Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mutated Meanings -- Can Racial Slurs Ever Stop Hating?

In my last post I wrote about the Chinese American immigrant teen who was attacked by seven of his classmates in what appears to be retaliation for another beating rather than for what the YouTube video makes it appear to be--a racially motivated attack--a hate crime.

Yet, as I noted in the post, it may very well be that race and hate are involved, especially in the idea of the teen as a "FOB," an acronym which stands for "Fresh off the boat."

Yesterday I had a very lively discussion with my Asian Americans in the South class

[Aside: Yes, that's right--I'm teaching a class on Asian American Southern literature--it may well be the first of its kind in the nation, although if anyone else knows of someone who has taught a version of this class before, I'd love to share and compare notes! Also, I have to tell you that these students were so smart, candid, and thoughtful in their discussion of very controversial and provocative topics--I really commend them and I also appreciate how they help me push the boundaries of my thinking.]

about this video and about the situation of the teen being beaten up by other Chinese American youth, and especially about the racial slur, "nigger," used by his attackers (and one masked attacker in particular it seems) as they beat, punched, kicked, and pummeled his face, head, and body.

A very interesting discussion ensued, particularly about the use of the term "FOB" and "nigger" (and I do apologize about my use of this racial slur--I'm not trying to replicate hatred or feelings of discomfort, but following Randall Kennedy, I believe in using the word, contextually, instead of masking it and giving it more power by saying "n-word" -- it's like Harry Potter's rationalization for saying "Voldemort" instead of referring to him as "He who shall not be named"). Several of my students said that the word "nigger" or in its more colloquial form "niggah" had taken on a life and usage that is seemingly separate from its original term as a word of ultimate racial hatred. And they didn't just mean the way it has been appropriated within certain African American circles as a term of in-group affection and solidarity. No, what they meant is that non-African Americans used the term as a pejorative but not as a racial pejorative--more as a term to denote someone who is acting like a jerk or a punk. In youth parlance, a "hater" if you will.

Similarly, the term "FOB" or just "fob" and "fobby," didn't have any negative meanings, for them--it simply was used to refer to a recent immigrant who maintained ethnic-national times to his/her homeland. So in referring to a recent Korean American who enjoys Korean music, someone might say, "He's a real fob--he's totally into K-Pop." Or in talking about Cuban immigrants in Miami you might say, "She's so fobby--she only speaks Spanish and hangs out with other Cuban fobs."

I decided to see if I could find the origins of the word "F.O.B." since I had grown up, in the 1970s, believing that this was a term used to make fun of recent Asian immigrants--specifically it was often used to denigrate Southeast Asian (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian) refugees from the war in Viet Nam. Although I assumed that it wouldn't be in the OED, I decided to start there (since it's the gold standard of English language etymology) and lo and behold, I found an entry:

FOB, n.4

Pronunciation: Brit. /fɒb/ , /ˌɛfəʊˈbiː/ , U.S. /fɑb/ , /ˌɛfoʊˈbi/
Forms: 19– F.O.B., 19– f.o.b., 19– FOB, 19– fob.
Etymology: Acronym < the initial letters of fresh off the boat ...
slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Chiefly depreciative. [my emphasis]

Categories »

A recent immigrant.
1968 Los Angeles Times 6 May ii. 12/2 The FOBs don't know English when they get here and their parents move to Chinatown so the family can live with people like themselves.
1991 J. Raban Hunting Mr. Heartbreak 256 If you passed Mr. Han on the street, you'd mistake him for a still shell-shocked newcomer; an FOB.
1994 Filipino Express (Electronic ed.) 11 Dec. 11 They call the Vietnamese F.O.B.s‥. We can call them S.O.B.s, but that would be stooping down to their level.
2004 K. W. Keltner Dim Sum of All Things 139 In Stephanie's world, Lindsey's blatant disregard for sock perfection made her look like a fob—a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant.

They key phrase above is "Chiefly depreciative" -- meaning, disparaging and belittling. In other words, the general tenor and tone of this word/phrase is negative--it's a pejorative--it's not used as a term of affection, endearment or respect. It's used as a term to pass judgment, to highlight difference, to otherize: to racialize.

I don't think, like with the word "queer," that there has been some kind of mass movement by recent Asian immigrants to take back and appropriate this term. Instead, I think that the term has evolved over time to the point where my college-aged (roughly 18-22) students who use this phrase simply believe it refers to recent immigrants without any negative overtones or values--and that it doesn't have a specific racial connotation.

Yet, as I reminded them in class yesterday, we don't apply the term "FOB" to recent arrivals from Canada or Ireland or Australia or Western Europe in general. Would we refer to a French immigrant as a FOB? Would we talk about a New Zealand transplant as a FOB? Would we assume that the English immigrant who continues to eat bangers and mash for breakfast is acting fobby? This seems like a term that is primarily used to describe Asian immigrants (although one student who grew up in Florida noted that it was a term he heard applied to Cuban immigrants), and certainly its origins and primary usage in the 1970s and 1980s was as a pejorative.

So can the word "fob," in the 21st century, now take on a deracinated, neutralized form--so that it simply refers to someone who is a recent immigrant who prefers to keep the culture of his/her natal land alive?


skim666 said...

i think it always depends on an ongoing combination of history, context, intent, reception/"interpretive community", etc. at this moment in history, in my opinion, there's no way to use "FOB" without referring to its racialization/Othering connotation (including ironic uses). i think students' thinking of it as non-racial is just part of the overall discourse of post-racial doodoo.

Mixed/Other said...

I really appreciate this post, for it's sentiment, neutrality, and education. This is a slur I have yet to hear, and I am saddened that we are still coming up with new ones.

I personally haven't found that any slur is "deraciated." Whether it be nigger, fob, wet-back, or any others; whether they are used in "civil" conversation or rap songs; if they are used to define or describe a person, they are ever inappropriate.

In truth, a word can lose its harmful power when people lose their fear of it, but it's still, in my opinion, disgusting.

Jennifer said...

skim666 & mixed/Other,

Thanks for your comments. Teaching definitely keeps me in touch with youth culture--I mean, I would never have guessed that either "FOB" or "Nigga" had entered into my students' vocabulary deracinated--although I'd say with the latter that this was controversial, even in the context of my class.

But the FOB discussion was illuminating--over half the class had no idea that the phrase had a negative and hateful connotation.

The optimist in me would like to think that it's possible for this word to lose its pejorative meaning, but the pragmatist/academic in me just doesn't think that will ever be possible.

Grace Hwang Lynch said...

I'm surprised that FOB has made into the OED. But I have to think that's a somewhat good thing, if only in that it acknowledges Asian slang as part of the English language. I don't think the term is racially neutral, it very clearly was derogatory in its inception. I sort of wish those students would say they are using the term in a "take it back" way, rather than thinking it is simply words. *sigh*

Jennifer said...

I agree with you--the origins are so clearly meant to demean Asian immigrants. I think the issue is that the students who are using this phrase aren't aware of its origins and its application is a bit fuzzier--that it's other Asians, sometimes recent immigrants, using this term on themselves (similar to African Americans using the n-word as an in-group word)--so coupled with the fact that Asian Americans aren't generally part of a larger discourse in this country, it all boils down to a lot of ignorant application. It's frustrating.