Racist language is always news. Right now, the big international
incident is some vapid Big Brother contestant calling a Bollywood star
``Shilpa Popadum''. Ho hum. I mean, yes, it's disgusting, but do we
really need to watch TV to find out we're all racists? I'd been trying
so hard to forget the Michael `Krahmer' Howard ``nigger''
then it all came flooding back. And sandwiched in between was the big
``ching chong'' ding dong, which UT Austin grad student Elaine Chun was
discussing with me last week. She convinced me that some really
pragmatics was involved, and has rekindled my childhood interest in
insulting people. Well, not in insulting people per se, which is child's play. But
why they get so mad. That's a tough one.
So here's the ``Ching Chong'' incident. Rosie O'Donnell is on ``The
View'' discussing an earlier well-publicized show in
which Danny deVito was drunk, how it was big news just about
everywhere. She looks straight into the camera with painfully staged
timing like she's been
practicing this in front of her huge dressing room mirror a few too
many times and says what in the media is cited using variants of:
can imagine in
China it's like: Ching chong, ching chong chong, Danny DeVito, ching
chong chong chong, drunk, `The View,' ching chong.''
I'll leave narrow phonetic transcription of Rosie's utterance as this week's homework exercise:
She doesn't pull her eyes sideways in an unforgivable stereotyped
slant, but you can
imagine it. Public outcry follows broadcast, though not as big as
for the ``popadum'' and ``nigger'' incidents. Rosie gives
half-assed apology. Asian American community is deeply unimpressed. The
show goes on.
So what is it that makes Rosie's ``ching chong'' so offensive?
Answer A: Imitation is the
sincerest form of mockery. "Ching chong"
is offensive in the same way that any linguistic or dialectal
No, that can't be it. Sure, humor often relies on laughing at the other
guy, even if the other guys feelings are hurt. If there were a First
Law of Comic Dynamics, it would say: you can't make one person laugh
without making another one cry. (A Second Law? All comedy eventually
descends to slapstick.) But isn't it worse to ching chong an Asian
American than to bork bork a
Swedish American, a la the Muppet's Swedish chef?
Yes! But why?
Answer B: Painful weight of history.
``Ching chong'' has been used by bigots for a long time
(C18 Australian gold rush?), and is still used when taunting those of
East Asian descent. There's no doubt that hearing that specific
phrase, as opposed to arbitrary poor imitation of Chinese, causes pain
But hey, sticks and stones, right? Doubtless, some Asian Americans feel
pain. But most are surely made of sterner stuff. There's more to
Answer C: "Nigger" jealousy. Every
contemporary English speaker knows the word ``nigger'' can hurt, so why
do many people not recognize
the offensive potential of ``ching chong''. In a curious way,
(claimed) lack of awareness sharpens the ``ching chong'' needle, making
her insensitivity all the more unbearable. She said in a later
semi-apology: ``Some people have told me it's as bad as the N-word. I
was like, really? I didn't know that.'' And Asian Americans are like,
really? You call that an apology?
OK, hypothesis C may or may not be right, but it can't account for the
exreme anti-Rosie reaction. Surely people wouldn't be quite so angry at
for being ignorant? (Headline news: ROSIE IGNORANT.) Unless, of
course, they think she's lying.
Answer D: Lumps in the melting pot.
Elaine Chun points out to me that many Chinese Americans (and East
Asian Americans more generally) are particularly sensitive to being
marginalized, to not being seen to be integrated as core members of
American society in the way that say
Italian Americans or Jewish Americans are. Now Rosie's attempt at humor
makes essential use of the crudity of ``ching chong'' to suggest
extreme otherness. Indeed, if she'd instead used plausibly Chinese
that would have blunted part of her comic intent, since it would
have implied familiarity with the Chinese language, and so reduced
distance. When Rosie said ``in
China it's like: Ching chong...'', the use of ``like'' implied: this is
what a Chinese talkshow would seem like to you or me. But who are you and me? By
implication, we're people for whom the Chinese language is completely
unfamiliar, lacks any character. It may as well be children's
alliterative nonsense. So, if The View's audience, by design, is
mainstream America, then Rosie's implicit message is: you Chinese
Americans, you ain't part of it. You're
just lumps floating about in the scum at the top of the melting pot.
Now that's a message I haven't seen discussed anywhere. Rosie and her team of handlers didn't
even think of apologizing for anything like it. Lumps in the melting pot. Better a
lump than a ``chink'', perhaps. But not by much.
Posted by David Beaver at January 21, 2007 01:35 AM