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.

The cast of the 2014 production of Private Lives at the Shakespeare's Theatre.
The cast of the 2014 production of Private Lives at the Shakespeare’s Theatre.

Much of Wu’s op-ed is a broad description of the plot of Private Lives, but in the section where he tackles the use of the slur “Chinaman” in the dialogue of the play, Wu documents his issues with the term thusly: 1) it is grammatically inaccurate, and 2) it is often paired with condescension. He then writes:

In contemporary popular culture, there has been a lively debate on whether the term is offensive. I’ve always regarded offensiveness as the wrong test. A prude would be offended by the sexuality of Coward’s work, to say nothing of his life. It’s how people respond when the problem is presented that interests me. 

This seems to assert that terms like “Chinaman” do not carry innate racial pain; that instead its status as a slur is a matter of debate. Yet, slurs are not slurs because of the political sensitivities of target groups. This would suggest that the controversies over these words would just go away if only (some, less well-behaved) minorities grew a thicker skin. This permits the debate over the usage of such words to rest at the feet of the “over-sensitive” few.

I argue otherwise: slurs are slurs because they invoke a more racist time, when men and women of colour were conventionally viewed as odd, Other, or lesser than. The casual use of a slur is a rosy-eyed reminiscence for a time before minorities had the power to object to these words. Their contemporary use is an implied challenge issued to people of colour from a position of privilege: that we should know better than to resist, that we should “know our place”, and that there is something wrong with us if we won’t tolerate the unthinking racism of others.

The Chinese coolie in the American minstrel tradition.
Turn of the century usage of “Chinaman” or “John Chinaman” as a racist reference to the generic Chinese American, often coupled with dehumanizing stereotypes. In this comic, a simian and queued “Chinaman” is labeled as a “destroyer of women and children”, deserving of the whip.

The history of the term “Chinaman” is telling: it is a word that invokes the 18th and 19th century American idiom “a Chinaman’s chance in hell”, which refers to how Chinese American coolies were given the most dangerous jobs in the building of the Central Pacific Railroad — tasked with running live dynamite into half-dug tunnels so that mountains might be blasted. Thousands of Chinese American labourers perished in the construction of the railroad; today, their sacrifice is only just earning popular recognition. Subsequently, it was used alone or as part of “Johnny Chinaman” as a generic reference to Chinese coolies; here, it emphasized the dehumanization and lack of individuality of Chinese Americans — we were not even worthy of having distinct names. The phrase “Chinaman” is not ambiguously offensive. It is a relic of a time when Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans lacked most basic legal rights; when the vast majority worked as indentured servants; when rape, beatings and lynching were commonplace; when the life of an Asian American was jokingly worth so little, a common idiom arose around it.

In short, there can be no question: yes — the term “Chinaman” is absolutely derogatory, and this doesn’t rely upon how an Asian American audience member at the Shakespeare’s Theatre might perceive it as such. It is so obviously a slur that (as some Asian American commentators noted off-the-record) over two decades ago, both Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston — two writers who are otherwise completely at odds with one another — both found reason to try and reclaim it.

Yet, there remains resistance in the mainstream to label slurs as derogatory. We still question the offensiveness of archaic terms like “Chinaman”, “Oriental”, “Coloured”, “Negro” or “Redskins”, presenting narratives that might cast doubt on their history of racism. I think this is a product of the grossly oversimplified nature of the debate. We popularly believe that slurs should never be used, and that they should be functionally (if not explicitly) banned under all circumstances. To paraphrase Wu, a person who consciously uses a slur after a target minority objects must be an asshole; furthermore, any minority who hears it must — blind to context — work tirelessly to stamp it out lest they be seen as an apologist or sellout. Therefore some slurs that enjoy more popular or regional usage — like “Chinaman” or “Oriental” — must not be all that derogatory. Since Coward wasn’t trying to be an asshole, since he also insulted the French and Catholics, and since Wu felt no need to jump from his chair and stop the production screaming “racism”, “Chinaman” must not be all that bad.

This is completely circular reasoning.

I think we need to move past the notion that the way to fight slurs is to ban their usage in all settings. I think the more reasonable approach to the debate is to encourage education and awareness over the history of racial slurs, and to discourage  their casual and light-hearted usage, but to not ban them outright. We must emphasize that archaic words like “Chinaman” and others carry the weight of racial pain and hatred, regardless of context. When Coward’s Amanda remarks in Private Lives, “I haven’t had any particular cravings for Chinamen or old boots”, we must acknowledge that this theatrical line reinforces the racist marginalization of Chinese and Chinese American men and equates sexual relations with them as a form of deviancy. This weight comes at the moment of the slur’s utterance, regardless of the good-natured intent of the production’s playwright.

But, we must also shift the fight over the use of slurs away from the blanket banning of words; this only encourages an anti-intellectual and unengaged approach towards word choice. I find movements to blindly ban lists of words highly Orwellian; I think slurs should not be banned, but nor should they be used freely and lightly. When used, they should be used consciously, thoughtfully, and with acknowledgement that they will be hurtful and that minorities have a right to be offended. The use of “Redskins” — with accompanying redface — is completely inappropriate for a national sports team. The use of “Jap” in the context of a 1982 hate crime is galling. The use of “Coloured” to defend anti-affirmative action policies that disadvantage African Americans and other underrepresented minorities is appallingThe use of “Oriental” in a satirical comedy bit is painful, but also a deliberate tool to highlight a concomitant example of racism. The use of “Negro” in a feature-length epic set during chattel slavery is deliberate, educational and expected.

Stephen Colbert: "Now folks, you are here on an historic night. The Report has been on the air almost seven years now and it has gone through a lot of changes. I mean, who could forget year one and my animated antigovernment sidekick, The Spends Too Much Chinaman. It was a different time. We can’t judge them."
An early Colbert joke: “Now folks, you are here on an historic night. The Report has been on the air almost seven years now and it has gone through a lot of changes. I mean, who could forget year one and my animated antigovernment sidekick, The Spends Too Much Chinaman. It was a different time. We can’t judge them.”

Slurs always carry the weight of racial hatred. These words are always derogatory, but context still matters. There are situations where a slur may be used with deliberation and purpose to educate or incite, but never without pain. It is not up to individual minorities to judge how the context of a slur renders it offensive or not; it is always offensive. Instead we have room to judge how its usage may be thought-provoking, educational, and artistic (or not) in the face of that offensiveness. It is here that the diversity of the minority experience can and should produce a broad range of opinions.

As I close this post, I contemplate ABC’s upcoming family sitcom, “Fresh Off The Boat” (or FOTB) which invokes a common anti-Asian and anti-immigrant slur. Some have already taken offense to the show title, which is based upon the autobiography of celebrity chef Eddie Huang. Yet “Fresh Off The Boat” hopes to reclaim the slur as part of the show’s goal of reframing the Asian American identity through a direct challenge to cultural assimilationism. It is possible that FOTB may treat this subject matter with care and nuance; or, it may be a racial disaster that gives a free pass to non-Asians to use a term that is derogatory on its face. Either way, there is no sense in seeking to ban the show’s invocation of FOTB before it has had a chance to make a case for itself.

The context of ABC’s newest Asian American family sitcom will not change whether or not the phrase “fresh off the boat” is a slur. “Fresh off the boat”, like “Chinaman”, is always derogatory; that is a given. What may (or may not) matter is what is said next.


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