Monday, February 20, 2012

Language That Hurts

Perhaps you have seen the headlines. A number of staff members of sporting giant, ESPN, were fired over the weekend for authoring and approving an article's headline that was racist.  I've thought a bit about this and the use of language.

If you do not know the story, briefly, the New York Knicks, a professional basketball team (identifying this for my readers who couldn't care less) have a player who lives in Taiwan. This is important to know. He's good. He's very good and has helped the Knicks to many wins this season, including a recent impressive winning streak. Over the weekend, however, the Knicks lost. This resulted in the most unfortunate headline on ESPN's online site. "Chink in the Armor" it read.

First of all, racist, derogatory language has no place in a civilized society under any circumstances. I'm not going to defend what was said from the standpoint of the racist overtones. It was wrong. Period.

Yet, when I read this headline, I didn't see the racist word. I had to read the subsequent articles to realize "chink" is the offensive word here. Perhaps you didn't see it either if you aren't paying attention to sports. I consider myself very aware of racism and I missed it. Why?

"Chink" is not a word with which I have familiarity and therein should provide ESPN and, indeed all of us with a huge teaching moment, to use a trite cliche. Once I was told the word of course I recognized it but in the social and ethnic circles I run in, this word is not used as a put down of another race. It's used to describe a dent or ding, an unintended crack, a fissure or the sound made by glass glasses being struck together. It would never occur to me and I would hope, my friends, to use this word for any other purpose.

I'm willing to bet, at the heart of this, that's what happened. You had a writer, an editor and a proofreader who were completely unfamiliar with this word being offensive to a whole group of people. Follow up articles have said this player was called a 'chink' which doubles the agony of seeing this in print.

We have done remarkably well to eradicate some offensive language from public speech. We have worked to remove "nigger" from the public discourse. It's just not an acceptable term. Other words remain, however, and it's in this class that 'chink' belongs. If it was never used in your sphere of life, it's not going to be understood as the derogatory word that it is.

So, what to do about this. I would never advocate having a class where all the possible terms to put someone down are identified. I remember hearing in a psychology class in college that as long as long as there has been language, there has been need of one class to create a derogatory term to identify another class. I want to make myself feel better about who I am. Therefore, I will brand you as an 'x' and tell my friends to use it, too. Language and human history is littered with attempts to put down one class verbally so another class can feel better about itself.

I think, however, if ESPN does not have a 'style book', they better get one, now. In this book should be a page of terms which are unacceptable to be used at any point. One woman's unexpected fissure is another's racist appellation. ESPN should have meetings where this book is distributed and their writers and editors and proofreaders should be instructed to memorize the list. They have stepped forward and said, "This is unacceptable to us." Their example to remove this kind of language will go a long way toward removing it from everyday casual conversation.

Beverage:  Edinburgh's Finest tea


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