Monday, March 19, 2007

On words and racism

Jodi over at the Asia Pages had a lively discussion about Ted Turner's use of the word "chinaman" in a public setting. I guess I came off as defending Mr. Turner and I certainly did not mean to do that. I started writing this response to some of the other conversation and in particular to one troll who just seems to pop up everywhere these days and I got to thinking that if I am going to write such a piece, I should at least post it myself here too. There is an interesting little anecdote near the end that I hope you all take the time to reflect on and let me know what you think.

Now, I am starting to think that nobody is reading my blog because I don't get any comments these days. If you are a regular reader. Please, at least drop a comment or two just to let me know you are out there. I don't have a counter, so I don't even know if anyone is reading me.

Pasted from Asia Pages
Ok, I don't blog on weekends, so i'm just a little late here.Jodi, I get your point about just admitting ingnorance and promising not to use the term. Probably that would have been best in this situation rather than appearing to defend the use of the term by a media mogul. Believe me, it was not my intention to defend Turner...he SHOULD know better in theory but obviously in practice he does not; hence the suggestion of a spindoctor and largetype teleprompter next time he speaks publicly. Look how they have helped improve Bush's image since before 9/11. He was known far and wide for his linguistic ineptitude, but I digress.Honestly though, and not to defend Turner, am I misunderstanding something here or are people trying to say that the use of the pejorative "chinaman" is linguistically equivalent to the use of "nigger" in today's vernacular? They are both just words and as with any word in any language can have multiple meanings, nuances, usages, etc. based on context, inflection and tone. Certainly, to the people of the early 1800's the coining of the term was hardly different than our use of the words black and white. Nigger was a derivative of European meanings for 'black,' a term we still use (though tenuously) to refer to those with the darkest of skin pigment and a "Chinaman" was just the way that people of asian decent were denoted in the time.However, language has evolved as it always does and the meanings, nuances, usages, etc. of these words and many other formerly non-pejorative expressions have changed because we (as Americans) have a problem with how to discuss the differences between people's race or skin color and have become overly concious of words themselves instead of the context in which they are used and without considering the source.Allow me an example. In the part of the country where I grew up and in the time in which I grew up there was scarcly any more than biraciality. And while I have traveled and lived in other parts of the country, I have learned about how certain references can be offensive. Many of my friends and family have not had that experience and continue to live in a world in which they are likely to never know an Asian person except at the Chinese restaurant or the laundromat (stereotypes, I know, but where i grew up they were EXACTLY true) If they were trying to be 'sensitive' they would have refered to these Asian businessmen and women as 'oriental' which is also a term for which Asian-Americans have distain. It is unlikely that people I know would use the word Chinaman as far as I know but if they heard the word used by another person, it is likely they would understand and, less likely they would be offended by it because it means (to them) nothing more than a person from China. Are they racist because they accepted the usage and connotation of the word based on its context and their own personal experience? Unlikely, as they are simply ignorant of its pejorative meaning. What about the person using it? If they simply used it to refer to a persons race without any ill-will should they be labled a racist? Mr. Kim makes my point for me. To him, the use of the word 'redneck' among people he knows is unoffensive. He is obvioulsy unaware of its pejorative connotations and though I personally take no offence at the word itself; only in the context in which it is used, I know plenty of people that would hear the term used by an Asian and give him the same treatment that I might receive if I used the "N" word in the middle of Harlem, Compton, or Watts.Just about any word can be made pejorative in the right context and with the right nuance. I could use the word "Korean" in a certain tone, inflection and context and have it to be pejorative even though the word itself is not and never has been.

Why do I care, really? When I was in Elementary School (early 70"s) I recall spacing out in class and looking at the map of the world, in particular, Africa. I noticed a country called "Niger" and suddenly it dawned on my 2nd grade mind that this must be where my friend Jimmy came from since he was black and other people called him "a nigger" (the only one in the class, sadly). Suddenly, the teacher called my attention and asked me a question. I can't remember the exact question but I do recall my answer to the question pretty well. "People call Jimmy a nigger because he is from Niger (pronounced the same as with 2 g's)." My teacher became incensced and dragged me to the principle's office where my parents were summoned and it appeared I was in for the lashing of my life all because I made a deduction that was incorrect based on my experience at the time . I am sure the Mr. Kim will revel in this little redneck tale and claim proof of the true color of my neck and ignorance. However, I learned an important lesson from that situation as I think back on it; one which I can hardly forget even as I have passed 40. The funny part of this story is that Jimmy never got angry at me and was my friend all the way through the 6th grade. He understood that I didn't mean it "like the others" and forgave my ignorance; "out of the mouths of babes" If I had had the same experience with an Asian classmate (never had one till college) and used the word 'chinaman' would the result have been different?


John McCrarey said...

Not really a regular visitor, but do stop by now and again. So, you have a reader (today at least)!

I think you do make some valid points on words and the context that makes them offensive. And it is easy to step on a verbal landmine when you are unfamiliar with cultural implications of a particular word.

Funny story, I was in a bar one night and an older Korean man with limited English asked me to play a couple of songs on the music machine for him..."Cotton Fields" and "When the Saints Go Marching In". I was pretty surprised that he even knew of these songs, but he assured me has just an "old redneck".

The other day I was talking to a Korean and made reference to her being "yellow" in a joking manner. She told me that such a description is highly offensive. I apologized of course, but it seems strange in that we often characterize the various races in the U.S. by color, white, black, or brown. True, less often red and yellow, but still.

Suddenly I recall that song we sang in Sunday school: "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world..."

Thomo the Lost said...

Words are very powerful things - even more powerful when they are written because the expression that goes along with them on your face is missing.

However, there are a number of words that are certainly pejorative and Turner should certainly have known.

And I read your blog on occasion. :-)