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CommentInsight & Opinion

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. CharltonMcIlwain.com


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This article is now closed to comments

Dai Muff
Please do not confuse the issue of mainland tourists with issues of American slavery and its resonance in US society today. It trivialises slavery to an astounding degree to equate it with individuals crossing the border several times a day to buy iPhones and baby milk. If my next door neighbour irritates me and I act on it, it does not make him of a different race to me.
Well said. Indeed, this author is reading way too much into Hongkongers' annoyance with the insane number of 'tourists' (shoppers really) the city receives. Loc~sts = tourists who only visit our city briefly (1~2 days max), mostly for shopping, crowd out regular retail businesses, cause capacity issues on the MTR (and other infrastructure), often behave without much consideration to local residents, and then leave again, without having contributed much (if anything) to our city or our economy.

It really doesn't matter that they are mainland Chinese. Their race or nationality is irrelevant. If there would be 50~60 million (white) Americans visiting Vancouver every year, there would be a backlash against that too (for the record, Vancouver receives between 3~4 million tourists a year).

And the qualitative aspect of the (fairly minor) differences in culture and manners really plays a distant second fiddle the sheer quantitative aspect of it all. Mr McIlwain should first perhaps come and see what 50~60 million tourists a year does to the infrastructure and retail landscape of a city of 7 million before he makes his ill-informed remarks.
ummm...are we talking about racial slurs here? Youy don't know what you are talking about.
At best, "****s" is a regional slur against people from another region. Its not a racial slur, as the Mainlanders are the same race and nationality and not even a class slur, as many probably are significantly wealthy.
The slur refers to uncouth, impolite, culturally insensitive, selfish, demeaning, human pigs. There is no other way to describe it and the invasion that makes life here miserable is overwhelming HK society, its public services and amenities. It's not just the obvious, one cannot even go camping anymore without fighting Mainland tourists for one of the designated slots. They represent everything Hong Kong does not want to be and are contrary to all the strides in civilization Hong Kong has made over the last 100 years - their presence is clearly part of the Central Government's plan to de-Hong Kong, Hong Kong....that is to say, turn it into just another city in China, with ill mannered, selfish people everywhere, spitting and dumping in the streets and making what was a normal life, into once fraught with caution about everything and everybody.
Dai Muff
As one black American comedian - I think it was Chris Rock - put it: "We all know the difference between n***as and black people, and even I don't want to live next door to no n***as"." It is not about race.
As recently as the seventies and eighties, it has to be said, many Hong Kong people themselves would not queue for buses, say thank you if people held doors open for them, or invariably behave politely in public. Some still don't, but the proportion is smaller. These increases in manners have been directly viewable over the past several decades, and now it seems to be all going to hell again.One can argue that HK society could have a "civilising aspect" but many worry the influence will go the other way. Even in Shenzhen, people do NOT accept or like some of the behaviour we witness here. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not even read Weibo.
Your own pig speak has thoroughly defined your persona.
This article is a clearheaded warning about the self-destructive and morally corrosive effect of demonizing the Other, on any basis. We misread his argument at our peril.
I think a better analogy (than ****) to some HKers calling mainlanders insects may be for American southerners to call the northerners Yankees some 100-150 years ago. I guess every major city in China and elsewhere has its own favorite epithets for non-locals that the locals perceive as a threat to their way of life. Many Beijingers and Shanghainese have few good things to say about new arrivals and "tourists". This is very ancient story.
You are maybe too young, to naiv to know that all, what you are complaining of, all was once regular life in HK. You are now just taking the part of the "white" British who complained 20-30 years ago about the HKnese for the same things. They actually use the same words. And if you dared to come near their houses, let say at the Peak, they would let loose their dogs on you.
So the question is, do you have blond hair or have you already dyed your hair blond? You know, with blond hair if you fa..rt, it will smell better...


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