Prince Harry & Elite Racism

Royal plonkerPrince Harry, the second in line to the British throne, got in some very public hot water for racist remarks he made on video.  In the video, Prince Harry refers to one of his fellow cadets as a ‘Paki’ and another as a ‘raghead.’  For American readers, the impact of the terms Harry used may not be clear, and this statement by Iftakhar Raja, uncle of Ahmed Raza Khan, the fellow cadet that Harry demeaned, illuminates this a bit:

“I am proud to be British and if someone called me Pakistani I would be proud to be called that, but Paki is definitely a derogatory remark. We expect better from our royal family, on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling.” [emphasis added]

More about the schooling in a moment.   The video was made three years ago and only just now been heard in public, but the elasped time is no excuse, according to Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadan Foundation a Muslim youth organization in the UK, said he was shocked and saddened:

“This rant, whether today or three years ago is sickening and he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.”

While some have pointed out to the supreme irony of Harry’s military service which makes it an offense “to call them ragheads, but not to shoot them,” as a commenter at this blog noted, others have suggested that they do not find such expressions surprising given Harry’s appearance at a party in a Nazi uniform (Creative Commons License photo credit: psd).  Still others have said that this is merely an aberration that demonstrates ‘racism is a dying activity.’

What strikes me about this very telling incident is the way that it reveals a rupture in the usual operation of what Dutch scholar T.A. van Dijk calls the elite discourse and reproduction of racism.  In his research, van Dijk writes the following:

“Elite racism today is seldom overt and blatant. Rather it often takes the modern form of ‘new’ or ‘symbolic’ racism and is typically enacted in the many forms of subtle and indirect discrimination (in action and discourse) in everyday situations controlled by  these elites. It is also enacted whenever elite interests are threatened, for instance in hiring and affirmative action, cultural beliefs, political power, and so on (Barker, 1981; Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986; Essed, 1990, 1991; Wellman, 1977). Because of their positive self-image as tolerant citizens, elites’ racism is typically denied and therefore hard to oppose (van Dijk, 1992). One of the strategies of denial is precisely to attribute racism to the white lower class or the ‘poor inner cities,’ or to identify racism exclusively with the ideologies of the extreme Right (van Dijk, 1993, p.5).”

The outrage over Prince Harry’s recently revealed racism has everything to do with his class position.  As the uncle, quoted above, noted,  “We expect better from our royal family, on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling.And, indeed, it’s true that British citizens do spend millions of pounds on the royal family, who did little for this enormous sum beyond appearing at ceremonial occasions. It’s interesting then that this, rather than anti-racism or simple, human decency, are the standards to which Prince Harry is held.  He’s a disappointment for his overt expressions of racism, when as van Dijk points out, elite racism is seldom overt and blatant. Again, Sheila MacVicar, blogging at World Watch for CBS News, once again captures the class expectations around expressions of elite racism when she writes:

“No one thinks Harry is a racist, at least in the visceral Ku Klux Klan sense of the word. But he is part of a culture where this casual, everyday racism is prevalent and no one seems to pay much attention.”

One wonders what it would take for Harry to be a racist.  What seems clear from this incident is that there are different expectations for expressions of racism. The kinds of asinine remarks and behavior of Prince Harry are, in many ways, inconsequential even if offensive.   What we need to be more attuned to are, as van Dijk points out, the articulate, seemingly well-argued, apparently moderate and humane expressions of elite racism that effectively establishes, maintains, and legitimates the dominance of the white group in the increasingly multiethnic societies of Western Europe and Northern America.


  1. Great overview of this episode, and of some useful responses to it. I like how you point out how seemingly moderate and humane expressions of racism (elite or otherwise, it seems to me) maintain and legitimate dominance. They’re not merely “distasteful” or “offensive.”

  2. stuart clarke

    i don’t agree with what “Harry” said however can someone please explain to me (in my ignorance) why the word Paki is offensive but “Brit,” “Limey,” “Pommi”, “Yank” are not. Paki is after all the first 4 letters of the word Pakistan as is Brit for Brtain/ British. So why is one offensive and the other not.

  3. Jessie Author

    Hi Stuart ~ It’s a reasonable question, I think, and one that’s difficult for Americans, or others not in the UK context, to understand. British writer, Murad Ahmed, does a good job of explaining it here:

    Some people have asked why, if it is acceptable to use “Brit” to refer to British people, and “Aussie” to describe an Australian, what’s wrong with using Paki for Pakistanis?

    Simple. It’s because of history.

    Paki is a word from a different age – one where it would be spat out just before an Asian received a swift Doc Marten boot to the head. It was more often heard in the phrase “go home, Paki” than “my Paki friend.”. It was intended to be a form of violence and intimidation towards immigrants who had come to these shores from the Indian subcontinent. It became, through its very use, racist.

    To put it politely, anyone who thinks that the word Paki is acceptable is unaware of this sordid history or unable to understand its significance. Put another way, if you think that it’s all right to call someone a Paki you’re ignorant or stupid. See how using words in a certain way can come across as insulting or cruel? That’s the point. Words are powerful, and we should take care how we use them.

  4. stuart clarke

    Hi Jessie, thankyou. I agree with ALL of what you wrote. However Time does move on and Harry is not of an age where he would be aware (first hand) as older people are of the horror that the national front in the ’70’s dealt in the streets of England. I am not trying to defend him but i do come across severel words now being used by younger generations that are oblivious of their origins or roots. NAFF being one and BERK being another. Whilst neither of these words have racist tones they are i feel very rude and not acceptable to be used in public. Not as how they are used now but from their origins.

    Being British and having lived in the States for quite some time i was treated every now and then to a “Brit go home” in the tone of the Boston Tea Party. On the 4th July celebrations would many a time be pushed into the swimming pool with a similar comment as well. Many of my African American friends would call each other the “N” word, this confussed me as if a non African American person did so it would be wrong.

    I guess what i am poorly trying to explain is words and their meanings change with each generation. Madona years ago saying “that’s BAD ” meaning it’s good. In the U.K. there is a saying “wicked” which doesn’t mean that it is wicked. I am old enough and have learned along the way things are offensive and do offend. My Mother raised me to believe there are only 2 kinds of people on this planet. Not Black/White ,Tall/Short, Goodlooking/ Ugly, Clever/Stupid, Fat/Thin. You are either a good person or a BAD person …. it’s your choice to make. Again i would never say Paki because i think it is offensive and upsetting to hear but there is no real education that keeps us informed and also keeps up with how younger people use these words.

  5. Toby

    Mr. Van Dijk should get a real job. His contention that prince Harry’s words are a reflection of white dominance over people of color is nothing more than the usual leftist ideology of Totalism.

    Totalist language denies the role of the individual in word or deed. No, Harry didn’t just say those things: {white} people did!
    Totalist language uses such words as elite racism, white dominance, progressive, exploiting classes, etc, etc., No one bothers to define these terms because “feeling” them is all that matters.
    Go to any army, in any part of the world, and you’ll hear the same kind of inter-ethnic slurs being used.

Leave a Reply