I’m tired of these foreigners — especially these European and African soccer supremacists— constantly reminding me of how arrogant Americans are for calling Major League Baseball’s national championship the “World Series.” “What, the world only consists of America and Toronto?” they say with a stupid, sly smile, as if they came up with this witty retort to American exceptionalism.
The MLB championship is, in fact, the World Series, because America has the money, the level of play, and all the P1 athlete visas needed to attract the world’s best players. Of the four major American professional sports, baseball has the most foreign athletes, comprising over 25% of active players. And so, perhaps it is only in baseball that we could see the fascinating spectacle of a Cuban player, Yuli Gurriel, making an in-game racist gesture at a Japanese player, Yu Darvish, on live American television (Gurriel made chinky eyes and called Darvish a chinito after homering off of him in Game 4). It was like the UN of racism.
The Gurriel incident raises an important question: is the racism of foreigners, particularly non-white foreigners, as bad as the racism of Americans? Both Gurriel (who played in Japan) and Darvish seemed to minimize the incident, but American reactions on social media were far more intense than what went down between the two players. The question perfectly suited Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times, a biracial American with a Salvadoran father and a Japanese mother. In his opinion piece following the incident, he said that having grown up playing soccer with Spanish-speaking kids and being called a chinito himself, the American reaction to Gurriel’s slur (and his subsequent punishment) was inappropriately harsh because Latinos use racial slurs in a playful manner:
Really, it’s the context. This might be a hard concept to grasp for anyone who is monocultural or monolingual, but believe me when I tell you racial terms aren’t said with the same level of maliciousness in Spanish as they are in English. Even racist-looking gestures, like the one Guerriel made, aren’t made with the same level of vitriol. Not close.
As an Asian, I can see Hernandez’s point. I was raised by Chinese immigrant parents, and we regularly used racial jargon — it’s not quite accurate to call them “slurs”— to casually refer to people of other races, with or without an intent to insult. White people were laowai (ironically, foreigners), Latinos were amigos, and black people were heigui (black devils… yikes). It’s nowhere near innocent, but the difference between Chinese and American racism is such a complex topic that, as with Hernandez’s observation of Latino racism, the best one can do is to either “take our word” for it, or not. Put another way, it’s simply too complicated to explain why heigui is not the Chinese n-word. It just isn’t.
That’s not to say all Chinese agree on whether China has a racism problem or not. As with America, China also has an internal debate about racism and a constant re-examination of inter-ethnic relations. But while Americans will focus on something directly comparable to our own experiences, like the Chinese reaction to a racist soap commercial in which a black man is magically “cleaned” into a light-skinned Han Chinese man, the Chinese debate centers around a completely separate history of minority groups within China that the great majority of Americans aren’t familiar with. If you’re curious, the Sixth Tone blog has an excellent three-part series about this.
But the Gurriel incident can’t be so easily waved away as just a Cuban doing as Cubans do, because the incident happened here in America, where we have our own rules and standards about racism. After the league handed down a five-game no-pay suspension (to be served next season rather than during the World Series), both players acceded to the necessity of the punishment while maintaining that neither of them subjectively experienced the incident in the way that the Americans were insisting they had, or should have had.
This gap between American perception and foreigner intent illustrates the way in which the politics of American racism keeps going off the rails. It seems our current assumptions about racism is that it is a moral crime that requires both an intent and an action. In criminal law, it is assumed (with very limited, controversial exception) that all crimes require a criminal intent, a “guilty mind” without which a defendant must be considered innocent. And therefore it is assumed that either the league was right in punishing the incident, or that Hernandez was right and there was insufficient “guilt” to hand down a suspension.
But there is a way in which both the league and Hernandez can both be right, and that is to accept that racism is not just a moral crime — it certainly can be, there is no question in that — but also, in its lesser forms as with Gurriel, a social transgression that we all must avoid, regardless of our intentions. And so even if Gurriel meant no ill will towards either Darvish or Asians generally, he should be held to account for violating a basic social rule of American society that we seem to be forgetting: racial slurs are just not acceptable, full stop.
This is my biggest complaint as an Asian American: casual racism is strictly prohibited when it targets blacks, frowned upon when it targets Latinos, and almost universally accepted when it targets Asians. And this doesn’t even go towards what is and is not acceptable speech by Asians about other races. There is a deep body of work analyzing the complex history and social power relationships that cause this uneven state of affairs, but whatever its conclusions are, it is in this context besides the point. America needs to re-affirm consistent objective social rules around the use of racist language, by anyone, towards anyone, and it is the consistency of the rule itself which is its most important aspect. This does not in any way solve our problems of racism, or diminish in any way the importance of subjective experiences of racism. Such a rule always runs the danger of shoving racism back under the rug, where it turns insidious and encoded. But it is a social rule that we need nonetheless, simply for civic society to continue. And we can see the need for this all around us.
The Latino American blog Latino Rebels tweeted at Hernandez objecting to his minimization of insidious racism in Latino culture, which is a self-criticism that Asian Americans are increasingly making about our own minimization of Asian racism. While these are important processes within our own communities, they also seem irrelevant to the immediate need to enforce basic social standards of public decency. Whether heigui is as bad as the n-word, or el chino evidences a Latin American history of brutal anti-Asian racism, the fact remains that we need to re-establish order first. It’s never acceptable to make a racist slur in America, regardless of intent, regardless of who says it and to whom it is said. And if it happens — of course it will —everybody needs to take some pride in calling it out, same as we call out litterers.
This rule should apply to everyone, and nobody gets a pass, not black people, not Asian people, and certainly not white people (who, let’s face it, are the main reason this rule needs to be enforced again). We are conflating public decency with the deeper issues of racism, and they are not the same thing. Public decency must come first, unless the goal here isn’t to right this ship. If it’s not, then we have issues even deeper than racism to contend with.