West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Don Blankenship claimed the term “Chinaperson” isn’t racist, however the origins of the word run counter to that sentiment.
The phrase appears to be a version of the term “Chinaman,” a moniker that has its roots in the 19th century and was largely used to dehumanize Chinese immigrants. The former coal CEO had used it to describe Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s father-in-law, James Chao, as a “wealthy Chinaperson” while implying McConnell (R-Ky.) could have conflicts of interest in foreign relations. Days later, he defended his use of the word.
“This idea that calling somebody a ‘Chinaperson,’ I mean, I’m an American person. I don’t see this insinuation by the press that there’s something racist about saying a ‘Chinaperson,’” the candidate said during a primary debate hosted by Fox News. “Some people are Korean persons, and some of them are African persons. That’s not any slander there.”
As Gay Yuen, board president of Los Angeles’ Chinese American Museum, pointed out to HuffPost, “Chinaman” has origins in the 1860s. Chinese immigrants were drawn to the U.S. because of the Gold Rush and ended up taking jobs on the transcontinental railroad. The immigrants, mostly men from southern China, laid track for half the massive railroad, along with several other railroads in the West, but were ridiculed and emasculated for their work. White workers, who were resentful of the immigrants’ skill on the railroad, often described the Chinese men as “monkeys” or “midgets,” according to author Stan Steiner’s book Fusang, The Chinese Who Built America.
“As the wave of immigrants increased, so did hostility toward the Chinese, who were willing to work for lower wages and longer hours,” Yuen told HuffPost.
Herb Tam, curator at New York City’s Museum of Chinese in America, told HuffPost that by calling the immigrants “Chinamen,” people could erase any individuality or humanity from the group.
“Chinese merchants and laborers were called these names instead of their actual names, creating a sense that Chinese were an undifferentiated mass of interchangeable people,” he said.
The demeaning stereotypes and bitterness toward the Chinese workers led to attacks and even murders. Oftentimes authorities would turn a blind eye. In one case, Irish railroad worker Paddy O’Rourke killed a Chinese man. The judge presiding over the case, Roy Bean, dismissed it after saying he’d “be damned if he could find any law against killing a Chinaman,” though Texas law prohibited the killing of human beings, as was pointed out by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University.
What’s more, the name became attached to a racist caricature often used to depict Chinese immigrants of the time. With slanted eyes, and exaggerated traditional dress and hairstyle, drawings of “John Chinaman” would often be used to emphasize the “otherness” of the men, Tam said. The caricature was associated with negative qualities. In one particular song about the character, John Chinaman was described as a liar and a thief who ate rats and puppies.
Oftentimes, these offensive illustrations replaced photographs of Chinese workers. They even accompanied newspaper accounts of tragic events, like the Massacre of 1871, during which a mob of 500 hanged several Chinese men and boys. The event resulted in the deaths of an estimated 17 Chinese immigrants, Yuen explained.
The caricature was widely reproduced and continued to be illustrated into the 20th century, when large buckteeth were frequently added. The cartoon even made it into Dr. Seuss propaganda works and was used as an insulting depiction of Japanese people during World War II.
Though he himself may believe the term means no harm, Blankenship shouldn’t ignore the long history of the term “Chinaman,” Tam noted.
“This name needs to be seen in the context of the broader treatment of Chinese at that time, [who] were physically attacked and murdered, given extremely dangerous assignments and paid much less than their white counterparts,” he said.
Furthermore, the Senate candidate does not have the right to authoritatively determin whether the term is offensive, Yuen said.
“The person who uses the potentially derogatory term is not the one who gets to decide its appropriateness or impact. That right belongs to the person who is the object of the derision,” she explained.
The way in which Blankenship used “Chinaperson” to describe Chao, who founded a shipping company in the U.S. and is the father of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, reduces him to a “foreign and untrustworthy other,” further emphasizing the perpetual foreigner stereotype often attached to Asian-Americans, said Karin Wang, a vice president at the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Ultimately, it’s really not difficult to avoid using “Chinaperson” or “Chinaman.”
“Why use such a contrived term as ‘Chinaperson’ when acceptable terms of Chinese and Chinese American already exist?” Yuen asked.