Maybe you have not listened to Nas ("Watch dem Niggas") or even MA$E ("Niggaz Wanna Act"). Perhaps you have never been to the Hackney Empire and heard the rawness of many black comedians. But you probably have seen Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown or his spotlight on LA low-life Pulp Fiction (Nigger uttered 38 times and 28 times respectively).
Things have got so bad that Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "Nigger" as "a black person - usually taken to be offensive". The only place where it is deemed not to be is in "Black American English". In that dialect, it is concurrently a term of acknowledgement and one of abuse.
For most white people, the racist legacy of the word precludes the use of epithet. But an increasing number feel at home with it. For these - often young, hip white kids - have been raised on a diet of black culture. They have listened to the records, seen the films and bought into the language. That leaves these white people with no problem in saying "brother" to a black man or "my nigga" to their Afro-Caribbean friends.
The argument is that if blacks use the word, why can't they? This is the Tarantino analysis. "I am a white guy who is not afraid of that word. I do not feel the whole white guilt of those pussyfooting around racial issues."
Could "Paki" be similarly re-packaged? It might seem unlikely. "Paki- bashing" by whites was commonplace in the Sixties and Seventies. Then it was a word you heard mouthed just before you were "in for a kicking". But like Nigger, one of the few places you hear the word today is in the company of non-white people. In that context, the word is still offensive, and used to describe derogatorily those of Pakistani origins.
Some of the cruder comments from some young Sikh boys in west London include "the Muslims want to Paki-fy Southall". In many college canteens, TP - Typical Paki - is a term of abuse between second generation Brown British students. I can still remember the jolt I got when reading Hanif Kureishi's 1985 essay The Rainbow Sign. In it Kureishi re-tells a story of visiting Pakistan. At a party, he is told: " `We are Pakistanis, but you, you will always be a Paki' - emphasising the slang derogatory name the English used... and therefore the fact I couldn't rightfully lay claim to either place."
But that was the mid-Eighties, when the mainstream marginalised most of the cultural input of British Asian youth. Since then the emergence of clubs such as Outcaste, comedians like Meera Syal and singles such as Corner- shop's "Brimful of Asha" have seen Brown-influenced popular culture receive the kind of profile given to its Black counterpart.
With ethnicity being the new currency in popular culture, many have chosen to subvert the stereotypes society has foisted upon them. The political pop of KK Kings not only refers to Guru Nanak's prescribed five Ks of Sikh conduct but also the Ku Klux Klan.
But are there limits to this freedom of expression? Would for example Tjinder Singh - Cornershop's leading light - call his band Paki? His reply last month to my question was blunt. "Depends what the wog was feeling like..." Initially I refused to record the remark, but he insisted and I relented.
The problem I have with this use of language is that this freedom may lead to white people using the word, too. When Aki Nawaz of Fun'da'mental told a music writer on a broadsheet newspaper he was a "Paki-fist not a pacifist", the headline read "Belligerent Paki-fists".
Perhaps the idea is that the original meaning will dissipate with use. Even if it did, I still do not think the gain is worth the pain.Reuse content