Yes, the Term “Chinaman” is Derogatory

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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List of Posts in Week of #Solidarity with #NotYourMascot | #AAPI #Native #NDN

change-mascot

Recent events have allowed mainstream media to paint a picture of Asian American and Native American communities as being at odds in #NotYourMascot: the fight to call on Washington R*dskins owner Dan Snyder to change the name and mascot of his NFL team, both of which are deplorable examples of redface stereotypes against Native peoples. Sadly, in the aftermath of the last two weeks and the attention placed on Asian American advocacy, Native peoples have been functionally “edited out” of their own campaign.

Yet, anti-racist work is a work that should bring together people of colour, not divide us. This week, the AAPI blogging community is dedicating a week of posts in solidarity with our Native brothers and sisters to try and raise awareness for #NotYourMascot and the R*dskins controversy. Many AAPI blogs have committed to writing posts in support of #NotYourMascot, and we will also be re-tweeting the powerful and compelling writing of Native writers.

Please check out all the blogs participating in this week of solidarity and bookmark this post, which will be aggregating all the writing done this week.

Please also check back for updates.

This post was last updated April 17th 12:00PM EST.

Continue reading “List of Posts in Week of #Solidarity with #NotYourMascot | #AAPI #Native #NDN”