Race conversation? After Asiana gaffe, new Asian American slur at CNBC–a CHITA problem

If you’re a CNBC watcher, chances are you barely have the attention span for a stock ticker. So here’s an executive summary: The phrase “Chink in the Armor” shouldn’t be used–unless you’re complaining about how Guinevere screwed up your dry cleaning.

Remember the big race conversation that President Obama and everyone was going to have after the George Zimmerman verdict (until we heard about that Anthony Weiner text)? Well, then we’d better know how to talk about Asians and Asian Americans.

It seems we have a language problem.

In the words of an anonymous racist who passed it along to the KTVU newsroom: “Ho Lee Fuk.”

Sure enough, there’s another media-generated slur that denigrates Asians and Asian Americans.

Besides the infamous Asiana incident at KTVU in Oakland, Jeremy Lin was a victim last year.

In Lin’s case and in a new situation involving CNBC, I’m talking about a not-so-innocent use of the “C” word, the age-old racial epithet that rhymes with “fink.”

Because lazy racists never bother to drill down by ethnicity (why be precise when you’re racist?), the “C” word becomes the umbrella term for every Asian.

It is our “N” word.

I consider myself a free speech absolutist, but I’m just offended by the sound of the “C” word. Still, since the offensive word is an unfortunate homonym, one should be able to say “chink in the armor.”

At the right time.

But even then, it just sounds wrong unless you’re living in the Dark Ages.

(For the purposes of this piece, I’ll colonize the cliched saying, make it mine, take the homonym-based phrase, and turn it into an acronym: CHITA. It could be some subway system somewhere.)

If you’re not Asian American, your sensitivity level may not be very high, even when there are enough red flags to caution an innocent perp.

And that means we have a CHITA problem.

CNBC reporter Robert Frank was having a live three-way conversation with a CNBC anchor and a New York Times reporter about the glitch in the divorce proceedings between mogul Rupert Murdoch and his Asian-born American wife, Wendi Deng.

Only instead of “glitch” or “speed-bump” or some other kind of synonym, Frank used CHITA.

Here’s a transcript:

I wonder, you know, Peter, what do you think the chink in the armor here might be? That’s what Deng’s lawyer is so good at, is finding a chink in the pre-nups and all these trusts. What do you think they may be looking for to get more out of this divorce?

Or watch for yourself:

If Frank were just referring to a “glitch,” then I suppose it could be forgivable as the poor use of a tired cliche.

But he actually used it twice, first as a whole cliche, then in his own “my-aren’t-we-clever” phrase, “chink in the pre-nups.”

In the absence of any Asian or Asian American in the story–say, the divorce of Jane Fonda from Ted Turner–then one might have a plausible defense for using CHITA or its derivations.

But that doesn’t excuse the offensiveness of the phrase to any Asian or Asian American.

The phrase is just insulting unless you are discussing actual chips from jousts and sabre battles that might show up in one’s suit of armor (that’s the trouble with the silver one from Saks).

If you’re not writing commentary for KKK Today, the homonym/cliche/epithet should not be used.

There are times when standard sexual double-entendres may merit a snicker in some circles. In TV, where sex sells all the time, any sensitivity may be lost. (Why have they made anchor desks transparent? Or even removed the desk at all? The better to see everything other than the news, especially at Fox.) But racial homonyms still get in the way. And I guess some think that if they eat at Momofuku, it’s OK.

The Asian American Journalists Association has already pounced on CNBC for its CHITA episode, and that was the right thing to do.

CNBC offends enough people when it has to report that the market tanked.

I’m all for free speech, but if you use such phrases, you’d better be able to defend your use of them. And in this case, there’s just not much of a defense.

There are few times, if ever, that “chink in the armor” is acceptable.

In a review of Lancelot’s Medieval Laundry Services, sure.

In a general news story, no.

It’s a fundamental point on figures of speech and ways of talking, but it’s an important one if people plan on including Asian Americans in any national conversation on race.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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