Racial slurs and the lexicon of oppression

by Sydney Sweeney, Contributor

“We disagree, and I don’t want to talk about it ever again.”

With brevity, I ended a conversation a whole minute after it began. One second, my friend and I were mindlessly discussing an electronic talking speaker, and the next I found myself sputtering about oppression like a wannabe social justice warrior, 10 times less eloquent than the ones I follow on Tumblr.

After my final statement, I stared straight ahead, hoping my illusory focus on the road would make her believe that I’d already brushed off the miniature debacle. Of course, I hadn’t, and the whole ordeal nagged me until I vented to someone else about it an hour later.

My friend had named her speaker “Ling Ling,” because its voice “sounded like an Asian lady.” I argued such a characterization was not only stereotypical, but racist (the Chinese given name Ling is unisex, meaning spirit or chime, but in urban slang, the phrase Ling Ling is sometimes haphazardly attributed to a sexually promiscuous Asian girl or any other Asian person whose name is unknown).

My friend remarked that her comment was anything but flippant, so a debate commenced. No stabs were aimed at each other, but instead at one another’s oppositions concerning words in today’s American lexicon and whether those phrases or names are “offensive” or not.

For most of the short-lived argument, I was either discordantly yelling at my friend or sitting in the driver’s seat, mouth agape and absolutely perplexed. There was a moment, right after our initial disagreement, where I thought maybe I was the one being sensitive.

Maybe I was the one who, in recent months, had become annoyingly ‘PC’. Perhaps a big deal was really just a tiny misunderstanding and I needed clarification. I needed to know if my friend was really as clueless about racial oppression as she was making herself look.

I forced myself to quickly recognize the history of oppression inflicted upon racial minorities during just a few of our country’s shameful decades: the 1940s, when Japanese Americans faced nationwide incarceration; the early 1800s, when Native Americans were banished from their own lands; the 100-plus years of African-Americans’ enslavement.

These dismal times of abounding racism, imprisonment and discrimination were accompanied by slurs and phrases that remain tied to the unrightfully inhumane years and actions from which they originated.

It’s already challenging enough for a person of color to avoid being alienated or profiled because of the actions of another who shared the same cultural or ethnic background. The combination of these two facts alone unjustly dictates an ethnic group’s progression towards the liberties that every American is allegedly promised.

Sitting in the car, I wondered if my friend knew that.

I asked her if she thought using racial slurs was OK, somewhat afraid of what her reply would be. Disappointingly, she answered “yeah,” and proceeded to explain her logic, based on the belief that the act of stigmatizing a race through the use of slang or stereotype is perfectly acceptable, and that such actions are only “offensive if (the targeted ethnic group) is offended.”

That was the end — that was when I tightly gripped my steering wheel instead of strangling the girl next to me. Simultaneously, I huffed to myself and declared the discussion to be bewildering, hopeless and most obviously, dead.

I figured that if she — a fellow person of color — was unable to comprehend the problem with racist slang, then I surely wouldn’t be able to explain it to her.

In regard to the wave of social justice movements (particularly the ones led by millennials of color, who are inspired by their 20th century counterparts) I’ve always been an observer rather than a participant.

Mostly keeping to myself or extremely close friends about my most indefinite opinions on social justice, I quietly admired the goals and enthusiasts behind these noteworthy crusades.

My incessant silence about social issues is what led to my tragic downfall. Because I rarely speak up about these things, I couldn’t form a sound argument against racial slurs and stereotyping, even though I adamantly stood (and still do) stand by my opinion.

What I failed to fully explain to my friend was that calling an “Asian-sounding woman” Ling Ling is not simply offensive. What’s offensive is telling someone their hairstyle is ugly — sure, it leaves them feeling bad about their appearance for a while, but that negative comment only affects a single person. If a saying, phrase or stereotype impedes a group or entire race then it surpasses being disrespectful.

It’s just plain oppressive.