I was at a tech gathering when somebody said the following joke: “Do you know how to fix your iPhone if you ever drop it in a pool? You leave it inside a bag of rice overnight. Why? Because that way Asians show up at night and fix your phone.” What happened next was fast. First there was quick laughter, moments later that turned into snickering and finally that turned into an awkward pause. Seconds later people began to look around the room. That’s when they noticed in silence that there was a gentleman of Asian descent in the back. Realizing the joke had been offensive, they quickly rushed to another topic. The awkward looks continued for a few minutes as the gentleman pretended to not have listened to what was said.
Emily Austen, a 27-year-old Fox Sports reporter was fired earlier this month after making racially-charged, insensitive remarks. Miss Austen was filmed commenting on the Texas valedictorian who declared in her graduation speech that she was an undocumented immigrant. “I didn’t even know Mexicans were that smart”, Miss Austen can be heard saying on the video. “You guys know that the Chinese guy is always the smartest guy in math class.” The footage is cringe-inducing.
This week, the United Kingdom had an historic referendum and voted to leave the European Union. The week before the vote, I learned via John Oliver’s commentary on Last Week Tonight that there is a growing anti-immigration sentiment that has polarized their country. This is very similar to the way we have been bombarded in recent months here in the United States with anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric by the GOP presidential candidate.
And while all of this worries me, I believe that this is nothing new. I have been thinking a lot recently about how some people can reach adulthood and still carry negative attitudes towards others just because they don’t speak the same language or because they look different. The more I think about it, the more I come to believe that these attitudes are formed early in life. Popular culture plays a big role in propagating ethnic stereotypes and prejudice, as does the way we communicate to each other about ethnicity.
Stereotypes from Childhood
It all begins with innocent jokes and even cartoons from our childhood. For decades Speedy Gonzalez perpetuated the stereotype of the unsophisticated, poor and lazy Mexican who steals. Today there is a word association between these negative traits and the Spanish language itself. It is no surprise that I still run into people who will refer to any Spanish speaker as “a Mexican” (regardless of nationality), potentially giving the target a negative connotation.
In Mexico we use the word “gringo” quite often, and we also infuse it with a negative sentiment. Historically, the word “gringo” comes from illegal immigrants at the border calling each other to hide from the Border Patrol. They would warn each other by saying “Green! Go!”, as the Border Patrol officers wore green uniforms. This eventually became the word “gringo”. So from its inception, the word has had an undertone of the oppressed versus the oppressor. Today many people still resent the United States for the outcome of the Mexican-American war, on which Mexico lost over half its territory to the U.S. So while many use the word “gringo” almost as a synonym with “American” (as in “these are American clothes”), many others use the word as a pejorative.
In Mexico, as David Lida explains, the N-word, in its diminutive form, is a term of endearment for people of color. During the 1940s and 1950s, there was a comic book in Mexico called Memín Pingüín, which featured a colored boy named Memín. He was mischievous and sweet, and was a beloved character for generations before I was born. Could you imagine any context here in the United States on which the N-word could be used as a term of endearment? Me neither, which is why I believe that Spanish-speakers have to find a more suitable, modern term similar to “African-American”, but for people of color in Mexico (Perhaps this could be “Afro-Mexicano”?)
And this brings me to stereotypes I’ve seen in both the U.S. as well as in Mexico around people from countries in Asia. Similar to how some people mislabel all Spanish-speakers as “Mexicans”, I’ve also seen people refer to anyone with particular physical features as “Asian”. Popular culture, especially cartoons perpetuate this confusion.
Forming Better Habits
My point with all of these observations is that stereotypes have been rooted into the joined culture of the United States and Mexico for decades. I would not be surprised at all if other countries have similar stereotypes as well as the wrong type of words to represent every ethnicity. This is unfortunate in today’s globalized landscape. When we choose the wrong words we can have undesired side effects in the long term, like with the grown men and women who feel uncomfortable with the notion of a globalized society.
So perhaps you used the word “Asian” or “Mexican” today inadvertently because it made your conversation practical. If you are a Spanish speaker, perhaps you used the word “gringo” because it is what you’ve always done. That is why the next time you are about to refer to a culture or nationality other than your own, I want to invite you to take the time to consider one word: Your next. Is it a word that celebrates our differences or is it one that places them at odds?
If you don’t know which word to use, just ask. Most people will happily answer a question like “Where are you from?”. You may hear stories about somebody who grew up in Malaysia or somebody’s Chilean heritage. Don’t assume everybody is Mexican because they speak Spanish. Remember that there are multiple nations in the Asian and South American continents. It is worth to take the time to find and use the right demonym. And when you find it, remember it and use it respectfully.
If you have older relatives who are already set in their ways (or children), correct them. Ask them to find a better word next time. I have asked my family members in Mexico to not use the word “gringo” anymore because of its pejorative undertone. I explained to them that my daughters were born in the United States and that I will become a U.S. citizen later this year, and that I don’t think about any of us as “gringos”, but as citizens of the United States of America.
Words are powerful. Words matter. Words are transcendent. With the right words we can continue to respect one another as human beings, each worthy of existing in this global melting pot on which we all live. We can all make a difference, especially the young. Let’s become people who celebrate diversity and not fear their neighbors because they don’t look or sound the same. Let’s do this one word at a time. Starting with your next.