In the summer of 1992, Sir Mixalot was in heavy rotation at parties in London. Baby Got Back, the Seattle rapper’s paean to the fulsome derriere, was a huge hit.
However, his takedown of racial profiling, One Time’s Got No Case, proved a subculture favorite, thanks in part to the satirical dialogue with which the jam opened. Any golden-age hip-hop fan will remember verbatim the fictional conversation between Mix and a representative of Washington state’s police force.
“What you pulling me over for Mr Officer?”
“I’ll be asking the questions Leroy.”
“Yo, my name ain’t Leroy, man”
“Heh, all right, Jerome, out of the car.”
“Yo, why I gotta be Jerome, man? Why can’t I be Tommy or Philbert or something?”
“Just put your hands on the hood, Muhammed.”
While comical, the exchange was believable, even to listeners in London. Growing up in one the most diverse boroughs in the UK, where — at the time of the last census in 2001 — just more than 36 percent of the population identified as white and more than half that figure as black (with a further 2.3 percent mixed black and Caucasian), many of us had personally encountered discrimination (and worse) against black friends.
The use of generic given names to convey racism or xenophobia has a long history. The English have led the way, with names such as Gerry and Fritz used for the Germans during World War I. Closer to home, Irishmen are Paddy or (the more offensive) Mick, while the Scots are Jocks.
So ingrained in joke-telling culture are these nicknames that many English barely register that they are offensive. Conversely, the English gave themselves names embodying quintessential, admirable qualities: John Bull, the ruddy-cheeked, no-nonsense country squire and Tommy — the plucky serviceman.
With the mass immigration from the Commonwealth that followed World War II, various names became associated with particular ethnic groups.
The name Winston, for example, was used disparagingly to refer to men of Caribbean descent. Likewise, Patel — the most common surname of people of Indian descent — also became a pejorative catchall for anyone of South Asian heritage.
The discriminatory use of given names came into the spotlight in Taiwan last week when Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) was castigated for referring to Filipinas as “Marias.”
Speaking at a news conference to address the fallout over his remarks, Han claimed that he had been speaking “figuratively” in the role of the average Taiwanese parent who would not be comfortable with a “Maria” as their child’s English-language teacher.
It was a pathetic excuse, and his subsequent gushing praise for the English-language capabilities of Filipinas was suitably oleaginous.
Yet, Han’s initial comment, his observations about the general perceptions of Taiwanese (as spuriously employed to deflect as they were) and some of the reaction across social media pointed to a deeper issue with Taiwanese society, namely a tendency to lump outsiders into monolithic categories.
Thus are, not just individual nations, but entire regions, incorporating diverse cultures and ethnolinguistic groups, categorized under a single designation.
Southeast Asians, for example, are often referred to as wailao (外勞), meaning “foreign laborers” or, even more ignorantly, sometimes tailao (泰勞), “Thai laborers,” regardless of nationality or occupation (neither of which the average Taiwanese has much interest in ascertaining.)
Then there are the terms waiguoren (外國人) or laowai (老外). (For our purposes, I shall treat these as interchangeable, though there are often subtle differences in usage.) It might seem odd to take issue with terms that literally mean “foreigner,” yet this descriptor is a lot more nuanced than that. For starters, these terms refer almost exclusively to Westerners, and white ones at that. Moreover, it applies to said group regardless of where the speaker is uttering the word.
Laowai are laowai even in their own country. Most Taiwanese chuckle knowingly when this is pointed out, but some seem perplexed. Quite a few respond by asking some variation of the following: “So, what should I call them (as I obviously cannot call them [demonym] in their own country)?” This should elicit its own question in response, one that gets us to the kernel of the matter: Why call them anything?
There is a borderline obsessive need in Taiwan to label things, particularly things that fall outside “normal” experience. It is the verbal version of pointing your finger, a rectification of names gone awry.
“Those pot stickers are for the foreigner,” the breakfast shop boss says.
It makes sense. The place is packed and she needs to let her employee know whom the order is for, right?
“What else should she call you? She doesn’t know your name. It’s not impolite. You are a foreigner.”
OK, but she also does not know the name of the lanky, bespectacled fellow over there. Somehow, though, his sandwich seems to find its way to him without the clarifier “the tall guy with glasses” being deemed necessary.
Worse, with blanket terms come a whole raft of assumptions. A New Taiwan dollar for every time I hear “foreigners don’t like [food item]” would cover a month’s rent on my very own stinky tofu stand at the local night market.
These examples do not constitute racism or xenophobia in any meaningful sense, and no sensible person would make such a claim. It is sometimes claimed that observations of this sort are simply “whining” stemming from white privilege.
In a Taipei Times interview in 2015, for example, one long-term African-American resident of Taiwan opined that “the reason why white people complain in Taiwan is because they are not used to discrimination.”
There is certainly some truth to this. Yet, for many of these “Taiwhiners” the issue is not one of “oppression” or outright “racism,” as the interviewee misleadingly suggests, but an obdurate “us” and “them” mentality that seems to permeate the very fabric of society.
Where do mixed-raced children fit into this equation? When my son complains about being called a foreigner, as he is almost every day of his life (including by his classmates), is he displaying some kind of “half-white” privilege?
To be clear: Labeling Filipinas “Marias” is a notch up from this and little different from calling Hispanic people “dagos” (a word which itself likely derives from the common Spanish men’s name Diego.)
Yes, it is a far cry from the virulent racism encountered in Europe and North America, but, in some senses, the attitudes that inform such epithets are more insidious.
In a generally tolerant and nonconfrontational society such as Taiwan, these terms seldom spiral into anything more sinister, but they do reinforce the kind of ignorance of otherness that perpetuates division and misunderstanding.
One of the more interesting works at the Taipei Biennial, which wrapped up on Sunday last week, was a video installation in a section called the “Museum of Non-Humanity.” Prominent among the text and images that flickered up onto the walls in cycles was a presentation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. During the three-month massacre that left up to 1 million people dead, Hutu extremists infamously referred to their Tutsi victims as cockroaches. Dehumanizing the Tutsi made it easier to murder them without compunction.
What made the atrocities even harder to comprehend was the lack of any credible ethnic distinguishability between the two groups of people. The genocide was a stark reminder of what can happen when people focus on relatively insignificant differences at the expense of much greater commonalities.
From Belfast to the West Bank, the modern world’s bitterest conflicts have been premised on an insistence of difference.
In Taiwan, the cracks surface at election time, when the political atmosphere can acquire a troubling degree of volatility, stoked by rabble-rousing along “ethnic” lines. When brandished to demean, belittle and sow division, names have considerable scope for harm.
Han’s defenders use the same misguided logic that I have heard for years: He did not mean any harm; besides, Maria is a common name among Filipinas, so it is not offensive. Attempts to explain that the utterer’s intent is irrelevant to the feelings of the target often seem to fall flat.
The fact is, even when there is supposedly no ill-intent, the way we refer to other groups of people matters. The nation’s leaders, in particular, would do well to remember that.
James Baron is a freelance writer and journalist based in Taipei.
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