Right now, readily-available in the produce section of most supermarkets, there sits a fruit with one of the most blatantly racist names imaginable — and most Americans have absolutely no idea of it.
They're commonly-known as "kaffir limes," and they originated in Southeast Asia. For those of you who didn't watch Cry Freedom*, the word "kaffir" is the South African equivalent to the n-word. That's not a reach or a tenuous parallel; the word is universally acknowledged to be a slur. Despite this, many supermarkets still stock them under that name.
Now, a social media campaign aims to change that: the @KaffirNoMore twitter account seeks to raise awareness about the issue, and ultimately get supermarkets and restaurants to maybe stop using a blatantly offensive name for an otherwise-innocuous product. The account is the brainchild of Veronica Vinje, a master's student in Intercultural and International Communications in Victoria, Canada. As Vinje points out on the Twitter account, there's even a perfectly acceptable alternative name for the fruit: "makrut limes" — the name for them in Thai. They're having some success already, despite only operating for the past two weeks: Seattle grocery chain PCC Natural Markets, with 11 locations in the greater Seattle area, has just announced that they'll be stocking the leaves of the fruit under the simple name "lime leaves."
The etymological question of how a Southeast Asian lime got its English common-usage name doesn't have a confirmed cause, but there doesn't appear to be any viable answer aside from racism. This isn't the case of an unfortunate cross-linguistic mistake — though the name varies among the cultures where the limes predominate, in no language other than English are they referred to as "kaffir limes" or anything that sounds remotely like the word. As for why even racists would call them that, the skin of a makrut lime is mottled, bumpy, and supposedly less-attractive than that of a regular lime, and the greater implications of even typing that sentence make me physically ill.
As for how they even got to South Africa to be given that name in the first place, that's easier to answer than you might think: South Africa has a not-insignificant South and Southeast Asian population, most of whom descend from indentured workers brought to South Africa in the 1800's. Though born in India, Mohandas Gandhi actually formulated and first practiced the idea of non-violent resistance while in South Africa. It's probable makrut limes came to South Africa around the same time as South and Southeast Asians.
It's faintly unbelievable that this hasn't gained any attention before now, though. Can you imagine the outcry if the most common name for a dairy product was "kike cheese?" While the Washington Redskins' name is unquestionably deplorable, with "kaffir," racists can't even hide behind the laughable-if-they-weren't-so-tragic veneers of "it's just respecting their culture" or "it's really just a reference to potatoes" — evidenced by the fact that the word "kaffir" is actionable under South African law.
It's hard to see how the listed name ultimately doesn't get changed: the issue is clear-cut, any theoretical opposition to a change has no ground on which to stand (and, in fact, I can't find any source even arguing for the name to stay — somewhat staggering considering the awful positions you can find after five minutes on Google), and, unlike the Redskins' name, there don't appear to be any powerful financial interests standing in the way of a change. When it does happen, though, it'll be long overdue.
* Or, if you were like me, watched all the Denzel Washington scenes and skipped the scenes about Kevin Kline's character, because why the hell does a movie about activist icon Steve Biko devote 75% of its screen time to some random white dude?
Haha, just kidding, I know damn well why.
Image via PodPad/Shutterstock.