Words matter – ‘Chinese-American’ watchdogging.

I can be really nitpicky about language sometimes, especially when it comes to matters of race, ethnicity, and nationality, since sloppy language on these issues tends to only entrench and worsen negative stereotypes and biases. It seems to me (a Chinese-American with a grouchy streak a mile wide) that the American English language community is particularly bad at characterizing Asian-Americans. It’s not helpful that newspapers – which for some reason, we continue to look to as standard-setters for language use – frequently drop the ball on this front. For example, last year I was bothered enough by a Washington Post article that conflated (Chinese) ethnicity and nationality that I wrote a cranky letter to the editor complaining about it.

As a member of the reading community, I’m pretty disappointed when sloppy writing crops up in what I read — which brings me to last week’s NYT article about San Francisco political figure Rose Pak. Overall, the piece is interesting and the language unobjectionable, but this one sentence struck me as a little strange:

She is “tenacious as a pit bull,” said an ethnic Chinese lawyer who, like most Chinese interviewed, spoke about Ms. Pak only on the condition of anonymity.

(via Rose Pak, a Chinatown Power Broker, Savors Mayor Edwin Lee’s Victory – NYTimes.com.)

For me, this sentence raises a ton of questions: who were the people among the “most Chinese interviewed”? Did they have anything in common besides being, apparently, ethnically Chinese? (For example, did they have ties to San Francisco/Bay Area politics or business?) What about the anonymous “ethnic Chinese” lawyer? When is the last time you read a newspaper article that primarily characterized an anonymous source by their ethnicity (and not, for example, their nationality)? I don’t know for sure, but I would wager that the anonymous lawyer would be better characterized as Chinese-American.

Personally, I don’t like the usage of “Chinese” as a third person plural noun: in general, I prefer “the Chinese people” over “the Chinese,” and in this case, I would prefer something like “most Chinese politicos interviewed.” Granted, it’s considered acceptable to talk about “the blacks” just as it is to talk about “whites” or “Hispanics.” But I think the key distinction here is that Chinese is less a race than an ethnicity, so a better analogy, in the American context, would be to the Irish, Italians, or Mexicans.

For comparison, I tried a quick search on NYTimes.com for “Irish” and “Italian.” One result, about an Irish-speaking garbage collector in New York, never characterizes anyone by their ethnicity, even though the bin man in question seems to be of Irish descent. Another recent article, about an academic conference on MTV’s Jersey Shore, consistently uses the term “Italian-American” throughout. Because of more similarly fluid recent immigration patterns, Mexican-Americans might make a more apt comparison to Chinese-Americans. The NYT seems to refer to Mexican-Americans in various manners as appropriate to the context of the story: “Mexican immigrants” in an article about immigration, “Mexicans in New York”/”Mexican New Yorkers” in a city-specific piece, and “Mexican-Americans”/”people of Mexican origins” in a report on nationwide migration and birth rates.

Of course, the Rose Pak article is not just about Pak’s role in San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, but also about her ties to China. And it’s certainly true that the Chinese-American community in San Francisco is primarily identified with and organized around Chinese ethnicity and heritage. Nevertheless, I still think that one sentence sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s not clear from the context why the anonymous source’s ethnicity is what matters. Was it the case that most Chinese people of American and other nationalities were the only people who spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity? Or was it just people involved in the nascently-powerful San Francisco Chinese-American community? As readers, we don’t know, but I would like to know! At best, referring to Chinese people who live and work in the U.S. simply as “the Chinese” erases the (long, established, and much-ignored) story of Chinese-Americans in service of the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype; at worst, it portrays Chinese people as a part of a monolithic yellow peril, one so numerous and foreign that it merits a mass noun resistant of standard American English pluralizing, and is simply racist.

Updated to add: Compare the Rose Pak article with today’s well-written story about the arrest of a fundraiser for New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, which does not gratuitously mention anyone’s ethnicity and only discusses heritage in the appropriate context of heritage-related community groups.