Recently an ESPN headline writer was fired for running a story titled “A Chink in the Armor” which was considered a racial slur against a Chinese player. Given how often that term is used in sports, I would err to the side of believing it an unintended pun rather than a racially inspired remark, but ESPN didn’t want to risk a PR debacle. Fair enough.
However, this may go to far: a call to retire the phrase ‘chink in the armor.’
The phrase itself is old, from middle English. It refers to a fissure or break in the armor worn by knights. As a metaphor, it rather effectively connotes a very powerful team or player who has a small weakness that potentially could lead to defeat.
Retiring or ‘banning’ phrases within the media is common. Rare is the word “nigger” heard, usually either from blacks themselves or in a dramatic context — like when an angry and distraught Col. Oliver (a character based on Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire) tells Paul Rusesabagina “you’re not even a nigger, you’re an African” in Hotel Rwanda. That usage dramatizes the apparent racism of the world in refusing to help Rwanda, it isn’t meant to denigrate blacks – it was Oliver’s angry way for characterizing the orders he was receiving. Otherwise, the once common slur is virtually gone – banned in schools, the media, and public places.
Not all groups get equal treatment. If I were to say “He wants $5000 for the car, but I’m going to jew him down to under $4000,” that would be out of bounds. It’s a stereotype of Jews being cheap and always going for a better deal. However, if I say “Hey, I paid too much for this, I got gypped” few people would blink. Gypsies don’t have many defenders, and most people don’t even know that “gypped” comes from how gypsies (or to be politically correct, the Roma) cheat people.
But those words are directly related to the racial group in play. Chink is not. Chink is used as a slur against Chinese folk, but it also has a different meaning going back a millennium, and is used as a common phrase. One might compare it to the use of the word niggardly, which has a whole different heritage and meaning (nothing to do with race). People have lost their jobs for using that term, especially when people with a poor vocabulary falsely believe it to be uttered as an allusion to race.
Yet unlike “chink in the armor” the word niggardly isn’t common. Moreover, there is a long history of oppression of blacks – slavery, ghettoization, etc. While bigotry against Chinese has been common in the US, especially on the West coast where they originally settled, it’s not as horrid a history.
Of course the groups that have suffered the most in US history are the American Indians. I’ve heard it argued that “Indians” or “Braves” should not be used for team names. That seems to go too far – after all, you don’t see Norwegians complaining about the use of Viking – and that team is named after a group known for being rapists, murderers and thieves! (Full disclosure: as I type this I’m wearing a Viking sweatshirt and I’m a Minnesota Vikings fan).
But what about the Redskins? You know, the team representing our nation’s capital. It’s one thing to have a name that is respectful – the “Fighting Sioux” from North Dakota actually uses the tribal name rather than the broad term “Indian.” But “redskins” has always been a racial epithet. So the worst part of this sentence “The break down in the defense shows a chink in the armor of the Redskins…” is the metaphor “chink in the armor?” Really?
Like the gypsies, the American Indian nations don’t get much respect or attention, so it’s OK to continue with terms that denigrate them.
Then you get into other terms. Some want to banish the “R” word – retard. Long ago mentally retarded children started to be referred to as “special” – education for people with handicaps is now called “special education.” The result – “special” has become an insult that works exactly as “retard” used to. Trying to micromanage language usage is ultimately an impossible task.
At base I think people need perspective. I try to teach my children something that will make life much easier for them: “Do not give other people power over your emotions through their words.” If someone calls you a name, getting mad at them and being bothered and offended is a self-inflicted wound. You have chosen to give that other person power over your emotions, you could have decided to ignore them – people call names to arouse a reaction, when you comply, you hand them a victory.
Not that I think terms like “nigger” or “jew him down” or even “gyp” should be used. In fact, I’m all for changing the name of the Redskins and other obviously derogatory team names. But we shouldn’t go overboard. The goal is not to have a language whitewashed of any possibly offensive term, especially not if the term’s meaning and usage is not derived from slurs. “A chink in their armor” is fine.
Most importantly we have to focus a bit less on the words and language and more on real conditions. The only reason a slur can sting is because it evokes status differentials in society. Calling a white anglo saxon a “WASP” isn’t very offensive because it does not harken to some kind of lower status for those people. Calling an Italian a “dago” or a Japanese a “nip” does. Some of it may be historical, and if so the longer removed the history the less offensive the term. The more different groups have equal status the less you’ll see offensive terms used — society will naturally move away from such usage.
Ultimately it’s not the words that sting, it’s the way we take them. That’s something we can learn from George Carlin.