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Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View

* 2000 COLUMNS

20 January, 2003


It's hard to believe how often this happens: Asians are once again the target for obnoxious, offensive racist comments, and Asians once again are staying relatively quiet about it.

Yao gets one past Shaq. The Houston Rockets beat the LA Lakers when the two teams met Jan. 17. (Photo courtesy of the Houston Rockets)
The latest incident involves Shaquille O'Neal, the superstar player for the NBA's Lakers. In December, he responded to a radio interviewer's question about his thoughts on the Houston Rockets' rookie center Yao Ming, a player from China. His reply, as reported by writer Irwin Tang in the Jan 3 issue of AsianWeek: "Tell Yao Ming, 'ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.'"

I know the sting of these words.

I've felt the hot flush of shame and rage when someone has used them towards me. I've been called a Jap, Nip, a Chink, a Gook (that one was especially popular during the Vietnam war, because our GIs called the enemy Viet Cong "gooks"), and I've been told in obnoxious sing-song cadence "ching-chong Chinaman" and "go home," as if the United States of America were not my home. And, I've been told more times than I could possibly count, "ah so," as if this were some ancient ritual greeting of Japanese, usually spoken with eyes shut to slits and overbite bared in yellowface buckteeth.

(Courtesy of the Rockets)

(Courtesy of Shaq.com)

O'Neal's taunt to Yao was aired several times by a Fox Sports radio host in mid-December, and the host, Tomy Bruno, reportedly announced the comment was not racist and invited listeners to call in and make fun of Chinese. Irwin Tang, a writer who heard Shaq's comments, tried to get the national media interested in this outrageous display of prejudice. The Organization of Chinese Americans made the only outcry, demanding an apology from Shaq, who predictably shrugged off his remarks as a joke.

No one was interested, so he wrote the commentary for AsianWeek, in which he raises an important question: Are Asians open game for racism in America, while African Americans and other minorities are not? If a white basketball player during an interview made disparaging comments about a black player using the hackneyed clichés of blackface, Bo Jangles and, say, Ebonics, the media would be all over the story.

Look at what else happened in December, to Senator Trent Lott, whose stupid comments about Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist platform for presidency was reported in the media and then exploded in his face within a few weeks. He now has lost his high position in Congress and (hopefully) his political career will advance no farther.

The media usually love beating up on celebrities for their politically incorrect trespasses. Howard Cosell's career may have already been way past prime time but the sportscaster left the airwaves in a wave of shame after a national furor over his calling a black player a "monkey." The rock musician Elvis Costello once sparked a controversy when he called Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger." The Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team fired its then-manager, Al Campanis, for stating that African American players didn't have the mental capacity to manage a team. Even when someone in the media stumbles when it comes to African Americans, the other media notice. The baseball commentator Jimmy the Greek was fired from his position at CBS Sports when he said black athletes were genetically predisposed to be better than white athletes. Closer to my home, the NBA's Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel lost his job when he shouted an expletive and a racist comment at a Latino spectator who was heckling him.

I'm not saying all these people - including Shaq - are racists. Like Lott, they may have a record of comments that build a case about their views on race, or their comments may have come during the heat of the moment, or out of a flare of anger or frustration. But the comments themselves are racist, and media in these cases brought the public's attention to their misstep and they had to pay the consequences.

Yet, when it comes to a snide racist comment about a popular Asian athlete, the media - offer a big yawn.

Why is that?
Trash talking is part of the macho competition of sports. But there are lots of trash you can talk without bringing up the race card.

Is it because there aren't enough Asians in the national media who can influence editors and newsdesks to bring attention to this kind of travesty? Is it because people who work in the media don't care? Is it because African Americans in particular have a much longer history of fighting racism so they've managed to instill race sensitivity in the media when it comes to their issues?

Or it is because Asians as a group - not just in the media but in the public too - don't talk back when racism looks them in the eye?

We've always been a "model minority" but part of that is because we don't complain. We've been culturally programmed not to bring attention to ourselves. Too often, we stay silent when wrongs are committed against us. Look at the Japanese American internment, when phrases like "gaman" (endure) and "shigata ga nai" (it can't be helped) were used as daily mantras to get entire families through the ordeal with silent determination. It took more than 40 years before widespread acknowledgment that internment was a horrible mistake forced an apology out of the US government.

Irwin Tang ends his important commentary by pointing out that Asian Pacific American leaders usually fulfill the stereotype and stay out of the spotlight, especially on controversial issues. He hopes that Shaq's comment will lead to a reaction within the community that will bring attention to racism aimed at APAs. But, he writes, if nothing comes of it, "Another racial slur will be left to sink slowly into the APA collective unconscious and ferment as self-loathing."

We can't allow that to happen. When I received an e-mail with Tang's article, I forwarded it to as many Asians as possible. The first step towards making a public outcry over such behavior is to bring it to the attention of Asians and getting pissed off about it as a group. Now's the time to find ways to let our feelings known. Write or call the media, let sports teams know. Write Shaq via his Web site. And most important, let other Asians know this is happening.

Our communications networks as a community are haphazard and incomplete. Many of us tend to stay within our "tribes" - it's like passing on gossip through backyards and barbershops. We need to be better in touch with other Asians, and with the world outside our nice quiet, obedient communities.

We need to pay attention. That way, when someone like Shaq does something stupid like this, we'll be able to call him out, and shame him into acknowledging his racism.

Trash talking is part of the macho competition of sports. But there are lots of trash you can talk without bringing up the race card. You would think someone like Shaq, who surely knows something about the sting of prejudice, would know that. So next time he plays that card, we'll know right away, and we'll let him know it's not cool, or funny, or cute to bash another player by making fun of his ethnicity.

You can read Irwin Tang's AsianWeek article article online at:


Copyright 1998-2003 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
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