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Racial Slurs are a Matter of Ethical Context

ESPN’s use of the headline “Chink in the Armor” (describing the New York Knicks’ first loss with Asian-American, NBA point guard Jeremy Lin in the starting lineup) illustrates that ethics, while not relative, is certainly contextual. The cliché technically means weakness or flaw, but the term “Chink” is also a racial slur for Chinese-Americans (cf. using a “niggardly” reference for a selfish African-American basketball player). In the wake of “Linsanity,” puns were proliferating without regulation until a moral mishap forced corporate backpedaling and new industry standards. Former network sports editor Anthony Federico appeared to lack malicious intent with this Medieval phrase. However, the context of his oversight and implicit association of his “incite” shows that bad etymological choices can result in unemployment. The bottom line is that Federico was not fired for racism, but for making a poor editorial decision that potentially cost huge amounts of goodwill with key audiences in the United States and Asia for ESPN and parent company Walt Disney .

Consider Saturday Night Live’s sublime parody on our nation’s double standard on race and political correctness and the Daily Show’s satire on a “Lingrown toenail . . . during Black History Month.” While both sketches contained jokes and insults against Asian-Americans throughout their segments, purer purposes and comedic context provided the needed justified protection for administering racial smears.

Granted many find it unjust when minorities freely use these pejorative terms among members of their own race. Is there a double standard when a Caucasian cannot mention the word Nigga(er) and/or Chink when so many African-Americans do in greetings and in popular music, or when a younger Jeremy Lin identifies himself as ChiNkBaLLa88 on his Xanga account? It isn’t that ethics is relative (right for one group but wrong for another), but rather contextual. Minorities use these monikers with a mutual understanding that the words are not historically loaded or racially charged but accepted with affection and respect as opposed to their original meanings. For some, the co-opting of these derogatory words and phrases represent a way to master what was formerly enslaved. For others, it represents a way to deal with past pain. Whatever the solution, ethical context matters.