A self titled “speaking artist,” Alex Luu is a slam poet from Southern California who speaks out about his experience as an Asian-American. Most recently, he made an appearance at the Taiwanese American Student Association’s Plum Blossom Banquet last weekend. Halfway through Luu’s evocative set on the singular breed of racism directed toward Asians in the United States, Luu brought up the often discussed issue of racial slurs, which is where a significant flaw in the Asian understanding of racism lies.
In one of his poems, Luu cites the hope that one day, his son may smile without being called “chink.” However, the word has long since fallen out of the popular vocabulary, which begs the question of whether the issue of slurs against Asians is still as relevant as it once was. This remark by Luu is the most recent in a long line of Asian-American creatives and intellectuals who have cited a shared struggle with other ethnic groups in the United States centered around racial slurs.
Often, in an attempt to find some common ground between marginalized groups in the U.S., we revert to slurs as a tangible way to relate to other groups and to understand what racism is. However, this issue is ultimately less relevant to Asian-Americans, particularly Chinese-Americans like Luu. Common words that are brought up in the Asian community include “chink” and “zipperhead,” both of which were more offensive and more effective in the past, but have far less power today than they did then.
Although the words have not completely lost their original significance and connotation, they are no longer as effective for one major reason: Asian-Americans are perceived as the model minority, which has changed the image of the minority group enough for these slurs to fall out of use. However, these slurs often stay around in no small part due to the Asian-American community. By touting slurs as a major issue Asian-Americans face, we partially construct a struggle that we share little part in. Trying to hold these words up as justification for the struggle Asian-Americans face only belittles the real and present danger that racial slurs pose for other communities.
Slurs against the Asian-American community remain less used than racial slurs for other groups, which often still hold undeservedly strong negative connotations today. This is not to deny that Asian-Americans face racism in the U.S., but to note that it is a specific breed of prejudice that currently comes from the perception of the model minority and the clash in Eastern and Western cultures, rather than the more racially charged conflicts of past decades.
We must acknowledge the weight that these slurs once had but also understand that the Asian-American community has the power to put these words to bed. In doing so, we can begin to tackle issues such as the facade of the model minority and support other groups facing a more present danger due to slurs used against them that still carry weight.
It is Luu who phrases this best by remarking on the structure of the Chinese language: “There’s an emphasis for the speaker to know when and where they are before they announce where they are going, a lesson on being grounded, on knowing your roots, on forgiving your history to allow space for the future.”
Caroline Zhu is a first-year computer science and economics major with a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare. She is currently asleep and cannot take any messages.