Chinese tourists

Beware the power of racial slurs to dehumanise

Charlton McIlwain picks apart the 'locust' slur directed at mainlanders, warning that Hong Kong is on a slippery slope, given the power of such insults to dehumanise and the damage that can be inflicted when groups racialise their differences

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 12:13pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 4:31am

Locusts! This creature of darkness increasingly represents many Hong Kong citizens' disdain for, and discrimination against, a menacing Other. Granted, being a black American perhaps makes me the ultimate outsider, compared to either Hongkongers or mainland Chinese. But considering this emerging epithet's anatomy and evolution leads me to ask the question: are mainland Chinese our new niggers to the East?

This is no insignificant question, coming from a country where some consider "nigger" the nuclear bomb of epithets. For example, we censor and fine football players for using that word (by anyone, under any circumstance). Yet one is free to place a fierce, dark-faced, feathered-hair image on a helmet, call their team the "Redskins" (a slur against indigenous peoples) and make billions.

This contradiction expresses our enduring history that gives "nigger" the unmatched power to offend, threaten and subordinate individuals and groups.

So why cross oceans and continents to connect a centuries-old epithet with one just birthed by comparison? Why liken a slur forged by national friction in a country built by migrants, immigrants and slaves, with one now being fashioned in a city built by migrants and immigrants, who have no historical connection with that brutal institution known as the African slave trade? Why compare "locust" to "nigger"? Make no mistake, the two terms are far from equivalent. But parallels between them demonstrate sufficient cause for concern. Indeed, Hong Kong citizens embracing the term and all it represents are sliding, epithet in hand, down a slippery slope that may end up where nigger began. Consider three connected components that comprise the locust slur.

First, the social distance between Hong Kong residents and its mainland visitors has and continues to significantly expand. In Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu's polls, citizens increasingly say Hong Kong represents their core identity, rather than China or being Chinese. The more alarming expression of this growing rift is that many Hong Kong residents racialise the difference between themselves and their mainland neighbours. They say the Chinese deface public ruins and defecate in public. They say they are lazy, steal, are uncouth and ignorant.

For these Hongkongers, this is not simply what some Chinese people do, it is who they are. It marks and defines mainlanders' essential nature. Read into the language and tone of public statements made by Hongkongers - in newspapers, on websites, at public protests and on homemade videos - and you find a not-so-subtle mark of inferiority that increasingly separates them (Chinese) from us (Hongkongers).

Hong Kong citizens' growing dissatisfaction with their current standard of living marks the second component. Whether it is about the availability of affordable housing, access to social welfare services, or opportunities for gainful employment, a 2012 Gallup survey showed the vast majority of Hong Kong citizens polled - 77 per cent - said they were either "struggling" or "suffering". In fact, fewer Hong Kong citizens said they were "thriving" than any other developed Asian region surveyed that year.

The expanding social distance and increasingly racialised distinctions used to separate Hongkongers from Chinese are familiar to, and consistent with, research about racial and ethnic group threat. A 2011 study by researchers at Umea University in Sweden, and Tohoku University in Japan, for instance, demonstrated that citizens who directly compete with immigrant populations for scarce resources feel increasingly threatened as the immigrant population's composition increases.

Seen through this lens, the progressively racialised social distance between Hongkongers and mainland tourists goes hand in hand with working-class Hongkongers' widespread sense of economic dissatisfaction. Both are reflected in the locust - the naming and use of which represents the third component of the symbols' development.

Perhaps the most popular and enduring representation of the locust is found at the opposing ends of the Bible, first in Exodus and second in Revelations. In ancient Hebrew mythology, locusts darkened the Egyptian skies. They were a devastating plague unleashed by God to punish the Pharaoh for enslaving the Jewish people.

In the New Testament, a prophetic vision portrays locusts ascending from hell's darkest depths to torture the unrepentant. By targeting these people only, God instructed these locusts not to do what is in their biological nature - to consume, devour and destroy all that is in their path.

In contemporary Hong Kong-China relations, the locust symbolises both the essential difference between contaminated Chinese, and the more pure (racially, culturally, politically) Hong Kong citizenry. As one website puts it, "locusts are what locusts do". The locust represents the Chinese threat to consume and devour not only Hong Kong's resources, but the very existence of its people (this, undoubtedly underlies the vehement objection to "birth tourists" specifically).

But it is the dehumanisation effected by the locust - the depiction of Chinese in language and imagery as an animal, an insect, a filthy pest - that is most alarming. It is this kind of dehumanisation that links "locust" to "nigger".

Like locust, the term nigger originated to mark fundamental distinctions between groups based on what one said was the other's fundamental nature. As such, nigger indicated not only imported Africans' inferior status, but also signalled their subhuman constitution. To be black was to be a slave, inferior, subhuman, not white - a nigger. As such, nigger was neither symbol nor epithet. Speaking it effected slaves' absolute distinction from whites as chattel. To be named a nigger solidified - in word and deed, law and policy - one's innate inferiority and subservience to one's masters.

American slavery was a unique institution, one that probably precludes "locust" from amassing the same type of power that "nigger" once did. What approximate power locust might gain, however, remains an open question. It depends on the degree that Hong Kong will be able to forestall imposing more stringent policies that capitalise on the dehumanising sentiment the locust symbolises. It depends on how much Hong Kong residents and opinion leaders publicly oppose using the term, and shaming those who do.

It depends on whether Hongkongers and mainlanders will be willing to work out their differences, not as two fundamentally different peoples, but as neighbours whose fates are inextricably linked.

Charlton McIlwain, PhD, is an associate professor of media, culture & communication at New York University.