I love the comedy of highly acclaimed British comedian Daniel Kitson, but I’ve never actually seen him perform stand-up before this summer. I have seen him in his one-man show Analog.Ue, and I have seen him perform a Christmas show. Delightful as they were, these were both story-telling pieces. So, I was very pleased to find that he would be returning with stand-up comedy show Something Other Than Everything this summer.
However, I was less pleased to read in Nosheen Iqbal’s Guardian opinion that the show might be filled with lots of racist language:
Daniel Kitson called me a Paki last week. Well, not literally: he stood up at his sold-out show at the Roundhouse in north London, where he’s in the middle of a three-week residency, and spray-gunned the word six, seven or more times in the space of what might have been 30 seconds, a minute at most, at a room of hundreds of people in which I was very possibly one of only two brown people, the other sitting next to me. (From: “Daniel Kitson can’t reclaim a racist word he’s never been a target of”)
I have been very lucky. I don’t think I’ve ever been directly called a paki. But every time I think I may have heard it said as I’ve passed a group standing outside a pub, or as part of a semi-muttered conversation behind me on the bus, it slices straight into my consciousness with a searing pain, and it might as well have been screamed right into my face. So as much as I like Daniel Kitson, I felt a little apprehensive about going to this show.
In case of (literal) spoilers, I saved reading the complete Guardian article until after I’d seen the show. And now that I have, I know that it’s the term paki shop that is repeated. It’s said in the context of how commonly Kitson’s school friends would use this phrase when they were growing up. It wasn’t used as an explicit term of abuse, but as a racist descriptor that these children had picked up from their parents — something that had become embedded in their language without them even really realising it was offensively horrible.
“…it slices straight into my consciousness with a searing pain, and it might as well have been screamed right into my face.”
Oddly, the last time I heard the phrase paki shop, was from a young black woman who was serving me in a café a few years ago. We were exchanging some general friendly chit chat, when she started telling me about the paki shop near her that she sometimes went to. By the look on my face, and that of my friend, as well as the silence that fell amongst her colleagues behind the till, she could obviously tell that something was no longer right. But her look of confusion indicated that she genuinely had no idea what it was.
The tension was eventually broken by another barista awkwardly informing her that that wasn’t a term we really used any more — and with a healthy dose of British embarrassment and weak smiles all round, I paid for our coffees, sat down and was distracted by conversation. But the experience was still popping up in my mind and disturbing my life several days later.
Ultimately, it was all just sadly indicative of how society supports this sort of all pervading, ‘light-touch’ racism. And I think that this is the point that Daniel Kitson is trying to make: you might not intend to be racist, but using that language means that you are. And paraphrasing Kitson, buying your gollywog at a charity shop, doesn’t make it less racist; and purchasing your fur coat from a vintage supplier doesn’t make it less cruel either.
For Guardian writer Nosheen Iqbal, it is completely understandable how if something you were anticipating as a fun night of cheap comedy suddenly throws you back to the bleakest of childhood memories, you would be left feeling traumatised and angry. But Kitson isn’t trying to reclaim anything, and he’s not pushing boundaries to demonstrate that attitudes have changed. He’s showing how powerful those words are by documenting their use (not using them himself).
“It might be easier to use this sort of language when there are few brown faces looking up at you…”
The Guardian’s choice of clickbait-y of headline and sub-headline muddy the waters further, but I disagree that Kitson is attempting any level of ownership here. It might be easier to use this sort of language when there are few brown faces looking up at you (Nosheen is definitely right about that aspect of things), but I don’t think this part of the routine is about challenging boundaries in a Kitson safe space.
Using the term paki is obviously completely unacceptable, but it’s hard to communicate this argument without documenting how this word was a common part of his childhood, and therefore saying the p word itself. And he’s very clear that the structural constructs which support this sort of racism and bigotry, also support the white privilege of which he is very much a direct beneficiary.
This very explicit segment was one part of a two hour-plus show which was a theatrically enhanced, multi-stranded set of musings encompassing loneliness and being alone, friendships, families, societal progress, dick jokes, and the prophet-like status of one Daniel Kitson.
But should I have expected to go to this show and not be offended by it? Should there have been some sort of trigger warning? These are all interesting topics for theoretical discussions, but ultimately, it’s the everyday experiences of people which really matter. And on this occasion, I’m happy to say this show was one of the best comedy performances that I’ve ever seen.
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Ireena is a former microbiologist, an enthusiastic consumer of culture and laddoos, and lives in the East of England. She can be found on Twitter @ireenaribena. This post originally appeared on her personal website.