A yearly highlight for me is tuning into XXL Magazine’s Freshman Cypher, which shines a spotlight on those billed to be hip hop’s rising stars. I remember watching the 2016 XXL cypher and being in awe of the new crop of genre-bending artists who have since gone on to become household names: Denzel Curry, Lil Uzi Vert, Kodak Black, Lil Yachty, and 21 Savage making this illustrious roster. The internet, particularly ‘old heads’ who prefer the 90s-era sound, were quick to ridicule these young rappers for their refusal to conform to hip-hop’s aged stereotypes. The sight of coloured dreads, punk-rock attire, and traditionally feminine clothing typified the changing landscape of what hip hop as a genre was now able to represent, and certainly encouraged me to be more confident in expressing myself in ways more true to where I felt most comfortable. It felt unfair that their lyrical prowess and innovative flows got lost in the moral panic of something different permeating through a closely-guarded institution, but at least XXL have continued to showcase new talent that may not conform to the traditional mould.
One such artist is Jack Harlow who, incidentally, was on the 2020 XXL Freshman Cypher in what was his breakout year. On DJ Drama’s`Mockingbird Valley’, Harlow repeats this line in the opening of the track with typical introspection:
“I’m finally speaking up to anything that’s not okay with me”
This bar reverberated in the air as news of a racial slur being used on a Sidemen Sunday shoot began to surface online. The clip from the since-deleted episode showed not only KSI’s casual use of the p-word during the recording, but the widespread laughter that it elicited from the other members and guests on the show. It was depressing to see online personalities with such huge cultural sway make light of such derogatory language, but what was more shocking to me was the nonchalant use of it in the first place. It felt that with the recent Yorkshire County Cricket Club racism scandal, where Azeem Rafiq and others bravely spoke out about being subject to persistent racist abuse and bullying during their playing career, that there was finally mainstream awareness as to the racism that South Asians have faced in the UK, but it clearly has not proved to be the watershed moment that I hoped it would be.
The initial online reaction to the infamous clip was more polarised than I had initially anticipated, highlighting the complexities of language and how phrases are interpreted in contrasting ways around the globe. Anecdotally, it seemed that North American and Canadian online users were puzzled by the emotional reaction to the use of the word by their British counterparts as, across the pond, the p-word is not considered to be a racial slur or at least not an immediately obvious provocation against a minority group. George Bush fell foul of this cultural blind spot in a 2002 speech by using the p-word as a short-hand for ‘Pakistani’, unaware of its offensive connotations in the UK and elsewhere. There have been more recent incidents such as when Lizzo changed the lyrics in her song ‘Grrrls’ after using an ableist slur that was widely accepted to be offensive in the UK, but is frequently used in the American vernacular with no undesirable consequences. This doesn’t provide any excuses, of course, but rather an opportunity to learn more about the historical context of how a word, even unfamiliar ones, can hold power over and oppress people.
To many British Asians, the p-word is the primary vehicle of our subjugation. It is instantly dehumanising like no other phrase and epitomises undiluted racism, that of prejudice plus power. The colonial context of the p-word represents a broken promise with Britain, which capitalised its status as a global superpower through the East India Company’s operations in exchange for coveted access to the empire where the sun never sets. This was not a fair exchange as you might expect, with the Empire often decimating local cultures and impoverishing previously successful and autonomous nation states as a by-product of its ever-expanding dominion. However, the Empire could not survive without its subjects feeling a connection and sense of belonging to its Motherland, and so the seeds were sown and citizenship bestowed upon the citizens of these countries.
Following the dissolution of the British Empire leaving a now-wounded country in much need of repair following the residual effects of the Second World War, South Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka migrated to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Following Idi Amin’s expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972, many holding British passports were also migrating to Britain in search of refuge. Despite being members of the Commonwealth and/or holding British passports, a rightful place in the Motherland that these South Asians had been promised would look after them during the days of Empire would renege on their agreement in a catastrophic fashion.
The Commonwealth Acts of 1962 and 1968 and the Immigration Act 1971 represented a stark contrast to the preceding non-discriminatory immigration policies and were fuelled by rising anti-immigration sentiment and racist rhetoric that were taking a grip of Britain in sinister fashion. The 1968 Act in particular was one of the fastest Acts of Parliament to be granted Royal Assent and was passed in just three days, demonstrating the urgency in which the UK Government were determined to restrict immigration. John Nott, one of the few MPs to vote against the 1968 Act, believed that it was “disgraceful that people who had British passports should have them taken away”. These legislative and political decisions helped incubate the culture in which immigrants, particularly the migration of brown people into the UK, were not respected as having as equal a right to reside in the UK as any other British citizen, and were otherised and denigrated from the moment they stepped foot to a nation who were actively opposing a changing demographic landscape. The role in Empire in specifically bringing about this change, however, was never substantially outlined.
The p-word was first weaponised in the UK to carry out violent hate crimes and became a symbol of the relentless abuse that South Asians (or anyone who looked ‘brown’) faced during this dark period, which would colloquially be come to known as ‘p-word bashing’. Saturday afternoons, when family and friends should ordinarily feel comfortable to go out for a meal or shopping on a high street, turned into hours sheltered in homes due to the fear of racist, drunk men who would hunt the streets looking for the nearest ‘p-word’ to beat. Even when South Asians did camp out in their homes, this would not exclude them from racist abuse, with a common experience being families placing plastic mats beside the front door to protect the carpet from racists pissing through letter-boxes. During the 1970s and 1980s, fascist groups such as white power skinheads, the National Front, and the British National Party terrorised South Asian communities, particularly targeting businesses and shared spaces, fuelled by the British media’s anti-immigrant narrative which was ignited by Enoch Powell’s infamous, ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. With the government’s systemic failures to properly investigate racial violence and the stereotyping of South Asians as ‘weak’ and ‘pushovers’, The Joint Campaign Against Racism Committee reported that there had been more than 20,000 racist attacks on British people of colour, including Britons of South Asian origin, during 1985 alone.
Yet there is an uncomfortable juxtaposition that exists in the modern continuance of that word. Despite the well-documented trauma associated with the p-word, there seems to a certain reluctance to acknowledge the degree of its harm, a raised eyebrow as to how bad a word it could have been and its impact today. A narrow analysis may be that the continuing use of other racial slurs that may be more visible within the public consciousness renders the p-word as a ‘less bad racial slur’ if such a thing exists, which I don’t believe it does. This may also have roots in the model minority myth that perpetuates the false narrative that Asians are an example of how ethnic minorities have ‘made it’ in white society, which is often accomplished by stereotyping Asians as over-represented in successful professionals when, in reality, the vast majority of Asians are from working class or lower socio-economic backgrounds in the UK.
Either way, what the Sidemen (and their extensive production and editorial teams) have illustrated in their ignorant use and/or lack of pushback of the p-word is that they fundamentally did not believe in its potential impact on their wider audience nor in the vice grip that it continues to hold over South Asians today.
Going back to Harlow’s line, how can we develop the courage and eloquence to combat ignorance or bigotry? To me, there are three paths in which you can choose to take when encountering an action or behaviour you find to be unacceptable if you aspire to the notion of a tolerant society.
Firstly, you can withdraw. By removing yourself from the situation and distancing yourself from the individuals partaking in what you cannot tolerate, you are actively protesting, albeit silently. This is sometimes the most practical response in the circumstances if the toxic environment that you find yourself in is not conducive for you to speak up, you fear that there may be repercussions for you or your livelihood if you dissent to the majority, or if you’re simply unsure as to the best course of action to manage the situation. Withdrawing explains why some institutions fail to retain talented individuals from certain minority backgrounds, where the culture that has been cultivated doesn’t allow people to express themselves as they are.
Secondly, you acquiesce to the harmful behaviour by going along with it. I use the word ‘acquiesce’ specifically because, unless you’re a supporter of bigotry to begin with, most people choose to engage with it reluctantly. This is primarily the result of social pressure to conform coupled with sheer ignorance to the impact of that behaviour in a wider context, which often carries with it the implications to those who choose to withdraw in the first place. I’ve been guilty of perpetuating the type of behaviour that I sincerely did not support but, in choosing to uphold junk virtues for social approval, you have provided the oxygen for hatred to flourish, no matter how innocuous or subtle. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’.
Thirdly, you resist and challenge the behaviour. By far the hardest course of action requiring moral fortitude and a thick skin to shake the status quote, this can come with significant consequences such as social ostracism and being made the subject of ridicule or violence. This tends to be the fate of the disrupter in the short term, but the legacy of their actions can stimulate productive conversation and self-reflection on those who are forced to address their behaviour for the first time, often deeply entrenched through reinforced stereotypes or misinformation. There surely cannot be a more noble trait than being willing to point out what others are turning a blind eye to, to be the child that bravely blurts out that the emperor indeed has no clothes on in amongst the uncomfortable townsfolk. The more of us that risk it for the right path, the more that will follow us through it.