When to Use Ethnic Slurs: A Guide

Is it ever acceptable to say "Chinamen"?
Chinese laborers blast a tunnel in California in the late 1860s. ( Alfred A. Hard/Library of Congress )

When is it permissible to say the word “Chinaman”?

Recently Bob Beckel, a pundit and Democratic operative best known for engineering Walter Mondale’s 49-state presidential defeat in 1984, got himself in trouble for saying on Fox News that “Chinamen” have become America's greatest threat.

Critics here and abroad jumped on Beckel’s casual slur, and many found his un-apologetic apology unsatisfying. I was among them. But I had to think about it a beat longer. You see, I’m the author of a new book about being Chinese American in this tension-filled age of China and America. It’s called A Chinaman’s Chance.

The Beckel flap prompted me to spell out my intuition and instinct about when the use of the word “Chinaman” could be okay. Which now leads me to offer the four following rules of engagement for words that may be construed as ethnic slurs:

Rule 1: Am I a member of the group that the word is sometimes used to slur? If yes, go to #2. If no, go to #3.

Rule 2: Am I aware that the word has a derogatory use? If yes, go to #3. If no, go to #4.

Rule 3: Am I mocking a slur by reappropriating it? If yes, as one recent and provocative entry in the six-word “Race Card Project” put it, “I can say it; you can't.” If no, go to #4.

Rule 4: Am I speaking with intent to praise or to damn the group that the word targets? If to praise, I am out of touch even if I'm not malicious, and I'm possibly still a racist. If to damn, then I am probably both malicious and racist—and will certainly be taken to be.

To put these rules into practice, consider the use of “Chinaman” in the title of my book. The phrase originated in the 1850s when Chinese immigrant laborers were given the most dangerous and thankless tasks in building America’s railroads and mining its mountains, such that their chances of survival were often slim to none. It entered into the lexicon like “Indian giver” or “Welshing on a promise”—colorful ways to couple undesirable behavior and undesirable ethnicity.

It's been a long time since the phrase was in common usage. But I myself am what used to be called a “Chinaman” (Rule 1). I am aware that it's been used a slur (Rule 2). And I am indeed mocking the slur by reappropriating it and using it about myself (Rule 3).

More precisely, I am using it with irony and paying homage to my immigrant father’s ironic sense of humor. Chao-hua Liu was a sponge for American idiom and slang when he came here in the late 1950s. Somewhere along the way he learned this phrase, realized it was to be used against him and his kind, and decided to defang it by applying it to trivial everyday situations: “The Yankees have a Chinaman's chance of coming back in the ninth inning,” he'd say when I was a kid. Or if it was almost closing time at Shop-Rite, “You have a Chinaman's chance of getting there on time!” He taught me how wit can neuter malice—how new Americans can repurpose the language, taking control of words meant to control.

Presented by

Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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