Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The "G" word

Racism and prejudice have been concerns of mine for several years, so imagine my delight when I heard about a new show called "Black. White." In case you don't know the premise, a black family and a corresponding white family "trade places" for a month or however long through the magic of movie makeup. The families are similar-- age, education, income. The idea is to see how the families experience the world looking through each other's eyes.

Although I think I expected too much, it is an alright program. Of course since it's television, it does have its share of sensationalism and melodrama. But one of the big conflicts on the show between the families, especially the fathers, is the "n" word*. I think it's fairly common that outside of the black community we don't know what to make of it. I can understand how it is confusing, especially when we see African-Americans using it freely amongst friends as a term of endearment. I've heard black people come down on both sides of the issue; in an interview with the cast of "Crash" (a must see by the way), Oprah adamantly claimed that the word should not be used ever by anyone, while Ludacris and Don Cheatle said that it was an African-American symbol of overcoming oppression. I lean more towards one side than the other, but I truly don't think it matters at all what I think. I can just tell you that I would never ever use that word because of the history it carries.

Although I will never understand the power that this word carries to African-Americans, I have gotten just a glimpse. The title refers to the word "gaijin", which is Japanese for foreigner. Several of my Japanese friends would chastise me at this point and say, "No! It's gaikokujin!" But that's kind of the entire point. You see, "gaijin" is made up of 2 kanji (Japanese symbols)-- outside and person. Pretty clear, huh? Well "gaikokujin" translates literally as "outside country person." Most of the Japanese I know consider it rude for a Japanese person to call a foreigner gaijin to their face. I think it gives the message that "you're an outsider, you'll never be one of us."

The thing is, you hear foreigners making gaijin jokes and comments all the time. Unless it's very polite company, I've never heard a foreigner refer to themselves as "gaikokujin." We refer to gaijin hangouts, gaijin idiosyncrasies, and even the gaijin card that we all have to carry. And although I wouldn't get angry, I would think it was impolite for a Japanese person to call me gaijin.

So, is this hypocritical of me? I don't know. Maybe it is, but maybe it's a unity mechanism. Maybe it falls along the train of thought that "no, we'll never be one of them, but we'll always have each other."

I'd like to stress again that the "gaijin" issue doesn't really compare to what African Americans have faced, in most circumstances (you can still find a random elderly Japanese person who hates all foreigners... but I think we have our fair share of those in the US, too). In Japan, foreigners are generally treated with an enormous amount of respect and dignity, as opposed to the relatively recent history of blacks in the US. Just my disclaimer.

But that experience does help me understand.

Originally when I was plotting this post out in my head, I was going to write on the "gringo/a/oes" issue as well, but I feel unqualified. But if my friends with Hispanic experience would like to comment on how they take being called "gringo," please share. Maybe it's not comparable, but I've somewhere along the line acquired the notion that being called a "gringo" was a little jab.

I was also reminded of the word "Gentile."

Any other delicate terms you can think of?

*I think it only exasperates the problem by calling it "the 'n' word," you know, the whole Harry Potter, "the one whose name we do not speak" (Voldemort) issue. But 1) I don't have the guts to use it, 2) someone somewhere would be hurt by it, and 3) I don't want people googling that word and ending up at my site.


Pana Jonathan said...

As you have mentioned, every culture is different. The terms "gringo" and "yankee" in Latin America can be pejorative. However, in my experience, they can be terms of endearment, cariño. It all depends on the context – who is saying what to who. I have been called “gringo” many times and I’ve never felt offended. There are other times, when discussing one of Hugo Chávez’s favorite topic: the Empire that is Gringolandía, that I am offended by the term.

Often times to counter what I feel as a negative criticism about my national origins (which I can do nothing about!) I often reply back with another pejorative! ;) (Please understand that in Venezuela, this kind of humor that breaks tension is respected and often admired.) If someone calls me a “yankee” I respond back and called them a “veneco” (Venezuelan) or a “caliche” or “colombiche” (Colombian). This has helped many of my friends to think twice before they call me a “gringo.”

Also, I believe that one of the biggest complements that you can be given in Latin America is when nationals say to you, “you’re not a gringo – you’re Venezuela. You’re one of us.” And one of the biggest compliments to a Latin America, once again, in my limited experience, is to say you have a corazón venezolano – identifying yourself with the local culture. I do not know exactly how this relates to African-American or Japanese culture. Great topic, Ann!

Alissa said...

I think the important thing that you've acknowledged, and that everybody should acknowledge, is that no one can claim ownership of a word. It's never neutral, as people who claim to "own" a word often claim, and that leads to people getting hurt. Words have such complicated histories. Sometimes I feel like being aware of those histories makes it impossible to speak (which is, incidentally, what the poem I just posted is about). But I don't think responsible people have a choice.

Gabe said...

Good thoughts Ann.