Should ESPN’s latest controversey leave us with a loss of words?

From Linsanity to Lin Diesel, sports writers and bloggers have reveled in the hoopla surrounding Jeremey Lin’s unlikely rise to NBA stardom, leaving no pun unearthed.  This past week however, two ESPN employees have landed themselves in hot water after using a questionable phrase to discuss the recent struggles of the Taiwanese American star.  One employee was fired; the other suspended.  While many are questioning the sincerity of the claims of each of these employees that no racism was intended, the offense their words caused is very real, and so ESPN was left with very little choice but to make a strong statement through the discipline of their employees. Yet, despite ESPN’s firm response, some are not satisfied, and are asking us all to take a look at the phrase at the center of this controversy.

As a guest on MSNBC’s Jansing and Company this past Monday, Rep. Judy Chu was asked to respond to ESPN Editor Anthony Frederico’s statement that he has used the phrase a hundred times before. Seemingly making no distinction between the use of the word “chink” alone as a racial epithet and used as part of a phrase to describe a small but fatal weakness, she remarked,

I think that the use of the term is appalling and offensive…And if he was using it all those times that is extremely sad. The word was used since the 1880s to demean Chinese Americans and to deprive them of rights, and it is used on playgrounds specifically to humiliate and to defend Asian Americans. So I don’t know where he’s been all this time.

Is Rep. Judy Chen suggesting that we stop using the phrase all together, no matter the situation, since it contains a word which is also used as a racial epithet?  Journalist Gil Asakawa is certainly of that opinion. Writing for the blog Nikkei View, he explains,

…for most Asian Americans, the word “chink” in any context, or even out of context, on a page by itself, elicits a very specific and predictable response: Our gut clenches. We react viscerally to the word’s racist meaning because we’ve been hit with its history of hate…The phrase “chink in the armor” can be traced to the 1400s. It’s had a good long run, and maybe it’s time to retire it.

Mr. Asakawa’s words are a heartrending description of pain, and another powerful confutation to all those who would like us to believe that the election of a black man as President miraculously ushered in a new, post-racial America.  That said, I believe it is going too far to ask us to protect Mr. Asakawa and other Asian Americans from being unintentionally reminded of racism against them. My parents are Scottish, and my girlfriend is Japanese, should they be asked to refrain from using the word “nippy” to describe cold weather or food that has a sharp, biting taste because it contains a word which has been used as a racial slur against Japanese?  And how about the phrase “nip it in the bud”? Is this otherwise innocuous phrase also unacceptable, no matter the context, because it might remind Japanese Americans of racism they may have dealt with in their lives?

As I mentioned out to Mr. Asakawa, his suggestion to remove the phrase “chink in the armor” from the English language brings to mind Prof. Alan Gribben’s new version of Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In it, all 219 instances of the use of the N-word are replaced with the word “slave”.  The intention to save Americans from the distress and discomfort that is caused by re-visiting a very dark period in their history may seem desirable, but it would leave Americans with a very distorted picture of their past – one that doesn’t seem so bad.  In doing so, American’s wouldn’t be able to draw upon the past to deal with issues in their own time. As author Marybeth Gasman states in her article for The Chronicle,

Taking it out of a book may make for easier reading, but to do so leads us down a slippery slope toward collective amnesia. The N-word has a vicious history in the United States, and one that must be remembered so that we don’t repeat it.

While, Mr. Asakawa and Rep. Judy Chu certainly aren’t talking about whitewashing literature of the past, they are asking us to sanitize the English language. In my opinion, if we were to go down this road, we would be lost in an endless search for words or images that might remind people of whatever personal pain they may be dealing with. Imagine all the words and images we would have to do away with to protect all those who suffer from discrimination or ridicule for a myriad of other reasons besides their race or ethnicity. Shall we make it a rule that sports writers stop using the phrase “a cancer in the locker room” when describing the likes of Terrell Owens?  What would be next? Perhaps, Alan Shearer should choose a new favorite word because the poor are reminded of their terrible plight every time he analyzes a football match?  Obviously that would be taking Mr. Asakawa’s suggestion to an absurd extreme, but I do wonder where the line would be drawn.  And what if we do accept that it is OK to remove words from our language in this situation because we are talking about a minority racial group? Should that be the sole standard for what qualifies as worthy of protection?

No, I’d rather society deal with these issues openly, discussing them so we can learn about how each of us views our place in society. The recent SNL spoof of the ESPN controversy was a shining example of the type of dialogue that will likely contribute more to the progress of race relations than the elimination of one phrase could ever do.  A brilliantly hilarious piece of social commentary, it has many of us talking to each other about the the double standards that exist with how we treat different forms of racism. It is a more sensible idea to me to use this instance of a racist headline about Jeremy Lin to talk about how exactly the word “chink” and other unmistakably racist language makes minorities feel, rather than to go on an inexorable quest to eliminate any words or phrases that might remind us of those feelings.


2 responses to “Should ESPN’s latest controversey leave us with a loss of words?

  • Brian Granger

    Great piece John.

    That comment you quoted above from Marybeth Gasman reminds me of similar comment made by Bernard years ago. Speaking of the Wests general ignorance towards the rich history of the Middle east he said (and I’m paraphrasing) that an individual or group without a sense of history are in a state of amnesia. An individual or group with a distorted sense of history is in a state of neurosis.

    Open dialogue always leads to better understanding. And a bit of humour to temper heated topics goes a long way as well.

    • Brian Granger

      Note: I meant to type Bernard Lewis above. Darn iPad autocorrect is brutal. I spend more effort retyping than the time it thinks it saves by auto filling. Lol.

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