For British Asians, the word P*ki is haunting and painful
After a top cricketer shared his experiences of abuse, others reflect on how the slur has caused them suffering.
London, United Kingdom – Most British Asians can remember when they were first called “P*ki” or which time being hit with the word hurt most.
For Adam Hussain, 25, that moment was in Edinburgh.
He was walking in the Scottish city when two drunk men followed him. One pushed Hussain into the street – and towards an oncoming bus.
When the man’s friend asked why he had done that, the man replied, “I was trying to save you from a bomb.”
The friend told the man to calm down, provoking another abusive response, “He’s a P*ki, what do you expect?”
A software engineer who now lives in Bristol, England, Hussain grew up in a disadvantaged area of Glasgow and was used to being racially abused.
“I always used to get called Saddam Hussein or a terrorist. There will always be bomb jokes, – or I’ll be called P*ki,” Hussain told Al Jazeera.
The use of that last slur, P*ki, a shorthand for Pakistani but spewed by racists to describe anyone of South Asian origin, has stirred up English cricket in the last few weeks — and prompted a wider discussion about identity among people of Asian origin in the UK.
Azeem Rafiq, a former player for Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC), has testified that he was repeatedly called the word during his time at the club, and faced racism so profound, it led him to consider suicide.
In its wake, many British Pakistanis are sharing their own experiences.
Hussain dealt with abusive classmates by mocking the comments and laughing at them.
“I guess it was just a way for me to integrate,” he said. “I [wanted] to not stick out too much.”
The slur gained momentum in the UK in the ’60s, continuing throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
It is often associated with “P*ki bashing”, when groups of people carried out violent attacks against people of South Asian descent, opposed to their immigration to the UK.
As a child, Umair Akbani played for a predominantly white football club in Bradford, a northern English city with a large South Asian population, where he grew up.
From the day he started to the day he quit, he was called “P*ki”, “terrorist”, and “curry-muncher” by other children in the team, as adults stood by and did nothing to intervene.
But Akbani counts his experience while attending medical school in Liverpool, England as the “most humiliating.”
He remembers crossing a road with friends in the city when two white men in a car driving past rolled down their windows and yelled to Akbani, “You stupid f****ing P*ki!”
“There’s a special type of humiliation when you’re insulted about something that you have absolutely no power over,” said Akbani.
Now 25 and working as a doctor in Manchester, he does not have many overt racist experiences. But he still suffers feelings of otherness, he said, sometimes because of comments by his medical colleagues.
Akbani got married a few months ago. His wife is also a doctor.
“Was it a forced wedding? Is your wife going to do all the cooking for you? Are you going to let your wife work?” his colleagues asked shortly after he tied the knot.
Akbani added that they were also full of false ideas about his British Pakistani identity.
“[It’s] very disappointing when you receive [racist stereotyping] from other doctors because you assume that they’re more educated,” said Akbani.
People are often surprised to find out that his wife and mother are both doctors who wear the hijab.
They have not been called hateful words such as P*ki, Akbani said, but they do face assumptions that they are “oppressed”.
British Asians are the largest ethnic minority in the United Kingdom. Major waves of migration took place in the post-World War II years and after the breakup of the British Empire.
For Akbani, there is a sense of irony of the British Pakistani experience.
“Our parents came to this country to give us economic opportunity. Funnily enough, the reason why they had to come was because … they were colonised by the British,” he said.
“We were robbed of economic opportunity [back there].”
In those post-war years, Hussain said his parents were beaten or chased down the street, simply “for being brown”.
“My aunt wasn’t allowed to go out of the house by herself because they were so afraid of her being attacked,” he said.
Some, however, have managed to escape the harshest forms of abuse, but still recount being made to feel different.
Maha Khan, 24, had not realised the word P*ki was a slur until she watched the 2018 movie Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of Freddie Mercury, Queen’s lead singer who had some South Asian roots.
“I just remember being … shocked that someone was using that as an insult,” said Khan, who works in food marketing in London.
She grew up in a relatively wealthy and predominantly white neighbourhood in the city of Reading, just outside London.
She said she was “the only brown kid in class” and often faced questions such as: “Where are you from?”
As the cricket racism scandal continues to unfold, Khan said she has been surprised to learn how her fellow British Pakistani friends – and her father – have suffered from racist abuse.
When she asks them about it, they say, “It just happens.”
Back in Bristol, Hussain is hopeful that things are changing. The previous generation’s experiences, he said, were much worse.