“Pakis” and “Chinos”

A mate of mine justified the phrase “Paki Shop” with the “if they can’t hear it, it can’t hurt them” argument. Explanations why that just doesn’t cut it have been trotted out for decades but I wanted to write a piece to get things clear enough in my own head to save myself from a useless, red-cheeked and blustering explanation on why that is in fact racist.

Maybe it’ll help me overcome awkward or plain aggressive reactions to the assertion that fairly common sense assertion that having a language you only use when you’re not in front of a particular race is racist. I’d like to think that it’s not wilful ignorance but just the fact that people haven’t taken a moment to think it through that leads to their use of these terms. 

Also, before I go on, I know I’m a white guy talking about race but this seems a zone where an ally’s voice, as opposed to the voice of those affected, might be useful. Many of these conversations don’t happen in front of people of colour. Their not allowed the chance to stand up against the divisive language that is excludes them.

In Spain however, it’s gone public. People who wouldn’t dream of referring to a “Paki” or a “Chino” back home (and would probably like to refer to themselves as “progressive”) are using them blindly. I’m sticking my oar in now because it’s my peers who are doing it, the ones I share the same privileges, the same lifestyles and, often, the same views with.


I might be sensitive to the word “Paki” and all its insulting connotations Britain but it’s not as if being Pakistani in Barcelona isn’t a walk in the park. The community is effectively confined to one of the poorest areas of the city, Raval, and its members are treated with resentment. 

I was at a fancy networking dinner the other night with polyglot waiters and Hermes crockery where a third of the 12-strong party spoke to me directly about how much they resented Pakistanis in Barcelona. One guest said she got taxis in and out of the centre nowadays to avoid them.

I spoke to Huma Jamshed, a prominent community leader, in November. She is currently taking  the city’s ostensibly progressive governing party, en Comú, to court due to allegations of political exploitation and racism. True or not, this is still suggestive of the tensions that exist at the moment. An advocate of intercultural assimilation, members of the community and even her family have criticised her for wasting energy on trying to start a conversation with the Catalan government, encouraging her to give up trying to “mix water and oil”.

All this to say that these are not groundless concerns and, unsurprisingly, racism exists in Spain and we need to be sensitive to it. Avoiding “private” language and racial slurs is always worthwhile. This is a brief, but not comprehensive, white-person-to-white-person summary of why we need to be as sensitive to it here as anywhere else.

Involuntary flinches sometimes prompt friends to explain that using “Paki” and “Chino” is different in Barcelona because that’s what people call them here. It’s true. Spain’s approach to racial politics aren’t as developed as ours is. To give them their due, Spain has a more homogenous society, its population hasn’t had the same exposure to other races and the efforts and activism of members of them generally required to make people learn better. It was also a fascist dictatorship just 40 years ago. 

That doesn’t mean we have to forget what we’ve learned through our own experience in multicultural Britain though. Personal morality does not become less important when you cross the Pyrenees. Calling a grocers a “Paki” is not a necessary part of proper assimilation. 

You don’t need to take your homophobic hat to Uganda and or become pro-life to do the Vatican properly. We don’t have to be moral missionaries, us Brits have hardly got a great track record on that sort of stuff, but we’re still obliged to remain decent. That means being true to what we’ve worked out is a better way of understanding racial sensitivities. 

My good friend and “liberal” ex-housemate tried to justify his choice of words by saying that “Chinos are always owned by Chinese.” His example? The Japanese-themed shop Taiwanese-owned shop down the road. Did my flatmate know where he was actually from? Course not. Another common one, that’s also popular in Britain, is calling Indian-owned shops“Pakis”. China and Taiwan and India and Pakistan don’t even have good relationships! Calling an Irish woman English is likely to piss her off, we stopped being at war with Ireland over a century ago.

This sort of conflation is ignorant and offensive. Assumptions like “He’s yellow, he’s Chinese,” and “she’s brown, she’s a Paki,” ignore fundamental cultural, historical and social differences between people that we should be vigilant against. 

“But it is a specific type of shop. People won’t understand what I’m referring to,” doesn’t work either. What people tend to refer to as “Chinos” tend to be knick-knack shops, haberdasheries, hardware stores, bazaars, dens of miscellany, treasure troves. “Pakis” tend to sell groceries. There’s a host of non-racist alternatives I’m not going to bother to listing. They are suitable, understandable and, wait for it, not racist. I’ve never, not once, had a problem talking about these shops.

I’m not saying describing shops as Chinese or Japanese is necessarily bad either. Calling the Taiwanese-owned shop down the road from my old flat a Japanese shop makes sense. It specialises in Japanese goods. We don’t have to start calling Italian restaurants spaghetti establishments, the name’s derived from the shop’s products, not the race of its owner and no one’s complaining about the carbonaras at the British-run Italian on my street in England.


There’s no denying that a lot of bazaars in town are run by people from South East Asia and China and that grocery shops and mini supermarkets are often owned by members of the Pakistani community. This still doesn’t make their race the appropriate signifier for their businesses.

The words “Paki” and “Chino” perpetuate the divide that created the trend in the first place. These terms were are product of structural racism and using them tacitly condones it.  There aren’t “whitey shops” because  white people here have not been restricted to an industry. The same can’t be said for Chinese and Pakistani people here.

Immigrant groups around the world have historically had to find their niche in the countries they arrive in, and they stick at them. This not due to coincidence or because Pakistani people have a knack for selling vegetables. The mouldy state of the veg at my local corner shop is proof that at least three Pakistani men are crap at it.

Individuals are forced to remain within their own circles and trades due to the prejudices and cultural and linguistic difficulties they face. Opportunities to cross over into the mainstream job market are limited at best. The anxieties of Huma Jamshed’s friends show how many people feel there’s no point even trying, more likely due to fear than a deep desire to be isolated.

Being opposed to these structural injustices isn’t something to try on when it’s fashionable in London. We’ve got to keep checking ourselves, wherever we are. It’s like what Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As someone who has never faced these obstructions, who is given plenty opportunity to hop between types of job, it’s not asking much to expect me to avoid using words that affirm the structural injustices others have to deal with.


You’re definitely a little racist and involuntary prejudice is a shitty mistake to make. Not being honest about it and attempting to do something when it does arise, that’s immoral.

I’m still struggling to work out how to explain all this without becoming a spluttering and going red and I’m not even at the sharp end of the problem. What I’m writing is my effort at making the awkward part of a dinner party a little shorter. It isn’t rocket science but it is worth thinking about.

Photo credit: Laura Wayaffe (Yes, it did come up when I searched “Paki Shop” on Flickr.