Trigger warning: the following article discusses the contention between the Chinese word for “that” and the N-word, both colloquially pronounced as /ˈniɡə/.
What is the social protocol when a common and much needed word in one language sounds like a racial slur in another language? What does that look like when members of both groups — the native language speaker and the potential target of that particular slur — are both from marginalized communities in their own shared country? What do we do, and how should we react when these cultures and histories collide?
那个 (simplified Chinese)/那個 (traditional Chinese) [pronounced: nèige or nàge]1
- that one
- that thing
- that (as opposed to this)
- (used before a verb or adjective for emphasis)
- (used to humorously or indirectly refer to something embarrassing, funny, etc.; or when one can’t think of the right word)
- (used in speech as a filler, similar to “umm”, “you know” etc)
These are some of the many definitions of “那个”, the Chinese word for “that”. It is a word that, unfortunately, bears an uncanny phonetic resemblance to the colloquial pronunciation of the N-word. The use of the N-word traces its origins to slavery, the term deriving from the word “negro” which means black in Spanish and Portuguese.2 It was, and has remained, a term used by non-Black people to dehumanize Black people, and is often associated with the context of threats or acts of violence against Black people. The distinction must be made that although the N-word has been reclaimed by Black Americans, when it is used by non-Black people, it retains all the weight of its bloody and hateful history. Yet even as a reclaimed word, its usage may still be contentious within the African-American community.
According to CNN,3 earlier in September of 2020, USC Professor Greg Patton faced a storm of controversy over his use of this particular Chinese word in a communications class for USC’s Marshall School of Business. He had used it as an example of a filler word (see number 6 in the definition above), his pronunciation and grammatical use of the word “那个” described as accurate by several Chinese speakers. The day after this particular class, a complaint signed by “Black MBA candidates c/o 2022” was filed stating that Patton’s use of the term had “offended all of the black members” of the class. It had not been reported whether or not the students had approached the professor prior to filing the complaint to discuss their discomfort with his actions. It was initially reported that Patton had been suspended by the school; but not long after, a representative for USC’s business school stated that Patton “agreed to take a short-term pause” and that he was directing his attention to his other classes instead.4
Patton’s ethnicity as a Caucasian has further exacerbated his case, especially considering the historical roots of the N-word in addition to the socio-political climate of 2020. These recent years have been a particularly vulnerable and traumatizing time for Black Americans. According to CBS news,5 within the first 8 months of 2020, American police killed 164 Black people. The Black Lives Matter movement swelled in response, with more and more protestors rising to combat the American system of police brutality and other manifestations of systemic racism. So in Patton’s particular situation, a white man had used a word that sounds very much like the N-word to a class comprised of many African American students — students who carry the burden of major intergenerational trauma and who to this day continue to face prejudices that endanger their lives, that affect their physical and mental health, that influence what kind of education they receive and what jobs they acquire and how much they earn.
But what if a person who was born and raised in China were to say “that” in her own language? What if she is a citizen of America but is unfamiliar with the concept of the N-word and says “that” in public within the earshot of someone whom the N-word affects profoundly? Native Chinese speakers may never make that connection between “那个” and the N-word if they are not deeply acquainted with American culture and history. It is difficult even for those Chinese-Americans who were raised in America to make that connection between the two homophones, let alone Chinese immigrants with little exposure to American culture. Chinese immigrants have historically faced prejudice and harassment for speaking their own language. Their children grow up rejecting their culture, their language, their heritage, all in the name of rejecting the label of the perpetual foreigner and being perceived as American. And as this year has revealed, kung flu rhetoric and all, anti-Chinese sentiment and violence towards the so-called model minority are both alive and well.
It has been asked: there are over 50,000 characters in the Chinese language, so why can’t another character or word be used to replace this one that so resembles this racial slur? According to BBC,6 an educated Chinese person knows around 8,000 characters. Conversely, there are around 470,000 entries in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as well as the The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition;7 with the average 20-year-old American knowing 42,000 words.8 Above all, replacing a word like “that” is incredibly difficult. What would be the best word to replace “that” in the English language? In English or in Chinese, what word or phrase would you use instead when you point at something and tell someone “That one, right there. I’m talking about that one. Not this one here. That one way over there.” Replacing the Chinese term for “that” is no easy task, nor does it take into account the full expanse of cultures that America houses.
“那个” was never intended to be a word of harm.† This statement is not intended to overlook and discount the very real pain and violence that the N-word inflicts on its targets. The N-word is a word of hate and assault. However, replacing “那个” takes only the American-English view of phonetics and history into consideration and not that of the native culture from which the word came. The Chinese language has existed for well over 3000 years.9 Demanding that “那个” be replaced in the Chinese language is a form of cultural erasure; asking native Chinese speakers to replace “那个” is asking them to abandon a part of their language in a foreign country that they have already sacrificed so much to be in.
So how can we work to prevent incidents specifically like Patton’s case while respecting delicate cultural boundaries? For Chinese speakers who are open to the idea, there is an alternative way to pronounce “那个”: nàge. It sounds less similar to the N-word, but still has the potential to be misheard and misunderstood. Adopting this alternate pronunciation of “那个” is not the most optimal of solutions, nor is it the most elegant. But it is one of the few options we have that can create distance from the N-word while refraining from the erasure of Chinese culture and language. However, when all is said and done, the pronunciation of “那个” as “nèige” will always exist in the Chinese lexicon, and it is reasonable to expect Chinese speakers to articulate the word as such and respect their right to do so.
Cultural clashes have the potential to divide marginalized communities that are in need of each others’ support. Historically, there has been a deep rift between Asian Americans and Black Americans, a rift that still remains active and wrought with tension to this day. As people of color, we cannot afford this kind of fissure between and within our communities; we need to be there for each other, now more than ever. That means understanding and resolving cultural differences as we encounter them. It starts with Asian Americans advocating for anti-racist perspectives, challenging the anti-Blackness that prevails within our communities and beyond. It starts with Black Americans challenging the xenophobia around them and overturning latent beliefs of the model minority myth. While our struggles look very different, those differences do not take away from the very real challenges and heartbreak that we are all grappling to overcome and heal from. Ultimately, it is up to us as individuals of different communities to maintain open channels of honest communication — knowing when to advocate for ourselves and when to share our stories, and knowing when to take a step back to listen to and understand the unique experiences of others. America contains such a vast array of unique ethnic and cultural groups, and this is not the first time that cultural clashes between minority group values, such as controversies like Patton’s, have surfaced — nor will it be the last. Intersectionality is anything but a neat process, and it will take time to figure out where each community fits in relation to one another. It is a process that requires all of us to employ our full faculties to remain sensitive and respectful of each others’ boundaries and to stay in the present and keep learning. Mistakes are inevitable along the way. Pain and hurt are inevitable along the way. However, having forgiveness, patience, and an understanding of cultures and perspectives outside our own will help guide us to a better future.
† It is important to be aware of, however, the existing anti-Black sentiment that runs rampant within parts of the Asian American community (a whole discussion in and of itself that is extremely relevant to but beyond the scope of this essay).
1Dictionary entry taken from Pleco Chinese Dictionary
2Wilson, C. (2020, October 04). N-word: The troubled history of the racial slur. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-53749800
3Yeung, J. (2020, September 11). USC professor under fire after using Chinese expression students allege sounds like English slur. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/10/us/usc-chinese-professor-racism-intl-hnk-scli/index.html
4Flaherty, C. (2020). Professor suspended for saying Chinese word that sounds like an English slur. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/09/08/professor-suspended-saying-chinese-word-sounds-english-slur
5Cohen, L. (2020, September 10). Police in the U.S. killed 164 Black people in the first 8 months of 2020. These are their names. (Part II: May-August). Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/black-people-killed-by-police-in-the-us-in-2020-part-2/
6Languages - Real Chinese - Mini-guides - Chinese characters. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2020, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/chinese/real_chinese/mini_guides/characters/characters_howmany.shtml
7How many words are there in English? (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/help/faq-how-many-english-words
8Boddy, J. (2016, August 19). An average 20-year-old American knows 42,000 words, depending on how you count them. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/average-20-year-old-american-knows-42000-words-depending-how-you-count-them
94000 BCE-1000 CE: Early China and the Shang: Central Themes and Key Points: Asia for Educators: Columbia University. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2020, from http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/main_pop/kpct/kp_shang.htm