Tag Archives: Frank Wu

Yes, the Term “Chinaman” is Derogatory

July 9, 2014
The cover for a 1940's novel, which illustrates the racial history of the term "Chinman".
The cover for a 1940’s novel, which illustrates the racial history of the term “Chinman”.

I remember when I first met Professor Frank Wu (@frankhwu). I was president of Cornell’s student-run political Asian American organization, and he was dean of law at UC Hastings (correction) law professor at Howard. He was working a book tour to promote his new book: “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black & White“, a self-reflective and easily digested exploration of Asian American identity. We had invited him to lecture as a keynote speaker for our on-campus celebration of Asian American Heritage Month.

I remember being excited and in awe of Wu as I organized his visit, hopeful he would bring with him a poignant and insightful discussion of the Asian American experience through rejection of the conventionally binary lens of American race relations.

On the morning of his keynote address, Wu was invited to give our student group an informal preview to his keynote talk in a more intimate setting. Gathered in a small conference room, ten of us conversed with Wu; it was a conversation that quickly became a grilling.I remember surprise, and even a little bit of disappointment: for an author who had penned a book about finding an Asian American experience outside of Black and White, Wu spent much of his time nonetheless comparing Asian Americana to Black and White America. In his presentation, Yellowness was situated somewhere intermediate between Blackness and Whiteness, defined predominantly by its proximity to both. Instead, I yearned for revolutionary thinking about Yellowness through construction of a racial pedagogy that had more than two points, one that didn’t ultimately and unintentionally leave Asian Americans occupying a space as “minority lite”. In short, I was and am far more radical than Professor Wu, and I didn’t hide it.

I remember at the end of that conversation, Wu — offended, exasperated and exhausted — brusquely retorted to us before shutting the session down that if we didn’t like his book, we should just go write our own.

(To his credit, Wu’s book appears to be written primarily for the non-Asian American audience and with the goal of introducing major stereotypes and tropes of the Asian American experience to those who would view “race” and “Blackness” as synonymous. Today, I feel that my 19-year-old self was somewhat unfair to Wu and what he was trying to accomplish. If he recalls our interaction at all, I’m sure he would describe us as a group of disrespectful and pugnaciously idealistic children. I have, in fact, mellowed over the last decade and if Professor Wu reads this article, I apologize for our contentious treatment of him in that setting.)

This first interaction with Professor Wu is representative of my thinking on him and his work: I thoroughly respect him for his accomplishments as one of our earlier and most prominent academics. Wu was one of the the first Asian American academics to popularize general conversation on the Asian American identity, and in so doing he mainstreamed the Asian American experience for American race relations. To some degree, his insisted presence in the proverbial room actually did push the boundaries of race beyond Black and White. But, at the same time, whenever I engage Wu’s writing, I am reminded of the wide chasm between our racial politics. I find my radical opinions at odds with his more conventional outlooks. I am frustrated by his insistence on focusing his writing primarily on the Chinese American experience, to the detriment of other ethnic identities that find themselves within the Asian American diaspora. This blog is arguably the book Wu told me I should write if I didn’t like his.

These days, Wu balances his work as Dean and Chancellor at UC Hastings College of Law with a regular writing gig at Huffington Post. Over the last several months, Wu has penned a number of op-eds, many of which explore the Asian American identity.

Last week, Wu wrote an article asking: Is The Term ‘Chinaman’ Derogatory? Wu asserts a (qualified) no. He argues that the permissiveness of slurs is contextual and should depend primarily on whether members of the target group take offense. Paralleled with Wu’s own excuse of the term “Chinaman” in a recent production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, the article leaves the reader with the impression that “Chinaman” is, itself, a largely inoffensive term problematic only because some Asian Americans would kick up a fuss where Wu wouldn’t.

It would be an understatement to say I disagree, patently and wholeheartedly.

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