Ethnic Slurs and College Life: A Personal Essay

Ethnic Slurs and College Life: A Personal Essay

[I read this aloud in my English 11 class this morning. It's a first-year writing class focused on literature related to immigration. Alongside conventional analytical essays I have given students the option on occasion to do personal essays that connect the readings in class to their own families' experiences of immigration. This morning I decided to present my own version of one such paper.

As you all undoubtedly have heard, the African American oriented dorm on campus, Umoja House, was vandalized Wednesday morning with eggs and the N-word spray painted nearby. As of this writing (Thursday 11/7) we don’t know anything about who did it. Still, that event and the conversations that have emerged from it on campus made me realize it was time for me to do my own version of the personal essays I've been encouraging you to write on occasion in this class. 

Today, then, I want to talk a little about my own experience with ethnic slurs. As you know I am a Sikh, with family from India. I wear a turban and full beard as part of the custom for Sikh men. All of the adult men in my family have worn turbans, going back many generations. Given what has happened on campus this week, I want to talk a little about the damage that can come from ethnic slurs – but also about the strange and sometimes paradoxical thinking that leads them to be uttered in the first place. I will use some personal experiences I have had as examples, but my goal is to use those examples in connection with some general ideas about ethnic and racial slurs on a college campus. This is a personal essay, yes, but it's not really about me

In the books we have read in this class, slurs have sometimes entered into the story somewhat ambiguously. In T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, slurs for Mexicans are used but in one instance at least Candido Rincon doesn't read enough English to understand what's being said -- though he certainly understands the message since the vandals who spray-painted the words “Beaners Die” on a rock near his makeshift camp also destroyed his personal property. With Henry Park and Chang Rae-Lee’s Native Speaker, we had some discussion about the slur "gook," that American soldiers coined with reference to the North Koreans they were fighting in the Korean War in the early 1950s. (As we discussed, "gook" would also be applied to other Southeast Asian people, especially the Vietnamese.)

The example of the term "gook" should instructive. It was a term coined by soldiers who had been trained to see things in white and black: the Koreans were the enemy. They weren't to be thought of as human beings with families or individuality. Turning people into a faceless other was at that time part of war (and perhaps it still is: in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American soldiers have developed new slurs for the enemy). 

But obviously, immigrant minorities and African Americans living in the United States are not the enemy and should not be treated that way. Yet that's what ethnic slurs do: they turn a group of other Americans, our neighbors and our children's playmates, into a faceless other. Especially if you are already struggling to fit in and to find your place in American society, having that done to you by the people you hoped would be your friends hurts. 

In Native Speaker, Lee’s protagonist, Henry Park, did mention at one point that as a child he actually preferred to be called gook rather than other derogatory terms used for Asians: “I thought, I know I’m not a chink or a jap, which they would wrongly call me all  the time, so maybe I’m a gook. The logic of a wounded eight-year old.” On reading that passage, some students in the class seemed to understand Henry to be saying he liked being called “gook” – no. Pay close attention to the final sentence there: “The logic of a wounded eight year old.” What he is expressing is a response to being wounded. But the truth at the bottom of it is that he wanted to be recognized by his peers—if not sympathetically and respectfully, at least accurately.  The hope for accurate recognition is something that I think all ethnic and racial minorities share – and not just minorities. As a mature adult, Henry looks back at his eight year old self and sees just how twisted his thinking was.

In my own experience in college at Cornell University I myself had ethnic slurs directed my way more than once. Cornell has a tradition called Slope Day, towards the end of the semester, when it's finally warm enough to be outside for a little while. I only went to it once, my freshman year. I hadn't had much experience with alcohol at the time and indeed I didn't drink that day. But as I was exploring the scene with friends from my dorm an obviously drunk student approached me and out of the blue called me a "raghead." I had never heard that term before and didn't even know it was a slur for someone like me until that moment. 

Another time, I was walking near the main college drag in Ithaca with a friend I’ll call M. M. wore her hair short cropped and had recently bought a black leather jacket.  Later in her life she would come out as a lesbian, but at the time she identified as straight. A man who looked like he had come out of the bar on College Ave. approached us. He pointed at me and said "fucking towelhead." He pointed at her, and said "fucking dyke." We just swallowed our feelings and walked on – but we were both jolted. I was amazed at how quickly the words came out of the student’s mouth; he didn’t even have to think – he just pointed and rattled them off, like he was ordering fast food from a drive-thru. I was also stunned to see that my friend could be subject to an insult that was totally different from the one that was directed at me – but that it could do the same kind of damage.

These experiences were not the only ones. I did not dwell on them all that much at the time, though in part because of them I developed a strong mistrust of the fraternity culture at Cornell and must admit that I continue to have a mistrust of fraternity and sorority culture in general. I also have a mistrust of situations where there are lots of men around who have been drinking. I don’t like big sporting events; I’m paranoid and find it hard to enjoy myself and root for my team. I now stay completely out of sight on St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween is strictly for Trick or Treating in the suburbs.

(I can say that as a faculty member at Lehigh I am almost never on campus in the evenings, so I don't have to deal with that aspect of life here. I should also say that I have always been treated with respect and consideration by the staff and students of this university.) 

For a while after college I didn't hear much in terms of ethnic slurs. I lived in Boston and then Durham, North Carolina and had mostly positive experiences there (I do have some stories about Boston, but I’ll spare you.)

Not all that surprisingly, after 9/11 the ethnic slurs erupted with a vengeance. Though I am not a Muslim and have never supported any of the beliefs held by religious extremists (of any religion), my superficial resemblance to certain leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda made me an easy target for casual slurs for months, even years, after that event transpired. 

Young men on the street (in both Philadelphia and New York) would casually, and with a sneer, say things as they passed me: "Hey, look it’s Bin Laden!" "What's up, Osama?" I'm not going to dwell on specific incidents, because there were so many that I stopped counting them. I had a few situations that seemed like they could get nasty. In one case I had some friends with me who were not Sikhs who stood up for me and faced down people who were making these types of comments. In another instance I was tailgated by an insane truck driver on route I-78 in New Jersey for miles and miles.

But perhaps the most representative experience was a woman who started screaming at me from her car at a traffic light. I actually couldn't understand what she was saying; I just saw the anger in her voice and on her face.  I tried to laugh about it when I told a colleague about it a little later: whatever she wanted to call me I didn't hear it so I guess she failed. Right?

But actually that encounter has stayed in my head, and now I think of it as a quintessential example of what a racial slur does and how it works. In fact, whenever people addressed me by these names they were always getting it wrong. And this is not just me: the people are being “named” when ethnic slurs are invoked do not in fact resemble the images those names would seem to suggest. 

The people who wrote the N-word on the sidewalk outside the U-House at Lehigh, or who called me raghead or towelhead in college didn't know their victims. Whatever their negative perception is of African American people, the students in that dorm do not reflect that. They did not get to Lehigh as gangsters or thugs; they got here by earning the right to be here academically, just like everybody else. In part we know that we are not what they call us -- and that surely ought to be the best way to resist the damage that can be done by ethnic slurs. But sometimes it’s not so easy: it’s in the uncertainty that sometimes arises that the potential for damage arises: am I that thing? Are they naming me correctly?

As I mentioned, immigrants and other minorities are often struggling for recognition. We are struggling with who we are – and what we call ourselves and how others address us is a big part of that struggle. I am not immune to this -- I am not always sure whether I want to be known by my slightly more difficult Indian name or by a nickname that others will find easier to say. (Many of my students have told me about similar kinds of dilemmas over the years; college is where a lot of this stuff gets worked out.) 

But when someone calls me “raghead” or “towelhead” or “Bin Laden,” that can be a form of naming from without. This is why it’s not enough to say, “oh, it’s just words, you can shake them off.” Actually, you can’t shake them off so easily, any more than you can shake off the primal association you have with your own first name. As with ethnic slurs, the names we are given by our parents are not chosen by us. And yet we accept them as helping to define who we are. Do slurs that are wielded against me also then define me? 

I do have a strong belief that in the United States you don't have to choose between who your family was before migrating and the dominant/mainstream culture of American society. You can continue being Irish American or Polish American or Indian American two generations, three generations, or four generations down the line. You can be proud of that heritage, celebrate it, and continue to feel connected to your family's pre-immigration culture. But the use of ethnic slurs makes that a little harder. It suggests a dominant culture that is intolerant of any difference from the mainstream, including the kinds of differences (ethnic and racial) that you can't do anything about. The possibility of slurs and dehumanization makes many young people want to do whatever they can to try and fit in – downplaying any signs of difference. That’s how Nikhil (in The Namesake) becomes Nick, and how Kalpen Modi becomes Kal Penn. 

A quick comment for the students in the class who don't feel ethnically marked -- who identify as effectively just "white" [note: we had talked about this in an earlier class]. Sometimes students in your position feel kind of helpless in these discussions: this doesn't apply to me. I’ve never used that term and I don’t think it’s likely anyone will ever use that kind of derogatory language about me. 

In fact, in some of the worst situations I ever found myself in I was helped by allies who were white. In college, I had a friend named David who was ready to physically fight one guy who insulted me -- I had to hold him back. And there are many other ways of being an ally. I know at least some students at Lehigh have been seeing the recent events as overhyped or blown out of proportion – what’s the big deal? 

One way of being an ally is to intervene in those conversations, not from the position of some kind of civil rights expert or advocate, but simply to say: well, actually racial slurs do matter and this is not something to joke about. The complaint minority students are making in response to these racial slurs is legitimate and real. That small act of taking someone else’s complaint seriously can go a long way towards building a community that feels inclusive and concerned, rather than merely a place you have to suffer through.


Priya Jha said...

What a touching and brave essay. You are right in so many respects with the points you make. I would like to hear about your students' responses to it.

Priya Jha said...

Deep, What a brave and touching essay. As I was reading it, of course I was having flashbacks to some of my own experiences - some of which I have written about in other places. Thank you so much for sharing it on your blog. How did your students respond to it?

Ajoy Bhattacharjya said...

Certain antisocial elements might have tried to hurt this young teacher with thoughtless provocations, but they failed. As a 74 year old Indian-American I was many times ridiculed for my accent, and once almost beaten up during Iranian hostage crisis for they mistook me for an Iranian. I remember those incidences. But I must not forget a southern-white gas station manager rescued me from those wild young men. I hope that this gentleman's inherent humanity inspires me.e '

electrostani said...

Hi Priya, my students were very supportive and had great questions.
It helped that I presented this after two of them had read their own personal essays.

I hope all is well with you. (Still out in California?)

Paul Braterman said...

I think it is a secondary matter that you were insulted for being a member of the group to which you do not in fact belong.

The primary problem is that people feel entitled, or even compelled, to insult others because they belong to this or that particular group.

electrostani said...

Hi Paul,

Part of what I was trying to do in this essay is suggest that since we can't always control how people decide what to call us, resistance comes from knowing how these slurs work.

In some cases it is true that I in particular have been insulted as a member of a group to which I do not belong. (And I can't help but think of the Asians who are also frequently misrecognized, or the Puerto Ricans who are mistaken for Mexican etc).

But what about "raghead" ? What group does that name?