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  • Writer's pictureBrian Tasch

Are Your Limes Racist?

Since we in the USA are finally, stubbornly, beginning to come to terms with the concept of systemic racism, I thought now would be a good time to bring this one up. I first wrote this piece back in February while revisiting Thailand, and it took a very different tone. I've since had some time and space to reflect on my words in the midst of growing civil unrest.

I'm not the first to touch on the subject, and I, unfortunately, will not be the last. If this is your first time seeing this PSA, I hope you take note.

Bartender Brian Tasch's fist gripping a imported order of Thai makrut lime leaves.

There is no such thing as a “kaffir” lime or a “kaffir” lime leaf.

“kaffir” is a racial slur and isn't even the actual name of the native Indonesian citrus fruit commonly referred to as such. From this point on, I'll avoid even typing the word. The fruit – Citrus Hystrix – is known as “jeruk purut” in Indonesian and “luuk makhrut” in Thai. The English word and spelling is “makrut lime.”

The word “kafir” is an Arabic word meaning infidel which, over time, came to be used to describe African slaves. It continued to spread and evolve through migration and trade, as language does. Eventually, the term made its way to South Africa where it became the default slur for black Africans. It is now officially recognized as a racial slur by the South African government and its use is a jailable offense, which is actively enforced.

It never, ever, at any point was the official name for the Makrut lime. But through the trade of both produce and human lives, somehow came to be associated with the fruit.

The bitter, fragrant makrut lime's leaves are an unmistakable staple of many Southeast Asian cuisines. and, in recent years, cocktails (which is why you're reading this on a bartender's blog).

The food and beverage industries, as well as the media outlets dedicated to their coverage, are responsible for perpetuating the use of this particular misnomer. It's one obvious way to see how common it is for ingrained, systemic racism to normalize itself across cultures through white supremacy, colorism, and ignorance.

Throughout Southeast Asia, the fruit is typically referred to as either Thai lime or Makrut lime. Having spent several months in Central and Northern Thailand, I can confirm the leaves are usually referred to as either “bai makrhut” or simply lime leaf, though it isn't uncommon to see the English “translation” used for recognizability among foreigners. Because the word isn't native to any Southeast Asian language, the only time you'll ever see the word used is in Romanized characters.

The etymology is murky but undoubtedly racist in origin as is evident by the first written record of the fruit from 1888 by colonial Brit Hugh Fraser Macmillan in Sri-Lanka. On page 82 he states the local name for the fruit as "kudalu dehi" and then declares the European name to be "Caffre lime." Classic British colonialism (curry powder, anyone?)! Now we can clearly trace the lines between slavery, racist colonialism, and South Africa.

But I argue the origin of the word and its association to the fruit hardly matter at this point. A quick Google search for a list of racial slurs brings up a Wikipedia article listing hundreds of words, co-opted and recontextualized by racists, which have been weaponized to insult, demean, and dehumanize various groups of human beings. The commonplace acceptance of racist attitudes has allowed this word, and other seemingly innocuous terms of hatred and oppression to permeate and cross cultures.

The food service, bar, and restaurant industries all fall under the umbrella of the hospitality industry – and nothing is less hospitable than racism, intentional or not. Language and collective thought constantly evolve and it's important to correct the course of that evolution to root out both obvious and subtle evils. Eliminating racial slurs from menus and food packaging is a pretty easy start, wouldn't you agree?

TLDR: Change your language, it's not that hard. Black Lives Matter.

Don't @ me.


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