineered by the British authorities.”
The context of the British Raj is necessary to understand the hypocrisy of racism against British Brown citizens; notably, that South Asians began migrating to England after Britain’s unwarranted invasion and occupation of their land.
In 1945, a reported 832,500 Muslim Indian soldiers fought alongside British troops in WW2; most of these recruits were from what is now Pakistan. Due to labour shortages after the war, many employers invited Pakistanis to expand the economy by taking on unskilled and poorly-waged jobs.
On the other end of the spectrum, Britain demanded mass waves of medical recruitment from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and by 1960, and it is estimated that between 30 and 40 per cent of all junior doctors in the NHS (National Health Service) were from these countries.
“The Health Service would have collapsed if it had not been for the enormous influx from junior doctors from such countries as India and Pakistan.” — Lord Cohen of Birkenhead
This can be considered the first major wave of immigrants to England from the South-Asian region, and it is indisputable that many of these immigrants helped repair Britain and made it what it is today. Yet despite these efforts, many nationalists and members of the general British public felt their ideal of the majority White Britain gradually disappearing.
Anti-immigration rhetoric in the late 20th century began as a result of various factors — many English people felt threatened by a multi-cultural British identity (particularly whilst England was joining the European Union), and the threat of jobs being replaced by willing immigrants who would work for a fraction of the price during economic hardships.
Then, the racial slur ‘Paki’ was born.
Soon came the frankly atrocious bullying in the 1960s-1980s which was to be coined ‘Paki-bashing’, threatening the livelihood of immigrants and British Brown residents. It was so prominent that many South Asians at the time could tell you a story about the very real harassment they experienced:
“I went to a school in Bradford in the seventies. They used to have Paki-bashing days at the end of term. Those were dark days. The only way to avoid a beating was by not going to school. And if we did go to school, then we got battered. In our school at Eccleshill Upper, there were about 60 minority kids out of 1200.
On one occasion, me and my friend were chased by a group of 30 boys after school. We managed to scale a 6 foot wall while being pulled and kicked and managed to catch the bus before getting battered. I still don’t know how we managed to climb the wall and survive.” — Umbreen Ali
These attitudes were exacerbated by the English press at large, and many politicians like Enoch Powell legitimised the cries of English people who experienced anxiety about these unknown cultures and traditions. The slur ‘Paki’ wasn’t just a derogatory term for someone with Brown skin — it was a reminder that these new immigrants didn’t belong in a country which originally invited their residence, and often an imminent warning that they were about to be attacked:
“It’s a hot summer’s day, my siblings, mother, cousin and aunts are running down a lush green hill following a day out at a local summer fete. That’s where this idyllic summer scene ends and turns into one of horror. All of a sudden, we were running down the hill — because we were being chased by Doc Marten-clad skinheads shouting, “Paki!” and throwing empty beer cans at us.” — Sofia Ahmed
In 2001, it was reported that 66% of the Pakistani community was British born, and almost all others had British nationality. So anti-Pakistani rhetoric in Britain could no longer rely on being ‘anti-immigrant’ — they are British-born people with Pakistani origin participating equally in both cultures.
But ‘Paki’ was still thrown around to attack Brown-skinned people, despite often being as English as another White man born in England in the same year.
To those who believe it is a harmless abbreviation of the word Pakistani, the history of Paki-bashing should remind them that the word still carries the history of violence, malice and marginalisation experienced by South Asians who have had a legacy of fighting for this country, expanding its economy, and aiding the NHS equally much as the White English majority of the population.
Post-Brexit Climate: the rising soar of racism today
2016 saw England’s historic decision to leave the European Union (Brexit), settling an age-old debate as to whether England should leave or remain via a referendum, which largely divided the British people. There are multiple reasons why someone would vote for either side, and someone voting to leave isn’t necessarily racist.
But there is no denying that many leave voters are anti-immigrant, and quite often racially motivated. A recent survey conducted by Opinium confirms this fact, where people of colour had reported that being targeted by a stranger rose from 64% in January 2016 to 76% just over a year later:
Indeed, a parallel can be struck between the anti-immigration attitudes in the late 20th century to post-Brexit England — notably, that many have felt relaxed espousing their racist attitudes in a Britain that once again legitimised their xenophobia.
But as with all prejudice, there is no single responsible reason for it.
A distinct rise in nationalist attitudes has soared over the past 20 years on a global basis — from the 9/11 attacks, the rise of ISIS, white nationalism, and the election of Donald Trump — it has arguably become even more commonplace than before to have a problem with non-White Western civilians, and much more confident with expressing it.
The anecdotal experiences of British Pakistanis like Maazeen, who is third-generation English, confirm this ever-rising tension of racial hostility in today’s Britain:
“I just finished a 12 hour shift, gone into the shop, and saw my best friend working there. She gives me a hug and I heard someone say “you can’t do that” and I’ve turned around to see a white guy, my age. I said, “you what mate?”
He was like “you’ve given her a hug and you can’t [because of Coronavirus]”. I said I just finished a twelve hour shift, and if I’m going to give my friend a hug, I will.
This young white individual has then gone and said. “You people think you can come over and do whatever the fuck you like”. At which point my friend tried to calm me down. The rage that just came to my eyes…she knew what was about to happen. I asked him, “could you just repeat that, I haven’t heard what you’ve said.”
He said the same thing again. So I asked him to repeat himself one last time so we’re totally clear. He said it again, I gave him a little left hook and he was on the floor. The manager told me to quickly leave, but he backed me by not telling the police.
He was obviously generalising the fact that I was Brown, Muslim, who knows. And then ‘coming over here’? Like bro, my grandad fought in the war. My dad was born here. My mum has a degree and speaks English, so who are you to say that?”
But why have racist attitudes resurfaced in recent years, and why do many feel unapologetic and proud of these opinions?
“Because when people like Boris Johnson are in power, people think it’s okay to be openly racist. When so many people are being racist, it makes others think it’s okay to be racist. But the problem is that police aren’t cracking down on racial attacks enough, and you have dickheads in power. Like who is Boris Johnson man? Straight up racist.”
It exemplifies that Brexit isn’t the cause of racism, but just another perfect opportunity for prejudiced individuals to finally scratch the racist itch which forever plagues them.
For today’s racism, I believe it is important to never underestimate the influence of social media in constructing and reinforcing opinion. If the Cambridge Analytica scandals have told us anything, it’s that social media is a powerful tool that can completely change the landscape of culture, society, and politics.
Many older people in the Baby Boomer generation using Facebook often view and sometimes share questionable posts hinting towards White nationalism, and a dying sense of British identity in a now multi-cultural England.
There have been many posts undermining the recent Black Lives Matter movement and promoting an idea which insinuates that White people have nothing to apologise for in a landscape that is increasingly asking them to say sorry.
It might not seem so concerning to us that the general racist preaches the same old rhetoric as usual, but it is the marginal and impressionable racist which is the issue. For those who have lost jobs, and felt disenfranchised with the government, it is easy to see how they can point the finger at immigrants and increasingly feel as if their opinion is valid when nobody is responding to what they have to say.
Before you know it, far-right and alt-right groups like the EDL, BNP and UKIP have found ways to disguise racist views using new politically correct terminology. ‘Anti-Brown’ becomes synonymous with ‘anti-Islam’, Pakis are now referred to as Muslims, and those who once felt that racism was a problem, start to think that there is no such thing.
Despite there being a minority of those who are overtly racist, many can attest to the fact that racism in England is not as obvious and transparent as it once was. Gone are the days of Paki-bashing, but here come the days of objectifying racial stares, the indiscriminate racial digs which can be felt in the English air, and the apparent racist banter subtly revealing one’s ignorance.
But this is now changing, and becoming a lot less subtle. Stories like Maazeen’s exemplify the increasing need to be wary of racially motivated physical attacks in public spaces, as racists become more and more confident.
The Word ‘Paki’ Today
It is now well-known in England that saying Paki is deeply offensive, and despite earlier examples, it isn’t common to find many sober English people feeling confident enough to blurt it out in public. But there is also a co-existing attitude that saying ‘the P-word’ isn’t as bad as saying ‘the N-word’, which I believe is just another form of racist justification slipping through the cracks. Racism is racism, plain and simple.
Outside of England, it appears many don’t understand why the word is offensive; George Bush had mistakenly referred to Pakistanis as Pakis, similar to how those Blackpool Torys can’t understand why the word is any different to the abbreviation Brit (but their excuse is a lot weaker being English).
This should largely demonstrate how this anti-Brown racism is specific to England, but also that the history of Paki-bashing and racial attacks today remain largely unspoken about.
In referring to the American tragedies of innocent Black civilians being targeted by the police, rather than believe racism is only an American problem, we ought to begin deconstructing Britain’s history of racism during the British empire, and the current, recurring racism against non-Whites.
Throughout the article, I have been cautious not to focus exclusively on racism against British Pakistanis, but on Brown British people more generally.
A Paki can be a Turk, Indian, Afghani, Kurd, Arab, Palestinian or refugee since these are the other ethnic groups who also receive the abuse. It can be especially offensive to someone who isn’t Pakistani, as it shows the lack of respect to not acknowledge one’s true culture and discriminate solely based on one’s skin colour — rather than immigrants from Pakistan.
Many ‘Pakis’, including myself, advocate a reclamation of the word as retaliation against racism. Much like the Black community with the N-word, being able to freely say a word that was once created to undermine us returns into our possession; which reduces the racial harm it causes and gives it a new meaning.
But some argue that nobody should use the word, as it is a disgusting word we should probably leave behind us:
“I don’t believe in the whole reclaiming the word, to be honest with you. I know a lot of people do, though. There are a lot of Asian rappers right now, especially younger ones, who use it in pride and camaraderie. But my advice to them is always that instead you can say ‘akhi’” — an Arabic word for “brother”…— “It sounds the same and it basically means the same. It’s just more positive.” — Premz
Whatever your opinion, one thing is for sure — the word Paki is not at all the same as a mere abbreviation of Brit, Aussie, or Bengali. It reflected and still reflects, the English racism against Brown-skinned individuals who have precisely the same rights of civility as any other White man in a country all were born in.
All those living in England who genuinely seek to fight racism should be aware of the plight of Brown immigrants, and Britain’s hand in it. It is history untaught in schools, virtually unknown, whilst we shake our heads in disappointment at the civil rights atrocities in America.
For racism is the same disease manifested in different ways and different regions, but always towards someone’s skin colour. And if we do not challenge it now, as history and recent events are warning us, it can come back much stronger in the future.