We need to train young journalists (and people in general) about older racial epithets

Pekin Chinks -- the high school school mascot name of Pekin, Ohio until 1980 In the midst of the media hullabaloo over ESPN’s “Chink in the armor” headline about Jeremy Lin, I had a conversation with a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, where I work as staff adviser to the CU Independent, the student-run news website for the Boulder campus. What the media need, we decided, is remedial lessons in racist imagery and epithets.

Both the editor and anchor who were disciplined by “the Worldwide leader in sports” claimed they didn’t mean anything racial by the use of the phrase with the “c-word.” OK, granted, the phrase is an old one used to describe a weakness in armor, but who would use the word today and NOT feel a twinge of conscience, a mental red flag, about its century of use as a racist slur? Why wouldn’t you use any number of other words?

Apparently, some people — especially young people — today don’t know or don’t remember that the “c-word” is the equivalent of the “n-word” to Asian Americans. That’s a good thing, because it means the word is seldom used as a slur these days. But that doesn’t mean we can start using it willy-nilly again.

I grew up having the word hurled in my direction as kids yelled at me to “go home.” I’ve been called every one of those words: “Jap,” “Nip,” “Gook,” “Slope,” “Chinaman,” “Ching-Chong,” Slant-Eye”… an entire dictionary of racist words. Some of them as you can see, have non-racial meanings, like slope or nip.

But call me over-sensitive, when I see the words “chink in the armor” or “nip in the air” in print my stomach clenches. And the same goes for an awful lot of other Asian Americans, although yes, not every Asian American agrees (you can call Michelle Malkin anything you want, I guess and it won’t bother her).

The Asian American Journalists Association released a Media Advsiory on covering Jeremy Lin last week, and hopefully that will help curb some of the national media’s dumber inclinations and make writers and editors think at least a moment before they blurt out something they’ll regret later.

But what can you do if some journalists (and people in general) don’t know that certain words or phrases have a racial connotation, perhaps a forgotten one from the past? I’ve met a few people who honestly didn’t know that “chink” is an offensive reference to Asians.

The fact is, words and their meanings evolve. The Pekin, Illinois high school team for many decades was called the “Chinks” even though their mascot was a dragon (see the graphic above). In 1980, after years of controversy and over the objection of the students, the team was changed to the Dragons. I’m sure they didn’t think the word was so bad because they didn’t mean it as a racial epithet.

Even the seemingly benign word “Oriental” has evolved. It originally referred to the Orient, or the Far East. Some Asians today still use the term to describe their grocery stores, and it’s still commonly used to describe rugs (from the Middle East). But it was used so often as a word to refer to negative stereotypes that today, the acceptable word in common usage is “Asian.” “Oriental” is for rugs, “Asian” is for people. The Asian American civil rights organization JACL has a series of pamphlets including this one, “Word can kill the spirit… ‘Jap’ is a derogatory term!” that lists some of the slurs that target Asians.

The JACL’s various pamphlets are available digitally on their website but they’re hard to find. The AAJA also is revising its APA Handbook for covering Asian Americans, with this addendum currently available (they’ll be combined in the new revised edition being published this summer).

Other than these, there aren’t a resource that I know of besides a few websites including this Wikipedia entry on ethnic slurs where people can go and learn about or check whether certain words are slurs or not. Maybe I should write a quick ebook.

But here’s one more example just this week of an innocent use of a word that made me feel uncomfortable, and I’m glad I acted on my instincts to reach out and educate a friend:

A journalist I know signed up for Pinterest, the hot new social media site, and began following me. The site allows you to “pin” images from web pages from recipes and photos of cool places and items from online shops, and you can create any number of “boards” and name them whatever you want to collect your pins on. My friend had a board that she called “Me Likey,” and I had that familiar feeling in my gut.

But I knew she’s pretty progressive — she teaches journalism, and she’s a Latina, so she’s probably no stranger to racist (and sexist, for that matter) treatment. So I emailed her and asked if she could change the name of the board to “Stuff I like” or whatever. I explained my request, and she was mortified.

She said she uses the phrase “me likey” a lot, and hears it all the time from others.

I said it sounds to me like a stereotype of an Asian accent, and pointed out “me so horny, me love you long time,” a similar phrase, which was used in director Stanley Kubrick’s powerful (and disturbing) 1987 film about the Vietnam War, “Full Metal Jacket.” In the film, a prostitute approaches two GIs including star Matthew Modine and woos them with “Me so horny… me love you long time.”

The Miami-based rap group 2LiveCrew had a controversial 1989 hit, “Me So Horny” that sampled the line, and from there, the phrase has entered into the mashedup pop culture lexicon.

That’s why I think a racial slurs class for journalists might be helpful. In today’s snip-and-share media world, context gets lost, and so can the historical meaning of words even if they started out as hate language. Just because someone doesn’t know the origins of a phrase like “Me so horny, me love you long time,” or any of the words I heard growing up, or they think it’s OK because they didn’t mean it as a racist slur, doesn’t make it acceptable.

I have one rule for slurs: IF someone somewhere finds something offensive, then it’s offensive and I’ll go out of my way to avoid it. It’s not a matter of being overly sensitive or too P.C. — it’s a matter of being respectful.

Maybe it’ll make some people squirm, but by giving a presentation of every ethnic slur I can think of from the past and present, maybe it’ll make them think just a fraction of a second the next time they innocently use a word or phrase that could be taken the wrong way, and they’ll look for a different way to say the same thing.

Meanwhile, I’m glad that I reached out to my friend when my stomach clenched over her “Me Likey” label. She changed it, and she’ll carry our discussion to her students and others in her network of friends. I feel like a little bit of progress was made.

Here’s the scene from “Full Metal Jacket” (NSFW):

Just to be complete, here’s the 2LiveCrew hit, “Me So Horny” (definitely NSFW):

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14 Responses to We need to train young journalists (and people in general) about older racial epithets

  1. George Hung says:

    Fantastic article and a great idea! I like your point that even hearing the word “chink” should have raised an internal red flag. I am asian american I was offended by both the article and the implied racism by the Boston franchise owner of Ben and Jerry’s. The fact that the owner thought it would be appropriate is exactly the reason why many ignorant people felt that it was ok to hurl racial taunts at Jeremy Lin during his time at Harvard.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, George. I was compelled to write this one and get it out there. I will seriously create a presentation abut racial slurs and see if I can give it to journalism students, and in newsrooms….

  3. phil says:

    In the U.S., the word “Asian” has replaced “Oriental.” However, in the U.K., the word “Oriental” is generally used to refer to East Asian people of Mongolian racial stock (such as Han Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Viets), while “Asian” usually refers to people of East Indian background (ie. from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).

  4. phil says:

    A couple of other things: the rap group 2Live Crew had a member called “Fresh Kid Ice” (his real name eludes me for the moment), who also sometimes referred to himself as “the Chinaman”, as he is of mixed Chinese and Afro-Caribbean background. Then, of course, there was the gangsta rap group “NWA”, an acronym for “Niggaz With Attitude.”

  5. phil says:

    One more thing! Recently in New York (I’m not sure if it was right in New York City, or elsewhere in New York State), a Papa John’s restaurant employee got fired because he wrote “Lady Chinky Eyes” on an order slip to identify a Korean-American woman who had ordered pizza there. He claimed that he hadn’t done it malciously, but he still should have known better. She saw the slip, and put up a message on Twitter about it.

    Papa John’s promptly apologized, and the worker got the boot.

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Phil!

  7. Nick says:

    I’d be interested in someone maybe giving me some perspective here. Is there a line where it’s more ok to use some of these words? I think that ESPN using “chink” in a specific reference to an Asian man obviously crosses a line, but what about when someone has no idea AND uses it to something that doesn’t reference the original issue/culture? With the example of “me likey,” if it’s just meant as an expression, do we do more harm in creating oversensitivity? It’d certainly be different if it’s further written to be a stereotype, but part of me thinks that some healing occurs by letting the words themselves become benign. I think in these cases, it’s probably still good to avoid when you know the meaning, as you say, but I’m not sure I’d want to point it out to someone who had no clue about it.

    I’d definitely like to hear some other perspectives though, because I recognize the value of societal memory on healing and preventing new issues of the same type. Great article, thanks for the thoughts and information!

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Nick, thanks for your comment. I know the word “chink” can technically be benign in a non-racial context. But really, do we need more people to use a cliche like “chink in the armor?” Ultimately, because of the word being used racially, I’m in favor of retiring its use entirely. It’s hard for someone who isn’t Asian to believe but I can say that 99.9% of Asian Americans I know feel their gut clench when they read the word, even in a benign context. As for “Me likey,” it’s hard for me to read that and not think it’s a stereotyped representation of an Asian accent. So it would bug me no matter the context, except I guess in a script for scene like the “me so horny” scene in “Full Metal Jacket.”

  9. Scott Cheap says:

    Oh dear, you poor sensitive flower! You can’t separate a racist epithet from a word that sounds the same but is completely different in meaning and evolution. Once a word (like “orient”, for example) is used by anyone, anywhere, with any negative connotation it must be banned from the language in all uses and meanings. Your stomach must no doubt “clench” whenever someone who is lost tries to orient themselves as well. Don’t have an attack of the vapours or anything! 🙄

  10. Roger Dodger says:

    I agree that in the context of Jeremy Lin the “chink in the armor” was in bad taste, but in every context? Does that mean we can’t clean things so they are “spic and span?” It’s like the word “niggardly” which has no etymological relation to the word with a similar sound. The first time I heard the word was in law school when my black professor who was a retired D.C. judge used it. How about welshing on a bet which does have an ethnic connotation?

  11. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Roger, you bring up all good instances. They are all legitimate words, but you’ll hardly ever see niggardly used in the media (a Washington DC official who used it in the ’90s quit over the furor, then was rehired later), and you know, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard or read “spic and span” (except for in the product — is it still sold?). Welshing is a very good example, and its origins are as a slur against the Welsh, much like more obvious slurs gypped (Gypsies) and “jew someone down.” Maybe to “welsh” has been used so long its ethnic origins have been forgotten but I wonder if for Welsh people, it still stings. The same for the others. Chink and niggardly are different because they’re both legitimate words, but I am advocating we stop using them (and generally, they’re not often used anymore, except by lazy copy editors who turn to cliches like “chink in the armor” hundreds of times, as the ESPN editor admitted). Thanks for your comments — it made me think more about the topic!

  12. Joe Pucci says:

    On the other hand why let it bother you. I have been called a dago and wop since I was in the first grade, even by some teachers. After awhile, I figured out most were just being friendly. Those that were not were jealous or just stupid. I never thought a chink in the wall had anything to do with Chinese until I saw this post. Now call me a Republican and it does kind of piss me off.

  13. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comment, Joe. Don’t worry, I won’t call you a GOPer… Or those old school and offensive words for Irish!

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