Americans have a long history of using pejorative terms to describe things that make them uncomfortable, people who are different than they perceive themselves to be and those less fortunate. It is one of the shameful parts of our history. We are not alone. Perhaps it is an undesirable trait of being human and having the ability of language.

However, we are also intelligent and quite capable of recognizing that words and terminology can hurt or offend and we are able to rise above petty language. Often, the use of derogatory terms and names is based on habitual usage or laziness. Sometimes, it is a lack of knowledge of the origin of words or phrases.

For example:

The term peanut gallery which is often used today with regard to children voicing their unsolicited opinions, originates from the late 19th-century vaudeville, although for some, the phrase is considered a racial slur. The peanut gallery was the place for those who could not afford the price of a seat and usually attracted a lower class, rowdy individual who would throw peanuts (what might be popcorn today) at the performers.

Paddy wagon came about in the 19th century as an ethnic slur to refer to Irish people. Irishmen made up a large percentage of the officers of early police forces in many American cities. Paddy is short for Padraig or Patrick.

Indian giver traces its roots back to at least the 1700s. In his 1765 History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, “Thomas Hutchinson defined an Indian gift as a present “for which an equivalent return is expected.”

Redskin (such as the NFL team): At the start of the eighteenth century, Indians and Europeans rarely mentioned the color of each other’s skins. By mid-century, remarks about skin color and the categorization of peoples by simple color-coded labels (red, white, black) had become common.

Eskimo: While the exact etymology of the term is unclear, people in many parts of the Arctic consider Eskimo a derogatory term because it was widely used by racist, non-native colonizers.

Now to get to Chinese Auction, the catalyst for this diatribe. It is believed that the term arose in the late 19th century, when discrimination against Chinese immigrants was prevalent. During this period the Chinese Exclusion Act was instituted, barring Chinese immigrants from entering our country. “Chinese auction” is also known as a “penny raffle” or “chance auction.” At the time, Chinese laborers were paid low wages, and Chinese came to mean “cheap” in American slang.

Regardless of the origins of these terms, some find them offensive.

Area non-profits still use the term to describe a fundraiser  – a penny or ticket auction. While organizers may think objections to the use of the word Chinese are silly, others do not. Many other groups appear to have recognized the use of the word Chinese may offend and call their events simply ticket auctions.

In the grand scheme of what’s wrong in the world, this is minor. But, part of what’s wrong – especially today in America – is intolerance, a lack of respect and a lack of care for others. It really doesn’t matter if we think something is silly. If it hurts or offends someone, we should care enough to not do it. It costs us nothing but does require us to pause and think for a moment, if our words or actions might hurt someone.

If we have any hope of recapturing the caring, empathetic and generous image we have of ourselves, we need to start with the small stuff. We need to exercise caution in the words we use so that they may not inadvertently invoke the ethnic bias of an earlier time or encourage the hateful growth of that bias today.

There is nothing culturally Chinese about an auction.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: