Playing the name game is never a joke

How could he leave this behind? Sir Mix droppin’ some shit in front of the cheeks that brought him fame.

A shortened version of the following piece appeared in today’s Taipei Times:

In the summer of 1992, Sir Mixalot was in heavy rotation at parties in northwest London. Rather than his big hit Baby’s Got Back, though, the jam that got most airplay was the Seattle rapper’s scathing takedown of racial profiling, One Time’s Got No Case. A billboard flop, the tune’s subculture popularity was in no small part down to the satirical dialogue with which it opened. Any golden age hip-hop fan – and even many who couldn’t sort their Kool Mo Dees from their Kool G Raps – will remember verbatim the fictional conversation between Mix and a representative of Washington State’s King’s County police force (the “one time” described in the song title).     

“What you pulling me over for Mr. Officer?”

“I’ll be asking the questions Leroy.”

“Yo, my name ain’t Leroy, man”

“Heh, all right, Jerome, out of the car.”

“Yo, why I gotta be Jerome, man? Why can’t I be Tommy or Philbert or something?”

“Just put your hands on the hood, Muhammad!”

While comical, the exchange reeked of plausibility even to listeners as distant from the realities of inner-city US law enforcement as we middle class Londoners were. Growing up in one the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the UK, where – at the time of the last census in 2001 – a little over 36% of the population identified as white and more than half that figure black (with a further 2.3% mixed black and caucasian), many of us had personally seen evidence of discrimination (and worse) against black friends.

A year after One Time dropped, the black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered – the most high-profile race-related crime in the UK’s history. An inquiry eventually attributed the failure to bring the killers to justice to “institutional racism” in the Metropolitan Police. In 1997, one of my childhood friends was found dead in a police cell. While the official report stated he had hanged himself, a forensic scientist concluded this was physically impossible. The coroner’s inquest recorded an open verdict, which essentially means we will never know what happened.  

Such extreme cases might seem far removed from ignorant stereotyping over names. Yet the use of generic given names to demonize or convey a certain image of specific races or nationalities has a long history. The English have led the way, with names such as Gerry and Fritz used for the Germans during WWI. Closer to home, Irishmen are Paddy or (the more offensive) Mick, while the Scots are Jocks. So ingrained in joke-telling culture and banter are these nicknames, that many English people barely register that they are offensive. (I must include myself in their number, having been admonished by Irish friends for the use of the word Paddy.) Conversely, the English gave themselves names that they felt embodied quintessential, admirable qualities: John Bull, the ruddy-cheeked, no-nonsense country squire and, later, Tommy – the plucky serviceman.       

With the mass immigration from the Commonwealth that followed WWII, various names became associated with particular ethnic groups. The name Winston, for example, was used disparagingly to refer to men of Caribbean descent. (Like other names that gained currency in the West Indies, this name was a nod to the colonial connection and it remains one of the most popular Jamaican male names.) Likewise, Patel – the most common surname of people of Indian descent – also became a pejorative catch-all for anyone of South Asian heritage.

Outside of ethnicity or nationality, the branding of individuals with names thought to connote low class or questionable repute, is another common practice in the UK. While these names can vary with time and place, contemporary wisdom holds that Sharon (or Shazza) and Tracey – often in a pair – are ladies of loose virtue and Kevin (usually Kev) is an irredeemable pleb.These have become countable nouns, so that it is not uncommon to hear such opprobrious turns of phrase as, “James really is such a Kev.” Meanwhile, at school, an unpopular pupil continues, for some unfathomable reason, to be known as Billy (or Norman) No Mates.

In recent years, the advent of new name choices among British parents has led to further snobbery. The controversial “media personality” Katie Hopkins received an ample serving of disgust in 2013 for insisting that she would not allow her children to play with classmates whose names she deemed low class.

Hopkins has made her name for airing abhorrent views, so this was not particularly surprising. However, the propensity toward sneering at names is not limited to bigots of her ilk. Even dyed-in-the-wool liberals are not averse to “namism.” A well-known Taiwan blogger with strong views on social justice has, on several occasions, used names such as Chad and Brayden to evoke the archetype of the ignorant (white male) cram-school teacher.

Though transatlantic differences in nomenclature appear to be narrowing, the aforementioned pair of names would remain readily identifiable as “American” to most Brits. That is to say, the connotations of names are culture-specific across the English-speaking world. Indeed, there is still considerable room for, if not outright confusion, surprise over what names will bring to mind among different audiences. My choice of the name Jemima for a character in a dialogue I was writing for an English-learning magazine some years ago, was met with goggle-eyed astonishment. For me, the name was all Puddle-duck, Potts or Goldsmith. For my American colleague, the outmoded “mammy” stereotype of Aunt Jemima was what came to mind. On the other hand, some American archetypes with racist overtones have entered the British lexicon – the term Uncle Tom is, alas, all too frequently levelled at black Brits, particularly in politics.            

Of course, English speakers don’t have a stranglehold on the name game. Travelling on a train from Zagreb to Dalmatia in the late ‘90s, I shared a few beers with a pair of Croats who regaled me with jokes that featured a duo of bumbling buffoons called Mujo and Haso. Although it was initially claimed that they were just random monikers for thick people, one of my interlocutors eventually confessed that they were stereotypical names for Bosnians. Interestingly, some of the jokes were remarkably similar to the classic “Scotsman, Irishman, Englishman” gags that feature Irishmen as the fall guys. For Mujo and Huso, basically, substitute Paddy and Mick.

The discriminatory use of given names came into the spotlight in Taiwan last week when Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) was rightly castigated for referring to Filipinas as “Marias.” Speaking at a press conference to address the fallout over his remarks, Han claimed he had been speaking “figuratively” in the role of the average Taiwanese parent who wouldn’t be comfortable with (what said parent would think of as) a Maria, as their child’s English teacher. It was a pretty pathetic attempt to style things out, and his gushing praise for the English-language capabilities of Filipinos was suitably oleaginous.  

Yet, Han’s initial comment, his subsequent observations about the general perceptions of Taiwanese (as spuriously employed to deflect as they were) and some of the reaction across social media pointed to a deeper issue with Taiwanese society, namely a tendency to lump outsiders into monolithic categories. Thus, not just individual nations, but entire regions, incorporating diverse cultures and ethnolinguistic groups are categorized under a single designation. Southeast Asians, for example, are often referred to as wailao (外勞), meaning “foreign labourers” or, even more ignorantly, sometimes as tailao (泰勞) – “Thai labourers,” regardless of nationality or occupation (neither of which the average person in Taiwan has much interest in ascertaining.)   

Then there are the terms waiguoren or laowai. (For our purposes, I shall treat these as interchangeable, though there are often subtle differences in usage.) It might seem odd to take issue with terms that literally mean “foreigner.” Yet, as most people who give the matter any thought can tell you, the descriptor is a lot more nuanced than that. For starters, these terms refer almost exclusively to Westerners, and white ones at that. Moreover, they apply to said group regardless of where the speaker it uttering the word happens to be. Laowai are laowai even in their own country. Most Taiwanese I have discussed this with chuckle knowingly, but some have looked genuinely perplexed when it is explained that they are the foreigner now. Quite a few have responded by asking a variation of the following, “So, what should I call them (as I obviously can’t call them [demonym] in their own country)?” This question elicits another in response, one that gets us to the kernel of the matter: why call them anything?

There is a borderline obsessive need in Taiwan to label things, particularly things that fall outside day-to-day to experience. It’s the verbal version of pointing your finger, a rectification of names gone awry.

“That tuna danbing with hot sauce is for the foreigner,” says the breakfast shop boss.

It makes sense. The place is packed and she needs to let her employee know whom the pancake is for, right?.

“What else should she call you? She doesn’t know your name. It’s not impolite. You are a foreigner.”

OK. But she also doesn’t know the name of the lanky, bespectacled fellow over there. Somehow, though, his fantuan seems to find its way to him without the clarifier “the tall guy with glasses” being deemed necessary.

And with blanket terms come a whole raft of assumptions. An NT dollar for every time I hear “Foreigners don’t like [food item],” would cover the rent on my very own stinky tofu stand at the local night market.  

These examples do not constitute racism or xenophobia in any meaningful sense, and no sensible person would make such a claim. It is sometimes claimed that observations of this sort are simply “whining” stemming from white privilege. In a Taipei Times interview from 2015, for example, one long-term African-American resident of Taiwan opines that “the reason why white people complain in Taiwan is because they are not used to discrimination.”

There is certainly some truth to this. Yet for many of these “Taiwhiners,” the issue is not one of “oppression” or outright “racism” as the interviewee misleadingly suggests, but an obdurate “us” and “them” mentality that seems to permeate the very fabric of society. Where do mixed-raced children fit into this equation? When my son complains about being called a foreigner as he is almost every day of his life, is he displaying some kind of “half-white privilege?”      

To be clear: labeling Filipinas “Marias” is a notch up from this and little different from calling Hispanic people “dagos” (a word which itself likely derives from the common Spanish men’s name Diego.) Yes, it’s a far cry from the virulent racism encountered in Europe and North America but, in some senses, the attitudes that inform such epithets are more insidious.  

In a generally tolerant and non-confrontational society such as Taiwan, these terms seldom spiral into anything more sinister, but they do reinforce the kind of ignorance of otherness that perpetuates division and misunderstanding.

One of the more interesting works at the 2018 Taipei Biennial, which wrapped up the Sunday before last, was a video installation in a section called the Museum of Non-Humanity. Prominent among the text and image that flickered up onto the walls in cycles was a presentation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. During the three-month massacre that left up to a million people dead, Hutu extremists infamously referred to their Tutsi victims as cockroaches.* Dehumanizing the Tutsi made it easier to murder them without compunction.      

What made the atrocities even harder to comprehend was the lack of any credible ethnic distinguishability between the two groups of people. The genocide was a stark reminder of the what can happen when people focus on relatively insignificant differences at the expense of much greater commonalities. From Belfast to the West Bank, the modern world’s bitterest conflicts have been premised on an insistence on difference.      

In Taiwan, the cracks surface at election time, when the political atmosphere can acquire a troubling degree of volatility, stoked by rabble-rousing along “ethnic” lines. When brandished to demean, belittle and sow division, names have considerable scope for harm.

Kuo’s defenders use the same misguided logic that I have heard for years: He didn’t mean any harm; besides, Maria is a common name among Filipinas, so it’s not offensive. Attempts to explain that the utterer’s intent is irrelevant to the feelings of the target often seem to fall flat.

The fact is, even when there is supposedly no ill-intent, the way we refer to other groups of people matters. The nation’s leaders, in particular, would do well to remember that.    

* Two years after her comments on names in This Morning, Katie Hopkins used the word cockroaches to refer to immigrants in a column for The Sun. Here, she defends her choice of words in an interview with Ian Hislop.

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