Nina Lakhani: 'Paki' wasn't funny 40 years ago. Why is it now, Bruce?

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The Independent Online

The last time I was called a Paki was about a year ago. I was walking back to Loughton Tube station after visiting some friends on a Saturday afternoon when a young boy, 12 or 13, casually made the remark as he walked past me with his two mates on a quiet, suburban street. It stopped me in my tracks. "What did you say?" I asked, astonished. The boys kept on walking and didn't look back. I, on the other hand, kept looking back all the way to the station. More than angry, I felt scared.

When the Strictly Come Dancing veteran, Anton Du Beke, told his celebrity partner she looked like a Paki during rehearsals, she walked out, furious. The olive-skinned Footballers' Wives actress Laila Rouass is of Moroccan and Indian descent, but had turned up to rehearsal browner than usual, thanks to a spray tan. This followed Du Beke's previous comment (also in jest, we're assured) when he asked her if she was a terrorist. Should the BBC have sacked him or will an apology do, with the assurance that he is not a racist? No. It's just not good enough.

Going to school during the Seventies and Eighties, the odd racist remark was par for the course. This included occasional taunts of "you Paki" from kids on the bus, to peers at school calling a girl they didn't like "a Paki bitch", quickly followed by "I don't mean you, you're different". At lunch time some of the kids went down to "the Paki shop", as it was commonly known, for crisps and a can of Coke. To some, it was a harmless nickname, but to me it never was. It made me feel anxious, and still does.

Until last year, I don't think I'd been called a Paki since I left school in 1993. By general consent, by that time it was unquestionably offensive, unacceptable on TV or even in pub banter.

So when Bruce Forsyth last week tap danced into the row during an interview on TalkSport radio, pleading for the nation to stop taking such things so seriously, it was like the return of an unwanted bygone age.

"I remember when we had a sense of humour about these things," he lamented. Well, Brucie, the world has moved on since the days when Alf Garnett referred happily to "Pakis", "coons" and "yids". Believe it or not, for those on the receiving end, it wasn't that funny.

In the past 10 years, there have been some attempts by young people of Pakistani descent to reclaim the word, as pockets of African-American youth have done with the word "nigger". But I've yet to meet anyone, young or old, male or female, Indian or Pakistani, who hasn't been upset by it. Some may have let it go unchallenged, and may have even laughed along with the banter, which is what, perhaps, persuaded Prince Harry to use the term of an army colleague. But don't tell me they didn't feel cowed into silence.

When I was growing up, my dad's friend was attacked and robbed by teenagers with knives in his off-licence, all shouting "Paki" as they beat him up. I can still picture my mum coming home from her job at a Punjabi restaurant, distraught because some kids had been calling her a Paki on the bus.

"We're Indian," she said in between her tears."Can't they tell I'm not Pakistani? I'm wearing a sari!" Her response actually made us laugh as we tried to explain to her that to racists we all looked the same.

Paki is a word many people associate with unhappy memories, with insults and abuse. I hate the fact that I never challenged my school friends for their casual use of the word. I would now, I'm sure of that. It's called progress. Take note, BBC.

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