January 21, 2007

Lumps in the melting pot

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'' incident, and 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 just discussing with me last week. She convinced me that some really interesting 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 in understanding 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:

``you 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 stereotyping is.

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 to many hearers.

But hey, sticks and stones, right? Doubtless, some Asian Americans feel that pain. But most are surely made of sterner stuff. There's more to it.

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, O'Donnell's (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 her just 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 phonology, 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