Michael M. Ego ‘Chink in the armor’: Is it a racist cliché?
During the recent American League Baseball Division Series, one of the broadcasters on TBS, Ron Darling, made the following comment: “A little chink in the armor for Tanaka (New York Yankees Japanese pitcher) here. It’s the first inning where he’s lost a little of his control.”
Darling publicly apologized by stating, “Earlier (Saturday night) I used an expression while referencing Masahiro Tanaka’s recent pitching performance. While unintentional, I apologize for my choice of words.”
The cliché “chink in one’s armor” refers to an area of vulnerability. It has traditionally been used to refer to a weak spot in a figurative suit of armor. The phrase “chink in one’s armor” has been used since the 15th century. The word “chink” is defined as a “narrow opening or fissure.”
The phrase has had unintentional and intentional consequences as its use in contemporary times has caused controversy in the United States due to it including “chink”, a word that can be used as an ethnic slur to refer to Asian Americans. A racist concoction that was created by persons in the 1860s debased the phenotype of Asian eyes and degraded the unrecognized and maligned Chinese workers who pinged railroad ties to build America’s intercontinental railroad.
As an American of Japanese ancestry, I have been the target of many ethnic slurs, including jap, chink, gook and dog-eater, over my lifetime in the United States. One may probably think that the word “chink” is only a targeted slur aimed at persons of Chinese ancestry. Regrettably, the term “they all look alike” rings true with persons of East Asian and Southeast Asian heritage, and thus the person using the ethnic slur is ignorant of the heterogeneity of these groups and calls all of us a “chink.” To others and myself the word “chink” is the Asian American equivalent of “N-Word” for blacks.
I was ambivalent about writing this article. Therefore, I took an unscientific poll of about 50 colleagues and friends, with most of the respondents being non-Asian. The question: Is the cliché, “Chink in the Armor,” a racist phrase?
The responses clustered as follows: “Any term that offends an individual should not be used,” to “you are pushing the boundaries of ‘political correctness’ when the original purpose of the cliché was not racist,” to “what about the phrase, ‘chink in the wall’ that is part of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that offers prose about two lovers separated by a wall. You wouldn’t dare tinker with Shakespeare’s plays, would you?,” to “there are many ethnic and minority groups that have lived with such terms as, ‘spic and span,’ and ‘Indian giver,’ and have not made similar comment for redemption,” to “Are you also planning to eliminate the phrase, “there is a nip in the air,” that includes the derogatory word “nip” as a reference to an ethnic slur towards persons of Japanese ancestry.
I am most influenced by the first response. Why should American society continue to use phrases that are hurtful and demeaning to anyone? There is a precedent for dealing with offensive-sounding words. There has been but a single use of faggot in the New York Times since 1981 (compared with hundreds before), with the word “queer” as the appropriate replacement.
This is not an argument against free speech. Each American can speak freely as part of the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I am advocating for the scrutiny of a stand-alone word, “chink,” or other phrases with the word “chink” that has an intent to be a racial slur and that is used as such in verbal expression, in print, on social media or other environments.
I offer the following resolution for the use of the phrase, “Chink in the Armor.” There is no need to replace the cliché with another one.
Let us articulate exactly the signification of the original cliché, with “There is a (vulnerability, problem, weakness) in ………..“
The time has come for all of us to reassess our vocabulary usage to prevent individuals from experiencing continued bigotry and racism in American society.
Michael M. Ego is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut, Stamford, and teaches the course Asian Pacific American Families.