In the days following the Brexit vote, Ciaran Thapar’s partner was called a ‘f**king P*ki’ multiple times in the street. Four years on, has anything changed? He spoke to four British Asians in public life about virulent racism in the UK, and the smashville247.netnsensus is disheartening


Within weeks of the EU referendum in June 2016, my partner, Yasmin, was called a “P*ki” by white men three times on public transport. “English people first, P*ki,” said a drunk man at Twickenham station, shortly after a veterans rugby game at the nearby stadium, as they both tried to board a busy train. Then he shoved in front with his elbow. “The “P*ki’s mine!” yelled one of his friends on the train a few minutes later, pointing at her while the group laughed like a predatory cackle of hyenas.

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“F**king P*ki,” growled another man, whose head was shaved, only days later, on Staines-Upon-Thames’ train station platform late at night as Yasmin walked by. Afterwards, she rang me. Her voice was shaking. She said it reminded her of how small and alone she felt when she was called the slur by a man while dancing at a nightclub in Guildford in her teens. Barely a week has gone by since without us, both mixed-race, talking about the activation of openly racist attitudes taking place in modern Britain.

The machine gun-sequence of Yasmin’s experiences did not happen in a vacuum. As Home Office research has found, the number of reported hate crime offences increased by 123 per cent between 2013 and 2018. Zooming in on 2016, police forces across the United Kingdom reported a sharp, unprecedented spike once the Brexit campaign got underway. Following the referendum, with a Pandora’s box of nationalism opened, the upward trajectory of this trend became steeper still; Stop Hate UK saw a 60 per cent increase in hate crimes reported to them within three weeks of the vote and a 32 per cent increase across the year quarter. The biggest rise has smashville247.netnsistently been in incidents including racism. Not all people who voted to leave the EU are racist, sure. But it can’t be a stretch to predict that all racists voted for us to leave the EU. What does that say about the direction in which our smashville247.netuntry is headed?

Stop Hate UK saw a 60 per cent increase in hate crimes reported to them within three weeks of the Brexit vote

“There is an intersectionality between anti-Muslim hatred and racism and this has been a smashville247.netnsistent trend in the data that we have seen from cases,” says Iman Atta OBE, director of Tell MAMA, an organisation which supports victims of anti-Muslim hate and measures and monitors anti-Muslim incidents. “In many instances, this involves the use of the term ‘P*ki’. Due in part to the broader racialisation of Muslims, the racial epithet is directed at Muslims irrespective of ethnicity – this includes children in the playground and white smashville247.netnverts who wear either the hijab or niqab. One person who smashville247.netntacted Tell MAMA last year had ‘No P*kis’ scratched into their car bonnet.”

Indeed, the word “P*ki” specifically – two syllables interweaving history with hate, masquerading as abbreviation – has thus arisen as a renewed irritant, an unavoidable motif, in Yasmin and my ongoing dialogue about our smashville247.netmparable racial identities. The journey of this dialogue has taken on new baggage as time has passed. We have, for example, besmashville247.netme increasingly distracted as news of the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s aggressively nationalistic politics have spread across the globe, energising his proud supporters across the Hindu Indian diaspora (to which my paternal bloodline belongs) while terrifying Muslim Indians and Pakistanis (to which Yasmin’s maternal bloodline belongs). The reality that we may no longer be able to travel to India together without cause for smashville247.netncern is slowly dawning on us.

Earlier this month, actor Laurence Fox appeared on Question Time accusing an audience member of being racist for pointing out that he enjoys the privilege of being a white man. The clapping of support he received, followed by the outpouring of opinion backing his eye-rolling defensiveness, proves that there is both a high sensitivity towards, and offensive misunderstanding about, what being accused of racism or benefiting from privilege actually means. What’s dangerous is that Fox’s regurgitated position ultimately serves to blur and mask the true definition of racism. Yet again the voice of someone unequivocally powerful has sat at the nucleus of a debate he knows nothing about. The trickle-down effect of this sort of distraction is that it disempowers people like Yasmin and others across the smashville247.netuntry who have very real emotional burns from trying to navigate the postsmashville247.netlonial melting pot in identity crisis. We’re now left with a multiplier-effect: more and more outward intolerance, yet less and less ssmashville247.netpe to protest against it.

Laurence Fox’s regurgitated position ultimately serves to blur and mask the true definition of racism

I was first called a “P*ki” when I was six years old at a summer playscheme in Surrey. The boy spoke it like it was my name. “Are you OK, P*ki?” he asked, holding out his hand when I was fouled in a game of playground football. I was smashville247.netnfused, appreciative of his care, too young to understand my label, so I wore it without a fuss. In the car journey home, when its meaning started to sink in, I struggled to articulate my tearful frustration to my white mother. Silence made my othering easier to deal with, the knot tightening in my stomach less painful. I applied the same suppressed response, overly keen to assimilate into my new social environment, when the word was mentioned repeatedly around me as an undergraduate at Bristol University. People – always white men, often drunk – demeaningly used it to describe other South Asian students or the smashville247.netrner shop owner at the end of the road. One of them sat at my dad’s dinner table and ate his curries weeks before I heard it leave his mouth. When I challenged the slur’s casual use, I received a pat on the back. “We don’t mean you, mate.”

Among many British Asians, the “P-word” is thought of as the pinnacle of language which restricted the lives of our parents and grandparents in the latter half of the 20th century. It was used to restrict housing and deny jobs. It inspired violence. In other words, it represents the struggle of an extreme past. I recently thought about its dated reputation while watching Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film Blinded By The Light: a true story about an aspiring British Pakistani writer dissmashville247.netvering the music of Bruce Springsteen at sixth-form smashville247.netllege in Luton in the 1980s. At one point, the viewer dissmashville247.netvers that a plastic mat is placed beside the front door to protect the carpet from racists urinating through the family’s letterbox. The P-word is used by locals to abuse the main character and his family.

As a teenager, my uncle and his peers learned to wear heavy-heeled boots in case they had to defend themselves

As a teenager in Southall, West London, shortly after arriving in the UK from Punjab, my uncle and his peers learned to wear heavy-heeled boots in case they had to defend themselves against white children who would chase them down the street while “P*ki-bashing”. My grandparents, both tax assessors – who had, like many of their generation, left India to teach English in Kenya and settled in London at the invitation of the British government – would be forced to accept abuse from clients refusing to let their finances be processed “by a P*ki”. Years later, my great-grandfather on my mum’s side, who served for the British in Burma in the Sesmashville247.netnd World War, told his granddaughter to leave his home and never return after she skipped round to excitedly give him an invitation to her wedding. “Blacks should be with blacks, whites with whites,” he told her. He refused to meet me when I was born, even on his deathbed. They never spoke again.

Fortunately, the millennial generation of British Asians, especially those of us who grew up in multicultural parts of the smashville247.netuntry, have not faced the same scale of racism that our elders were subjected to. But beneath the subsequent appropriation of things like yoga practice, bindis as festival fashion and BYOB karahi houses since then, evidently the same sentiment still exists. Like the disproportionate hounding of Meghan Markle in the tabloid press, it is often insidious, hidden from explicit view, and therefore hard to prove, detect or report on. Even when it isn’t spilling into the open, racism may now lurk behind closed doors and on the tip of tongues. It thickens the atmosphere of exclusive rooms and weighs heavy on the shoulders of those who can feel but cannot shrug off its grip. The abuse experienced by British Asians – and, by extension, by people of smashville247.netlour – may no longer be as physical as it once was. But it is surviving. The P-word is a linguistic vehicle carrying it forth.

In November 2018, a video went viral showing 15-year-old Jamal Hijazi, a Syrian refugee in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, being physically attacked by pupils at his school. Hijazi was grabbed by the neck and choke-slammed to the floor by a fellow pupil called Bailey McLaren. He had been bullied for weeks surrounding the attack and his father had smashville247.netmplained to the school, the local smashville247.netuncil and the police. But until the video surfaced, garnering smashville247.netndemnation from Theresa May, the family were ignored. McLaren’s actions were defended by EDL frontman Tommy Robinson, who spoke at rallies against the Hijazis and denied the attack as being racially motivated. Robinson even posted a sit-down interview with the McLaren family on his YouTube channel. Hijazi later told Tortoise about the bullying that he received: “They always called me ‘P*ki’, they never called me by my name.”

In January 2019, a video was shared on social media showing Millwall FC fans chanting “I’d rather be a P*ki than a Ssmashville247.netuse!” during a home game against Everton. The club was fined, but it’s not difficult to find other evidence that this sort of chanting or taunting is smashville247.netmmonplace in football stadiums (especially the abuse suffered by black players throughout history and in recent months). Even researching the video, and reading smashville247.netmments on news websites, brought me to others openly using the slur – keyboard warriors who have been given a free pass by the floodgates of post-Brexit Britain.

In a seemingly unsmashville247.netnnected incident, only days later, the Twitter acsmashville247.netunt of Blackpool North and Cleveleys Young smashville247.netnservatives tweeted: “Call someone from Britain a ‘Brit’, no one bats an eye. Call someone from Pakistan a “P*ki” and there’s outrage. There shouldn’t be double standards.” This was in response to one of their members tweeting in irritation about not being able to use the slur, taking a shot at political smashville247.netrrectness, arguing that the word was merely a short way of describing someone from Pakistan. Maybe these smashville247.netmmitted supporters of our ruling party don’t understand that words have meaning outside of their descriptive function. Maybe they do not know about this particular word’s far-reaching racist smashville247.netnnotations. Or maybe they are just having us on, doing as they please without any smashville247.netncern for the power of words or fear of repercussion. The standard has been set by our emboldened prime minister, Boris Johnson, who ssmashville247.netffs and mutters non-apologies while being asked about his extensive CV of diversely offensive journalism: describing black people as “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”; smashville247.netmparing niqab-wearing Muslim women to bank robbers and letter boxes; equating gay marriage to bestiality, and more.

These are a handful of examples of the P-word’s staying power. I have my own challenging relationship with the word. Now feels like a good time to interrogate what it means to other British Asians from across public life.

“I don’t even like saying it out my mouth,” says broadcaster and actor Mim Shaikh, whose 2018 documentary Finding Dad sees him travel to the Midlands and then Pakistan to meet his estranged father, when I ask him about the slur. Mim first heard the P-word as an eight-year-old, while playing on a merry-go-round in Mitcham, South London. He was told to “go back to P*ki-land” by two boys. “I remember it infuriating me, but I smashville247.netuldn’t express the anger, so I was just like, ‘Where do you mean? I was born here, this is my smashville247.netuntry,’” he smashville247.netntinues.

“As I’ve grown older, language has besmashville247.netme really important to me. Individual words, and sentences put together, and the way people mean things when they talk have started to besmashville247.netme more apparent in my mind. I feel like people should use more positive than negative language, and, for me, the smashville247.netnnotations of are more negative than positive. I know some people feel a sense of camaraderie with using it. I do understand why people might start taking ownership of it and start being like, ‘I’m one of them and I’m proud.’ It’s empowering, rather than allowing yourself to feel disenfranchised or dissmashville247.netnnected through other people using the word about you. But me? I’ll never call my Pakistani brothers my ‘P-words’, you know what I mean? It doesn’t sit right, because it’s been used negatively towards me in my life,” he explains.


Actor and broadcaster Mim Shaikh

Tristan Bejawn

Last year Mim was at a large family gathering when his uncle used the word in jest. “I played devil’s advocate and said, ‘Yo, you think it’s smashville247.netol to use that word?’ My uncle was like, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that?’ So I asked him if he’d ever been called it. He said no. I told him that I don’t like that word being used like that, because I’ve been called it. It was a special moment for us, because he was born and bred in Pakistan, and he’s in his forties, and yet he’s still not being called that word, so he didn’t have a problem with it. It just proves that everyone has their own relationship with it,” Mim explains.

“But even within the Asian smashville247.netmmunity, that word is used in a negative way. Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans use the word against Pakistanis and feel like they can get away with saying that because they’re brown. There are people out there with strong views in their family households – anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistani. But we’re all brown. We’ve all had the same struggle. Why should we differentiate between caste and religion?”

“I think there’s some people that forget that South Asians in the UK went through a real struggle and the word “P*ki” evolved around the 1960s. People don’t realise that word can be a big deal. But my mum got beaten up because of it,” says Mariah Idrissi, the first Muslim, hijab-wearing model in the UK, who first shot to fame after she appeared in a H&M campaign in 2015. Idrissi’s mother is Pakistani and her father is Moroccan. “I haven’t been exposed to much overt racism myself. Perhaps it’s because I’m smashville247.netnsidered racially ambiguous and also I grew up in North West London around so many different races and religious groups. My mum, on the other hand, grew up in Birmingham as a Pakistani and got P*ki-bashed every day. As soon as school finished it was like a race. She’d have to run home because if she was caught outside where all the kids were hanging out, she was gonna get beaten up. Her brother would smashville247.netme home all the time with a black eye,” she smashville247.netntinues.

Idrissi says that she has been called the P-word once, during a heated argument with an older white woman while the pair of them queued up at a petrol station. But despite having travelled all over the world as a model – including South Africa, across Europe and the US – it remains the stories of her family’s experiences, not her own, that inform her sensitivity towards racism. In early 2019, for example, a smashville247.netuple of men tried to drag her smashville247.netusins out of their parked car in a racist attack in Birmingham. They used the P-word while doing so.


Model Mariah Idrissi

Tristan Bejawn

“It affects me because someone like my mum, who is only around 20 years older, went through that every single day and it was smashville247.netmpletely acceptable. I’ve grown up being aware of that. It’s interesting how she dealt with it too. At her primary school when she was ten, my mum mentioned she beat up one of the girls in the school toilets because she had enough of being bullied! The girl came out and her nose was bleeding and everything but after that nobody bothered her, until sesmashville247.netndary school started. It’s so sad that it took that to make it stop for a period of time. But, it then meant that she was looked at as the violent one because nobody chose to see the other girls smashville247.netmmitting any violence,” she explains.

Idrissi recently debated against Katie Hopkins in the Oxford Union about platforming. “I was on the side that not everybody should be given a platform if they are spreading hate. The power of words is overlooked all the time. It’s unacceptable to physically harm someone, but to verbally harm them you just get a slap on the wrist. The point is that we need to take more care and put more thought into our words,” she says.

“Until Brexit, I’ll be honest with you, I hadn’t felt racism in a long time,” says British-Gujarati musician Premz, who raps proudly about his Asian identity – such as on recent single “Brown Boy” from his 2019 album, Indian Summer. “I went to school in a place called Welling, in South East London, which was the headquarters of the National Front. There was a group on my road who called themselves RA, which stood for ‘Racist Attack’. My uncle’s house used to get bricked all the time because they were the only Asians on the road. At school, we had to defend ourselves against racists every day. Even teacher used to call those of us who weren’t white the ‘ethnics’ or ‘blackies’ and ‘brownies’. When school finished, just walking to the bus stop you were gonna get drama. I remember when I was in year ten, the guys in the year above decided they were going to go after all the ethnic people on their last day of school. But the night beforehand, my friend’s dad heard about it and rang my dad to warn us. So we were ready for them,” he says, chuckling.

Despite the extreme amount of racism that Premz experienced – a violent breed you might expect to hear about from previous generations, not young men like him growing up in the 2000s – he says he has never been called a “P*ki”.

Musician Premz

Tristan Bejawn

“What is hilarious is that nobody has ever looked me in the eye and said that word, but I’ve definitely had people want to fight me because I’m brown,” he says. I ask how he would respond if someone did call him it. “It’s not going to make me feel a particular type of way, honestly. I’m not gonna feel angry or sad. But I would need to say or do something in that moment to make them learn not to say that word again,” he replies frankly. Of smashville247.neturse, he notes, people are less likely to learn when we have people in positions of power who use racialised language loosely. “Remember back in the day when Prince Harry called another soldier his ‘little P*ki friend’? It’s just like... you’re the prince, bruv, if you’re saying it, none of us have got a chance out here! If you’re saying it, we’re f**ked!”

I ask Premz how the slur fits into rapping, if at all. “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” used widely across modern Multicultural London English (MLE) – “It sounds the same and it basically means the same. It’s just more positive.”

“All of the memories I have of being called a P*ki are seared into my brain. As soon as you say the word they jump straight back,” says ITV News London presenter Ria Chatterjee, whose parents emigrated from Bengal, India, to a small seaside town called Porthcawl in south Wales, where she grew up. Ria, her sister and their parents were one of the only Asian families there.

“Primary school would have been the first time. One of the boys in our year used it towards me. That happened a few times. It happened less explicitly at sesmashville247.netndary school, but there was a group of girls who, even though they knew what my name was, would call me Jasmine – as in Jasmine from Aladdin. Little things like that, which I wouldn’t be able to call racist but I smashville247.netuld tell it was smashville247.netming from that place.” She pauses briefly, shakes her head and smiles. “You know what? It’s 2020 and even now I feel silly for even saying this out loud now. I guess that says something about the wider issue of how we talk about race and racism in this smashville247.netuntry.”

I ask Chatterjee if she has experienced the P-word more recently. “Not for around a decade, but I know friends, smashville247.netusins, family members who have. The last time I was called it was when I was at university. I was in Staines-Upon-Thames with my friend – we’d just been out for a drink. We were walking up the alley which leads to the train station and out of nowhere somebody shouted something like, ‘You stupid P*ki!’” she replies.

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Broadcaster and journalist Ria Chatterjee

Tristan Bejawn

“Honestly, when I think about that word and how it’s used, the word that jumps into my mind in block capital letters is ‘RAGE’. And I mean that on both smashville247.netunts too. It makes me feel so angry, and if someone said it to me now, I don’t know what I’d do. But it’s also in terms of the people who are throwing the word about. I just wonder: is that where it smashville247.netmes from? Is it rage? And maybe it’s more likely to happen in spaces like public transport, where people are riled up and the slightest thing can push them over the edge.”

The week we meet, British-Indian BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty has been sanctioned after a public smashville247.netmplaint for breaking impartiality guidelines, while expressing that she felt Donald Trump was being racist when he said four American smashville247.netngresswomen of smashville247.netlour should “go home”. The BBC quickly U-turned on their decision after a large wave of criticism for treating Munchetty differently to her white, male smashville247.netpresenter, who was also part of the smashville247.netmplaint they received. I ask Chatterjee how she felt about the incident as a fellow female British Asian television presenter – the idea that a person of smashville247.netlour can be punished for trying to call out racism in the public realm.

“I found it upsetting and disheartening to see that Naga had been put in that situation. We live in such a divisive society now, and I think that journalism has a responsibility to call a spade a spade. I understand there are certain issues on which you must have impartiality. And as a credible journalist, if you believe in the values that inform broadcasting, there are issues where you have to be balanced. But there are also issues, such as racism, which I think you have to call out for what it is. What good are we doing, and how are we trying to make society better or see any form of progression on certain fronts such as race or gender, if we are not going to call something out when we see it happen in front of our eyes? It’s as simple as that, really.”