A couple of weeks back, I heard from the grapevine that some Asian American people in power in Washington were upset about our film Chink’s title. About a week later, on May 22nd 2013, the Asian Pacific Media Coalition sent us this letter:
Dear Messrs. Yung, Sakai, and Lee:
We write on behalf of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), an umbrella organization that advocates for the visibility and inclusion of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the entertainment and media industries. We acknowledge the important issue of the psychological impact of overt racism and subtle discrimination against Asian Americans that your film “Chink” explores. Many members of the APAMC, however, find the choice of a slur as the title of the film objectionable and believe it will have negative repercussions for the Asian American/Pacific Islander community. (Please note that APAMC member Visual Communications recuses itself from this letter.)
When slurs such as “chink” or “gook” are used in the movie itself, they are embedded in dialogue and context that allow the audience to perceive their pejorative intent and psychological impact. But as a movie title, listed among the offerings at a film festival or on a theatre marquee, “Chink” is stripped from this mediating context. This can be particularly problematic given the general public’s continued ignorance and use of anti-Asian slurs in connection with egregious acts such as bullying, harassment, abuse, and other forms of hate crimes perpetrated against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at school, work, and in other social spaces, including the Internet.
For the general viewer who lacks awareness of the offensive nature of anti-Asian slurs, seeing “Chink” as a title of a movie without any further explanation can continue to desensitize them to this terminology. Even worse, for those who are looking for ways to excuse their own racism, it can have a permissive impact, especially if the title is coming from Asian American filmmakers. While there may not be total agreement in our community on this practice, as in the case of using the N-word, the majority of African American individuals likely would find it unacceptable to even say the word let alone to use it in any form of discussion. It is not the intent of the APAMC to insist on political correctness or to be the word police. Nevertheless, we believe that the use of racial slurs, apart from a specific context, must be consistently and firmly checked.
Having made our point, we commend you for your commitment to exploring and redefining Asian American identity and community through filmmaking. We respectfully believe, however, that there is a way to explore those themes without inadvertently sending the message that anti-Asian racial slurs are acceptable for the general public to use. We would like the opportunity to have a dialogue with you to better understand your motivations and to address our concerns arising out of the racialized violence and systemic oppression that is inherent in the word “chink.”
We look forward to your response to schedule this conversation. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you should have any questions.
Daniel M. Mayeda, Co-Chair
East West Players
Priscilla Ouchida, Co-Chair
Japanese American Citizens League
Stanley, Koji and I got together, drafted and sent this letter as our response:
Dear Mr. Mayeda and Ms. Ouchida:
As Asian American filmmakers, we value the efforts of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) to advocate for the inclusion of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the entertainment industry, and we are in pursuit of similar goals. However, regarding your letter dated May 22, 2013, we respectfully disagree with your objections to the title of our film project, “Chink.”
It was not a haphazard decision on our part to use such an emotionally charged racial slur as the title of our film. Much thought and consideration went into the decision, and we feel that the title accurately reflects the text of the movie. The protagonist of “Chink” is an Asian American man who grew up being called “chink” and “gook” to the point where he becomes so marginalized and alienated that he hates the color of his own skin and lashes out against other Asians. He goes so far as to become a serial killer, because he believes that violence is his only recourse for empowerment. The main goal of our project is to expand the definition of Asian American identity and debunk stereotypes like the model minority myth.
While calling our film “Chink” is sure to create controversy and offend some within and without the API community, part of our intent is to generate healthy public debate about the psychological impact of racism and the use of racial slurs in contemporary American society. Although some viewers may lack awareness and misuse the term, ultimately we feel that it is not our responsibility as artists to create a context for the issues outside of the film itself. We first publicized our project in early 2012 when we started crowd-funding on the Internet, and some debate has already arisen about the potentially offensive nature of our title. We have always been very open about our point of view and been encouraged by the lively discussion, because it shows that people feel strongly about the issues and are talking them through.
Your point about desensitizing people to anti-Asian slurs is well taken, but we don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it is time that the API community reclaims such terms or at least robs them of their power to oppress. Because scrubbing the vernacular of racial slurs in the name of political correctness doesn’t resolve the underlying nature of racism itself; it only pushes the issues beneath the surface so that people are afraid to confront and openly discuss them. We feel that sanitizing the title of our project would be an act of self-censorship that hinders our freedom of expression as artists.
If you and your colleagues would like to see “Chink” before it is released to the general public, we can arrange for a private screening. We are also open to meeting with representatives of the APAMC if you would like to discuss matters further, but we hope that you can eventually embrace the spirit of our project as we attempt to find an audience and make an impact in the world as Asian American filmmakers.
Koji Steven Sakai
How do you feel about it? I invite your comments and thoughts to our conversation.