Wop, Dago, Nip, Jap, Frog, Kraut, Mick, Limey, Polack, Kike, Raghead, Wetback, Gook, Chink, and the “N” word Nigger; we have all heard these words. They are derogatory, and laced with hateful meaning, but to pretend they don’t exist is the way to give them power.
I recently watched a program on 60 Minutes, about a rewritten version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has been created eliminating the word “Nigger,” which Twain uses often in the book in dialogue between Huck and Jim, his black slave friend. The editors of this changed version of Huckleberry Finn defend their actions as being sensitive to the feelings of African-Americans and not furthering the utilization of this word. An African-American writer said this was foolish, and an insult to the work of Twain. He said African-Americans need to get over their hostility to the word, and recognize it for what it was and is. In the past the word was used as label. It was uttered commonly in Mark Twain’s time and spoken frequently well into the 1960s. It became a politically incorrect word – a slur — sometime during the awakening of Afro-American consciousness and black civil rights. Today it is hidden below the surface of white racism. It is shouted by African- American rap musicians as defiance and affront to the dominant culture. Its euphemism, “the N word,” sensitive whites use with an embarrassed politeness, but everyone knows its sound and what it means. To be a nigger is to be less than a person who isn’t. To be any of those derogatory names is to be diminished. I was not called a nigger, but I was called a chink and it hurt. It traumatized me for many years when I was young.
I was called Chinky by my family because I had drooped eyelids that made my family think I looked Chinese. I was never Carl to my family. Maybe they couldn’t call me Carl because it was also my father’s name. So they had to come up with a nickname. Nicknames were common in the Davis family. To his mother and father my dad was Carlie, not Carl or Carlton – his actual name and mine too. Everyone else called him Carl. His mother, my grandmother, Phoebe, was called Nonnie and his father, my grandfather, Van Derveer was Yoya. They never explained why they had these names. From the days I can first remember I was called Chinky, my sister was Carolee even though her name was Carolyn, and my cousins were Dee and Dixie even though their names were Everett and Florence. My mother, my stepmother, and my sisters, and all my relatives all called me Chinky. It was just a sound and a word without meaning. I didn’t know what it meant until that name followed me to school.
In elementary school I discovered how a name can make you miserable. I was taunted with Chinky said in a nasty pitch, and run after by students shouting “Stinky Chinky is a pinkie.” The bullies in the school would get in my face saying “Chinky, the Chinaman, are you a commie kid?” When I denied I was a Communist, these bigger boys would respond “Yeah, you’re a Chink and Chinks are commies” They would attack, push me to the ground yelling “Chink! Chink! Chink!” and pommel me; then laugh. I cried, which only made the taunts worse. I hated going to school in Corning, New York, where I lived with my father and his new wife. We moved there from Rochester where I was born, and the name came with me. This was the time of the Korean War, and the USA was engaged in armed conflict with Communist Chinese. Everything Chinese was a potential target of hate, much of it racial in character. America has had a long history of intolerance toward the Chinese. They were attacked when used a cheap laborers in the Western Territories in the 19th Century. They, along with the Japanese, were subjected to exclusionary laws of immigration in 1882. The Asians were sly and inscrutable. Their language and writing was undecipherable. Their food was different. Their skin was a different color. But I wasn’t Chinese; I was a white boy, and my skin wasn’t even vaguely yellow, yet I was a target.
I begged my father and my stepmother not to call me Chinky. They said it is only a fun nickname. It doesn’t mean anything. Once when I came home from school and said to my parents that my friend Jimmy was a Wop and my friend Eddie was a Kike, my parents scolded me that I should be careful how I use these words. They didn’t slap me. They just warned me, but later they would use these same words in a conversation about who lived where in town and who was reliable or not. The message is keep the words to yourself and only use them among your own kind. If I couldn’t say Wop in school, why would my family allow people to call me a Chink? It was confusing to a small boy.
My father was not sensitive to my distress. As I grew older and went to high school, I demanded that he stop calling me this name. “What wrong with you that you can’t stand up to these stupid boys who mock your name?” he asked. “Be a man. Punch them in the face, Chinky.” “They gang up,” I said. I can’t beat up four or five kids!”
Dad had no response and, as he always did when confronted with an unpleasant situation, he disappeared into the basement to work in his woodshop. My father avoided confrontations outside the home, but at home or with his buddies he salted his speech with the derogatory words. He was a veteran of WWII, and Japanese people would always be Nips and Japs in his eyes. He didn’t say Nigger, very often, probably because there were few in this town, but he did roll out the words Wop, Mick, and Polack with frequency. These people were Roman Catholics and different from us. The Kike, my father said, weren’t to be trusted. I learned most of the hateful names from my family, and the ones I didn’t know I learned in the schoolyard from other children, who got it from their parents.
The names were used as a spear in the high school. They made you easy prey if you weren’t part of a larger group or were caught without your group. In Corning there were two groups: the farm kids and the townies. The farm kids all had common American last names: Jones, James, Miller, Smith Watson, Wilson, etc. They disliked the townies, which were Italian, Irish, and Polish. The farm kids called the townies the names that would get them angry. The townies referred to themselves by slang names, but wouldn’t tolerate hearing it from a farm boy. To the townies, the farm boys were stupid pigs among many other epithets which usually involved the word “shit.” I was lumped in with the Jewish kids, of whom there were few, the other adolescents who didn’t fit in – too fat, too smart, too weird — or who had a funny name. The Chink was a good victim. Awkward, clumsy, nervous — I bit my finger nails; and with a mercurial disposition, I did not fit in with either group. The nickname pierced and deflated me like a balloon. I was reviled by a name. I was an outsider.
The boys, wearing the cloth jackets with leather arms and tight cuffs like their older friends in high school, confronted me outside the school at the bus stop. “What’cha doin’, Chinky?” the leader of the group – his name was Butch — he was a farm kid with crew cut hair that stood up right on his head about an inch, snarled at me as he pushed his fingers in my chest and then in two quick moves up and down hit my nose and smashed my books from my arms. The blood poured from my nose and my face turned crimson. “Look at this, The Chink is getting all pink. Shouldn’t you be yellow?” Butch mocked. He and the group of his four friends all laughed. Anger welled up in me, but I could not move my arms to punch Butch. They were paralyzed by fear at my sides. His arm was still extended pointing at my face. Without thinking I opened my jaws, leaned forward, and chomped hard on his hand. Butch howled. I ran. His buddies, surprised, didn’t move to grab me. As I ran I heard them yell, “Yellow Chink!” I ran all the way home. I didn’t want to go to school again, but my parents insisted I go. The gang boys still taunted me at every opportunity, but they never again attacked me. I had crossed some invisible line when I bit Butch on the hand that made me crazy in their eyes, and they stayed a safe distance away as if I were some terrible cannibal. The Chink was safe.
My family moved. At home my family still used the name Chinky, and it made me want to defy them any way I could At the new high school, a school full of upper middle class adolescents who wanted to pleased their professor and professional parents, I wanted to be different from the good students. I hung out with the group of outsiders and told my friends they could call me Chink, but never Chinky. Put the Y on the end and I would bite your head off. I became proud of the Chinese reference. The Chinks were revolutionary, and against the bourgeoisie, a term I didn’t really understand although I liked the sound. The beatniks used the phrase to mock the American middle class, and I wanted to be a beatnik, so I was against the bourgeoisie. Under-age Chink and his outsider gang with ducktail haircuts, blue jeans, and white tee shirts, with cigarette packs rolled up in the short sleeves, went to strip joints in Scully Square, jazz and folk clubs in Cambridge, and convinced students to buy booze for us in Harvard Square. Anything that my parents found objectionable, I wanted to do. I was your typical snotty teenager, but in exerting my independence from my parents and their values, I defeated the derogatory meaning of the word Chink. Gradually my friends stopped calling me Chink. “You’re not a Chink,” they said, “we’re going to call you Clink.”
I became Clink until I went to college. There I established my identity as Carl, and gradually I persuaded my parents to stop calling me Chinky. I told them they could call me Chink. I was proud to be associated with this noble race, but without the Y, they would not do it. I had finally defeated the nickname. What I realized was that I couldn’t go on using the term Chink either, or any other derogatory words. I could not be a person who diminished others by giving them a label. Now if I hear someone say any of these words, I tell them that it is offensive to me, and that it ultimately hurts the person using the word. If they persist, I have to walk away. The funny thing is that being called a Chink has always made me interested in China. If I were called a Nigger, I think I would be interested in Africa. I’d want to go to Nigeria and travel up the Niger. I am finally getting to explore my interest when I go to China in a week to work as a volunteer teaching in a small town in Anhui Province. I want to tell anyone subjected to an ethnic or racial slur be proud of that slur. The name you give me has no power over me. It only reflects negatively on the person who used it. They are the dopes.