Anyone who remotely follows the NBA is probably aware of the controversy surrounding the bonehead “Chink In The Armor” title used by ESPN mobile for a story about New York Knicks Chinese-American phenom point guard Jeremy Lin.
One thing I have learned in writing and speaking on the nature of hate speech in social media is that context is king. While certain words and phrases need no context to be considered hate speech, there are many that in a vacuum, have legitimate meaning but when context is added become racially charged. There is a point we intend to convey with that context. This is why I roll my eyes at those who wish to focus on the vacuum. “Chink In The Armour” was not written in a vacuum. There was a real person behind it who had something on his/her mind and went through some nature of thought process before it appeared live. To trivialize it as being ok because in a vacuum it has a legitimate meaning is to ignore the impact that the unintended meaning carries. There is no doubt in my mind that somewhere in this country, someone is using the ESPN title to justify to themselves, to others and maybe their children that such slurs are acceptable in society. This is why it is important for ESPN to come down hard on whoever was responsible.
It also brings to mind an incident last year in which I was accused of being racially insensitive in my context. It involved a friend who is Chinese.
This friend is an avid runner as I am. I would often comment on photos she posted on Facebook from various races she had run. One particular photo showed her crossing the finish line of a race looking down and to me her eyes appeared to be closed. This was something I could identify with. When I am struggling in a race or run in general I tend to look down and squint at the ground because my face muscles tighten up. With this in mind I placed the following comment on her photo:
“Why are your eyes closed.. lol”
All hell broke loose. She was not offended but others were with “what the hell do you mean by that” comments. It never occurred to me that there was a stereotype embedded in my comment until it was angrily pointed out to me. I was mortified. I explained myself and she shrugged it off with no harm done. I never forgot it. Was I racist and just didn’t see it? Why did I focus on that? In my mind it was harmless in the context I had created. It never occurred to me in leaving that comment that while context is king, it’s not the same for everyone. I am infinitely more aware of that sitting here today a year later. Words can be powerful intentional or unintentional weapons of racial hatred or simple ignorant stupidity. They are rarely spoken in a vacuum.