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The N-Word In Their Own Words

I recently remarked to some friends that having someone refer to me as an “Oriental” was as offensive as the N-word is to a Black person. It’s an involuntary, visceral response. I cringe, I wince, I can’t help but think that the person who said it either wants to cause a fight, has nobody but White friends, or has not left the house since the 1970s, or perhaps all of the above.

The moniker of choice is Asian at the least, Asian American if you’re in the know, and Mr. Asian American if you’re nasty.

My wife asked me if I think the word, Westerner is offensive. And I said, No. She asked, What if White people took offense to that. I said, I don’t really care. She said, You know you have a double standard? I said, Yes. After all the names I’ve been called, I hardly consider Westerner an insult. She said, I don’t think White people know that Oriental, which means Eastern, is offensive. They just don’t know.

And she’s probably right. She usually is. And that’s what I think offends me even more: White people don’t know. It’s like the bully who forgot they pushed you around or the girl who can never remember your name. It’s insulting. It feels even more dehumanizing that they simply don’t know or can’t discern what to say when. When White people justify it by saying, but they use the word Oriental in Hong Kong, or Black people call each other the N-word, it’s even more aggravating. Because the fact of the matter is, Asian and Asian Americans are still trying to self-differentiate, to collect ourselves and forge an identity of our own, and the issues of colonization and wanting to be White without knowing it and emulating all things of the dominant majority are issues that we face. So there is a lot of internal dialogue that needs to happen and a great deal of inconsistency as to what Asians understand as racism vs. self-hatred. And it’s patronizing and annoying to have White people who simply don’t know assume they can continue to define us or label us as they used to when the sun never set on the British Empire. Those days are over.

So when the conversation about the N-word came up on the View, I thought it was obvious. That’s their word. And they are negotiating it when and how it can and should be used by others, if at all. And when they decide that, they’ll let you know. And none of this means that we are less American or less patriotic or less Christian. It simply means that we want to be really who we are, without being defined by the White majority. And as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have “Oriental” back, unless you’re looking for a particular type of rug.

But here are some glimpses into how that internal dialogue and reconstruction takes place.

Julian Curry, a poet on the word

Smokey Robinson, you are a lot badder and harder than your falsetto voice would divulge.

And if you know me by now, you know that I’m a huge fan of Beau Sia, and you can hear how “CHINK” is equally off-limits (his poem, “Hip-Hop” here. So yeah, there’s no chink in your armor, it’s a weak spot.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

12 responses to “The N-Word In Their Own Words

  1. djchuang

    What’s confusing about the word “oriental” is that the word itself can be used ok in some context, i.e. rugs and maybe some other inanimate things. What surprised me is that a 3rd generation Chinese American 70+ years old was ok with using the word “oriental” to describe himself, which indicated to me apparently that term was not offensive some years ago for a previous generation. All that to say, “oriental” is not always an offensive word in the history of American culture, the way the “N-word” has been used offensively for much of its history.

  2. elderj

    When I was growing up back in the day “oriental” was the word of choice as opposed to the other word to which you referred (the “C” word) which was clearly and obviously derogatory. I didn’t know it was offensive and quite honestly neither did any of the people I was around because it was the only word ever referenced in polite company. No one I knew ever used the word Asian or Asian-American — not even Asian-Americans. Calling someone oriental seemed preferable to the other alternatives growing up, such as just calling somebody Chinese, which seemed to indicate that there weren’t any Asians born in the US. So, the history of the word is a bit different than nigger.

    Having said that, I understand why it is offensive and don’t use it, just like Black people aren’t referred to as Negro anymore (though that used to be the preferred term). And for the record, I don’t mind your double standard.

  3. mrpages ⋅

    Wow. Just… wow.

    David, I’m afraid you lost me on this one. I hardly believe you wrote this tantrum.

    “After all the names I’ve been called, I hardly consider Westerner an insult.” Did you stop and read that a few times? Seriously?

    What you are primarily is a child of God. If you wish to be anything else after that, good for you. But don’t let your membership in other groups overshadow your responsibilities to the primary. You are insulted, so what’s your response supposed to be?

    Stop trashing people for their ignorance. Start educating them. Stop being offensive in response to offense.

    Seriously, for the majority of folks that you are describing, using words like “Oriental” isn’t anything other than plain ignorance. It’s not malicious, it’s that quite frankly most of us just don’t spend our time investigating what various groups of the world wish to be called today. But some do. Google “calling people oriental offensive” and you’ll see that there are people who want to know, and there are people who are politely answering. “The correct term is Asian of Asian American. The others are now considered offensive.” And that’s the way to get the message out.

    I know it’s hurtful to your pride that most people don’t care about your identity issues, but it’s the truth. It’s not about you.

    And maybe someday I’ll write up my discourse on how I truly dislike being called “white”. (Seriously)

  4. mr. pages, forgive me. it was a tantrum and i hope it did not offend you too much. however, i hope that it conveys how much these things, these words, these labels, are so casual and toxic. and the type of “polite” correction which you mention is simply not expressive enough to convey the sense of injustice that occurs for many people of color. but you are right, and i assure you i respond in grace most of the time, but you must allow me and others who are not of the dominant majority to occasionally express honestly, and raw-ly how these words have history and a sting. ignorance, which as you rightly point out, is not malicious, but cannot in the long-term be our excuse for the reconciliation that needs to occur between the children of God. The church is, should be, a place where this type of reconciliation can be made, and unfortunately, not all of it is pretty nor can it be resolved without some release of anger and bitterness. i don’t mean to presume that all White (forgive the term) people are equally ignorant or callous to my cultural identity formation, and honestly, i would like it to lead to education, about myself and others, but for me, i think we, particularly as Christians gloss over these issues simply because we serve the same Lord. But as I read about shalom, and the extent of what it means for Jesus to be called the Prince of shalom, I don’t mean to offend with the assumption that we are not brothers in Christ, but as brothers, we need to be able to be frank, to express areas of frustration, and to vent. I look forward to your discourse and hope that you can receive this post for what it is, a tantrum.

  5. mrpages ⋅

    Heh. I absolutely accept it for what it is. And I absolutely have more than a few of them on my own site. And at my own dinner table. And over far less significant issues than my cultural identity.

    I can not truly grasp the issues you struggle with, and for that I am sorry. My responses are definitely filtered through the lens of majority. Even I can see that, but I’m as restricted to my cultural viewpoint as you are, and hopefully we can both (all) get to a point of real reconciliation.

    Thanks for letting me vent too.

  6. elderj

    Can I throw a tantrum too??

  7. iprefer ⋅

    I greatly prefer to be called “Caucasian” or “Caucasian American.” I’m offended when people just call me white, because my skin is nowhere near the color white. “White” is an extreme generalization, and “German American” would be much more accurate to my heritage. And “Determined by the White majority”? The majority of people with white skin do not say Oriental. You should probably refer to “Americans” or “Eastern Europeans.” Try not to contradict yourself.

    Ignorance only exists because people like you can’t speak up when they’re offended. You need to try to relax a little bit, and explain to people (in person, not on the internet) that the term “Oriental” offends you. The only people I’ve ever heard say it are people that grew up during the time when that word was the most accepted one, so give society a break and do something about the problem.

  8. daniel so

    iprefer — I hesitate even to dignify your comments with a response, but I’m astounded that you would blame ignorance on the victims of that ignorance:
    “Ignorance only exists because people like you can’t speak up when they’re offended.”

    It’s the fault of “people like you”? Wow. And ordering “people like us” to “relax a little bit” shows that you have no comprehension of what David was trying to say in the first place.

    I’m surprised you said to David, “Try not to contradict yourself” when you have contradicted yourself in the first paragraph you wrote. You don’t want extreme generalizations about the white majority and yet you make a sweeping generalization about the majority of white people not saying “oriental.” My own personal experience disproves what you’re saying. In fact, more white people have said things like, “oriental” or “Chinese” to describe me, a Korean American person, than anything else.

    If you prefer to be called German American, and it helps you in forming your own sense of identity, then all the more power to you. But don’t try to pretend you understand what the Asian American experience is like. When you blame the victim and pretend that you have all the answers to very complicated and difficult issues, you come across as extremely condescending.

  9. iprefer ⋅

    Perhaps I did generalize. In the sample of conversations with other Americans (taken from every conversation concerning the Asian culture I have ever had in my entire life) I have heard perhaps a handful of them use the word Oriental to describe a person of Asian descent. I think that that sample is fairly representative, but admittedly it is not a worldwide survey.

    I don’t mean to blame ignorance entirely on the victim in this case. Oriental is not an accurate term, and that is fact. But when someone offends you, you should speak up. The term has been outdated and inaccurate for a very long time. If you don’t tell a user of that term that you are offended, you are allowing them to continue in their ignorance. The statement referring to the fact that “white people don’t know,” followed by the fact that the author seems to think that somehow us white folks would know that it is offensive without being told illustrates my point rather well, I think.

    Perhaps my sarcasm went unnoticed on the issue of being called white. How could I possibly expect people to know that I have German heritage? I feel that demanding to be called by your precise national heritage by everyone and holding them expressly accountable for being knowledgeable about what offends you personally is a bit unrealistic; and frankly, selfish.

  10. serendipity now serendipity now serendipity now serendipity now serendipity now serendipity now serendipity now serendipity now serendipity now.

    thanks iprefer for your comments. and of course, i try to correct people as it happens. but it’s hard to stop conversations with “THAT’S RACIST!” a la AngryAsianMan, so i do try to contextualize my “teaching” moments. but i hope you do realize that as a german american, only you and fellow caucasians would have the audacity to assume that the playing field is level and that we have always been equals. don’t get me wrong, i’m not bitter at America, and just because you overheard a rant that really wasn’t intended for you, doesn’t mean i walk around pissing and moaning all the time. i assure you that most of the time, i “give society a break,” it’s when society doesn’t acknowledge that is when i get angry. most german americans and caucasian americans walk around thinking justice has been served when most people of color, when push comes to shove, feel that all is not fair. and perhaps we’re a little over-sensitized…but really, can you blame us? have you ever been threatened because you were german american? have you been spit on and called “caucasian”? ever been caught in a race riot? knew you didn’t get the job because you were german american?

    i don’t hold you accountable to know what that feels like. and i’m not asking anyone to know to call me by my precise national heritage, a continent would be fine and realistic. and if i’m selfish it’s because i’m blogging about what offends me on a blog that explicitly addresses ASIAN AMERICAN issues. frankly, this is part and parcel what minorities find so offensive about whites is that they are pretentious enough to tell us how to feel or to get over it or that we are the ones who are selfish. thank you for demonstrating this so well, iprefer.

    but here’s the thing. i get what you’re saying. and you are right, minorities can be unreasonable in our expectations, but what i’d like the majority to see is that what we would appreciate is for white people to not walk around like bulls in a china shop (and yes, that pun was intended). by no fault other than history and sociology, you have privilege, and the rest of us may not. wield your privilege and language in a way that honors others, so that people who live in fear may be at peace and people who are angry may be calmed. i apologize for my own anger. i don’t even know you personally, and you don’t know me. we are not enemies, and i don’t want my words to make us that. and i acknowledge that words can. but that is the whole point of this post, that little things like words would not have that much power to make us enemies. and maybe i’m too sensitive and maybe you’re too blunt, but neither one of us is wrong. we just have yet to make things right.

  11. mrpages ⋅

    Amazing response, David. Truly light-shining, eye-opening.

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