Opinion: White People using Pakistani memes to mock accents is racist.

Illustration By @Shazmeeny

“It’s just a meme” has arguably become the new “it’s just a joke” or “it’s just a show” in response to calling out forms of content that can often quite obviously be offensive to a particular group or identity.

Remember Apu from The Simpsons? Citizen Khan? Shows that contained characters that played heavily on farcical stereotypes of Indians and Pakistanis have often been criticised by viewers who perceive such portrayals as nothing other than racist.

Matt Lucas recently stated that he was ‘very sorry’ for the problematic characters that he and co-star David Walliams depicted on Come Fly With Me and Little Britain. One of Lucas’s most notable characters in Come Fly With Me was Taaj Manzoor – played by Lucas in brownface, a synthetic black beard, and an awful attempt at putting on a British-Asian accent by mimicking the vernacular and pronunciation used by some South Asians in the UK.

‘Taaj Manzoor’ From Come Fly With Me.
Image Source: The Guardian

Known controversial shows were often popularised by the depiction of brown people as laughable through a white lens, which is often not inclusive of real brown people at all. However, this is equally disparaging when memes that are inclusive of brown people are coopted into racist narratives by white people, particularly popular creators, on social media.

“… my own life for Pakistan”

In September, a number of clips from a video began circulating on TikTok of a group of Pakistani students pledging allegiance in what appeared to be a ceremonial independence day assembly. The context of the video was not focussed on, some of the viral clips were popularised because of the dramatic nature of the children’s pledges. However, meme accounts on both TikTok and Instagram began to isolate pledges from some of the youngsters, mainly the ones who had heavy accents or broken English.

While the Pakistani pledge jokes were initially just clips of a few passionate kids circulating on TikTok. Many were quick to point out that non South Asian viewers commented more on the accents than on the comedic focal point – which was the extreme passion and enthusiasm in the pledges. Others pointed out that the video was over 9 years old, and the children in it are probably old enough to laugh at it too.
Has ” I will sacrifice my life for Pakistan” and “wow grape” become the new “thank you come again” as a form of using accents to mock minority groups? Why are white audiences so quick to coopt trends to make them racist rather than allowing them to be enjoyable for the communities that they are intended to represent?

The woman shown in the viral video, Senator Sehar, has been bombarded on social media pages with insensitive comments, some even making remarks on sacrificing one’s life on an Instagram post about her deceased mother, and using the word grape to exaggerate her mispronunciation of “great.”

The use of accents in comedy isn’t always harmful, especially when utilised by people who are actually a part of the communities they are making fun of. The problematic part is when some content is quick to be associated with negative stereotypes such as likening the children in the viral video to terrorists and pandering to harmful narratives. It seems that for a proportion of white audiences, there’s a blurred line between appreciating comedy from a minority group and coopting it into a racially charged mockery.

Take Citizen Khan for example, where every character in the show was an exaggerated chariacture of the identities they represented. While this type of characterisation can be humourous to the communities it allegedly represents, it can also become a mechanism for pushing racism as an acceptable comedic tool by those outside of said communities.

TikTok Creator Sully Iqbal shared his thoughts on a white creator with Thirty-Thousand followers making a video referencing terrorism using the audio from the viral Pakistan pledge videos.

Source: @Sully_iqbal on TikTok

He describes the video as demonstrative of xenephobia and racism.

However with social media, television, and video streaming platforms at our fingertips more than ever – how can we possibly prevent racist trends? While impossible to monitor every meme, trend, and video – it often comes down to individuals ‘calling out’ racism from creators or providing commentary on why the trend or joke isn’t acceptable. Platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are often quick to remove videos with copyrighted audio or geopolitical posts. However, are seemingly less concerned with removing racist content.

I sincerely hope that there isn’t a new generation of slurs stemming from social media and meme culture, it really would be a shame.

Shazmeen Khalid