By Ciaran Thapar
When I was seven, during a game of playground football in Claygate, a small town in Surrey, I fell over and bashed my knee; “p*ki, are you okay?” one of my teammates asked, his bony face peering down at me. He went to get a tissue so I could wipe the blood off my leg, the scar from that fall can still be seen today.
He had called me ‘p*ki’ a few times that week, I assumed the word was related to Pakistan, a country which I knew played cricket because I had recently watched a televised match between them and India at my grandparents’ house in Southall, the heartland of London’s Punjabi diaspora. It was a Saturday; my grandmother cooked pakora and my grandfather recounted stories of being a spin-bowler in Kenya.
The following day I had visited my other grandparents’ house in Farnborough, Hampshire. My grandmother wore her trademark smile and talked about the birds nesting in the garden, as we ate roast lamb. There I always had to be careful not to knock my gramps’ copy of the Daily Mail off its perch on the back of the sofa.
Back to the day of my fall, I sat on the grass and stared at the blood trickling down my leg. I thought to myself, I am half-Indian, and India is not the same as Pakistan. A knot formed in my stomach, not because of my injury, but because when I looked around the playground at the groups of white faces, I feared nobody would understand my confusion. I walked away to be alone, deep in thought. On the way home I to spoke to my mum about what had happened, yet I felt that because she has white skin, she would not understand.
I have never stopped trying to find a way of making sense of what happened that day, my first experience of racism, combined with the struggle to articulate the injustice of it.
The word ‘p*ki’ has since arisen throughout my life, ebbing and flowing on the shores of my moral world.
In my teens, I attended a boys’ grammar school in Kingston-Upon-Thames, south-west London, where roughly 50% of students were of Asian origin: Indian, Sri Lankan, Korean and Chinese, among others. The other half of students were largely white (British and continental European). I felt at home there; I could slide freely back-and-forth across the spectrum of my hybrid identity and the racial blend of the school environment that mirrored it.
On rare occasions during those early years of high school would a white student use the word ‘p*ki’, and if they did they would be shunned by the rest of the year group. Between particular south Asian friends, the word ‘p*ki’ became a term of comic endearment, of brotherhood. Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani boys would use it loosely, in reference to one another, or specifically to describe Pakistani people. In general it was regarded as acceptable because of an unspoken system of trust and mutual understanding that developed organically – one based on being conscious, united members of a diaspora. Whilst this colloquial trend might not have been absolute in its political correctness, in my eyes, under the conditions of liberal, multicultural suburbia, the word took on a lighter significance. In any case, by the time we left school, it seemed to me that everyone – no matter what race – had received at least a basic education in, and gained a decent understanding of, Euro-Asian cultural and social intermixing.
Then I went to university in Bristol, where the student body was overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class. In the first fortnight I was asked, amongst other things: “so you were born in India, right?” and “I went to India on my gap year, does that mean I’ve spent more time in your home country than you have?” I was repeatedly mistaken for the only other relatively short, slightly Indian looking male student in my halls-of-residence (who I still share jokes with about our shared experience). Overall, however, despite finding them uncomfortable, I accepted these interactions as part of adapting and assimilating into a new social scene.
Soon, the knot in my stomach returned. How could it not?
“I’m going to the ‘p*ki’ shop to get some beers, you want anything?” Nah.
“We got in a fight with a bunch of ‘p*kis’ last night.” Really?
“Did you hear? So-and-so got with a p*ki!” Good for them.
A not-insignificant number of people around me, all white, male and admittedly not always sober, would employ language like this. It completely subverted the comfortable cosmopolitan framework that I had become used to at school. The way I saw it, the individuals using the slur must have been so deeply embedded within a closed, mono-cultural echo chamber that they did not realise they had no right to use the word, or that its use might offend others around them.
Once again I was deep in thought; why did some people think it was okay to say it in front of me, specifically? Had they started regarding me as white, or white enough, and thus assumed I wouldn’t have a problem? Maybe they saw me as not-white, but still thought it was somehow okay?
I jumped from theory to theory but could justify none because ultimately the usage of the word always seemed to involve generalising, demeaning or patronising the people being described. This was what made it so disturbing. A couple of times I responded angrily to hearing the slur being spoken, but I was dismissed as emotional and political. “I don’t mean you, mate”, I’d be told, with a pat on the back.
One afternoon during my third year, two male students I was with were discussing a fellow pupil; “She’s got a boyfriend and guess what? He’s a ‘p*ki’!” one of them scoffed in disbelief, before glancing at me. His face went red with embarrassment. I stared down at the floor, muted by the knot in my stomach, before getting up to leave. Later that day he messaged me on Facebook to apologise “I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but I PROMISE you I am not a racist.”
I’d had enough.
I turned inward and reduced the size of my social circle, I stopped going clubbing and started boxing. I would go to the gym every night to hit the punch-bag, alone. I sat in my room reading books written by mixed-race British writers, like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, trying to find parallels in their fictional worlds that might mirror my own very real one; intellectual tools with which to unpick the knot that had returned after being dormant for so long. Often I would go for walks with my half-Pakistani girlfriend, or for a Guinness with my Nigerian flatmate, and talk cathartically with them about existing as an ethnic minority in exclusively white spaces. Unlike me, they had attended rural boarding schools before university, and could thus offer more weathered perspectives. Not coincidentally, I wrote my final dissertation defending multiculturalism in 21st century Britain. I graduated, and moved on.
Three years later at a discussion group I co-founded at Marcus Lipton Community Centre in Brixton, South London, one boy asked “Aren’t there loads of ‘p*kis’ in East London?” Born to Ghanaian parents, Philip was participating in a session where we had pinned a map of London on the wall and were challenging the boys (most of those frequenting the centre are from the Jamaican diaspora) on what they knew about different parts of the city.
“Fam, you can’t say that,” Darrell, another member of the group, rebutted. “That’s racist.”
“I just mean Pakistanis though – ‘p*kis’ – what’s wrong with that?” said Philip.
“It’s not just about the word, it’s about how the word has been used in the past,” responded Darrell, firmly. He was usually quiet and distracted during discussions, but now, perhaps summoned by the baffled look on my face, he had assumed the role of a linguistics teacher. The others laughed awkwardly and looked at me.
When I had first started volunteering at the centre, about one year before this exchange, many of the boys who frequent its space suspected that my co-founder and I were undercover policemen. This was down to a number of factors relating to our perceived appearance, character and social background – the main one being that we were both understood to be white.
Over time I got to know various community members, other youth workers and the group of loyal teenage boys who attended our sessions. Every Friday night we sat around a coffee table talking, often about topics relating to race, such as stereotyping in the media and their widely-held distrust of the local police force. In such discussions, I would sometimes refer to being half-Indian and the boys would react in different ways. Sometimes they would make comments about how they thought I looked like I could be half-Caribbean; at other times I received raised eyebrows when I used the phrase ‘mixed-race’ to describe myself, which for them tended to be equated exclusively with meaning half-black – not half-Asian. “You call yourself mixed-race!?” one boy asked me, adding: “would you call yourself a ‘lightie’ then, too?”
So it was after all of this that I was stood trying to absorb the initial shock of hearing what Philip had said. I sensed his confusion and sadness at having offended me and accepted his immediate apology. I praised Darrell for his response. Then I told some of the very stories I have outlined in this essay, and explained how I feel when confronted with the word ‘p*ki’.
For the remainder of the session we talked about racial slurs, touching on the etymology of words which are rooted in the context of post-imperial Britain.
We discussed how, after hundreds of years of exploitation and subordination, Indians like my grandparents, like many of the boys’ own grandparents (though obviously differential in specific history, form and magnitude) left their countries-of-origin in search of a better life in London: a place they had been led to view as the capital of the world.
How people from the colonies were invited to England in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to help rebuild the country after Europe’s two great wars (over 2.5 million Indian volunteers fought for the British in World War II) only to often be met with small-mindedness and intolerance from people using words like ‘p&ki’, ‘darkie’, ‘wog’ and ‘n*****’ to actively demean and exclude new arrivals.
We talked of how members of the African, Caribbean, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Afghan communities, along with many others ought to be seen as legitimate components of the modern British experience and how any use of the word ‘p*ki’ undermines this reality.
We picked apart that word, seeing how it lives on in the English language, representing the insidious way racism trickles down through generations, from that of my Irish great-grandfather, who forbid my dad from entering his home on invitation to my parents’ wedding (“blacks should be with blacks”), and who, on his deathbed, refused to see my mum, or meet his recently-born half-Indian great-grandson.
I left the community centre that evening feeling drained yet refreshed.
I had not only found the words to articulate what had troubled me about the word ‘p*ki’ for years, I had also communicated it to a group of curious young people. Boys I trusted, and who trusted me, and who were willing to listen and learn about my experiences as a mixed-race Anglo-Indian, just as I was interested in listening to their experiences as young black men growing up in south London.
The knot I first felt as a seven-year-old unravelled. And the next time the word ‘p*ki’ was used by a participant in one of my youth groups, I knew exactly how to respond.
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Ciaran Thapar is a youth worker and writer based in south London. He works full-time at Ark Globe Academy in Elephant and Castle as an educational support worker, focusing on improving student independence and progression into higher education. He is also the founder of ‘Hero’s Journey‘ – a discussion and critical thinking programme for disengaged teenage boys – which he runs at the school and as a volunteer at Marcus Lipton Community Centre in Brixton. He holds a MSc Political Theory from the LSE and typically writes about British society, education and youth culture.