Sometimes you just can’t predict what takes over your social media feed. Here my local Greater New York City musician friends were, gearing up for the coming CMJ festival, booking shows and announcing dates, same as every October. But right now, a lot of those people find themselves talking and thinking a lot about a band from Florida few (if any) of us had ever heard of. The band is called Me Chinese. The discussion isn’t about their music. It’s about the fact that they’re called Me Chinese, and about whether it’s at all acceptable for a band to be called Me Chinese.
A few of my musician friends and acquaintances of Asian descent were the among the first to notice the name Me Chinese on CMJ schedules (the band’s booked at a few small clubs where local bands like ours play all the time), and reaction ranged from mild frustration to allegations of outright racism. The discussion on Facebook has been building for a couple days and was picked up yesterday by the blog Brooklyn Vegan. As with just about anything on social media and in music blogs, the reaction spans from earnest discussion and statements of solidarity, through waffling and equivocation, through straw man counterarguments, to basic trolling. A lot of the language revolves around whether the phrase “me Chinese” is always offensive, or offensive only relative to context, and what this means for other band names that could be perceived as offensive. A lot of the discussion is about personal experience and feelings. Those things are all important, but they’re usually too cloudy and subjective for a debate that goes anywhere.
I don’t know whether calling one’s band Me Chinese is an inherently racist act. I’m inclined to think it probably is. But at the very least, it’s inherently problematic on a cultural level, and I’d say the reasons it’s culturally problematic are objective, not subjective. Regardless of how offended you are or aren’t, the reasons why the specific phrase “me Chinese” is loaded don’t vary by where in the U.S. you came from or what personal experiences you’ve had in life.
There’s a lot of language out there that might cause a listener to think, “Wait. That sounds questionable, but I don’t have a context for it, so I don’t know. Let me assess the broader scene so I can have a suitable reaction.” That’s because a lot of culturally-charged statements we hear, or even say, on a day-to-day basis spring immediately from the speaker’s imagination or reaction to a specific set of circumstances. They’re seemingly random. “Me Chinese” is not one of those statements. It’s not random. It’s codified. It’s distinct, it’s historical and it’s consistent.
The phrase “me Chinese” comes from a made-up parody pidgin English created by native English speakers to mock the pidgin of actual immigrant Asians. It’s a pidgin that serves only to mock and to underline its target’s Otherness: The effect is to paint the Other as ignorant or unsophisticated for misunderstanding the nuances of English grammar. When this kind of language is spoken and someone laughs, they are always laughing at the target, and never with. There is no laughing with the target here, because the targeter created the language as a tool expressly to exclude and ridicule. As with a lot of parody pidgins, it follows its own logic, and there is a “correct” way to speak it. The rules are fairly simple, which is one of the reasons why you can hear it even in parts of the U.S. where there has never been a flesh and blood community of people from anywhere in Asia. Two of those rules are that it always uses me where I belongs, and that it drops the verbs am, are, is, was and were wherever possible. The patterns of this parody pidgin speak are used consistently when it is spoken, and they were established decades ago. That’s what I mean when I say the phrase “me Chinese” is codified, and that the linguistic code it belongs to is inherently problematic. It’s a phrase that, in U.S. usage, points directly to that widespread and commonly-understood code, a code that has inherently exclusionary and mocking overtones, rather than to any idiom used in actual Asian immigrant communities in this country.
You really can’t say the phrase “me Chinese” is innocuous and meaningless when placed in the proper context. The context is the history and culture of the U.S. itself. It’s one of many sets of linguistic code that certain groups of people have used to exclude and stigmatize other groups of people. And of course, there are others. Latinos, for example, are targeted with a parody pidgin that inevitably devolves into just calling out menu items from a Mexican restaurant. Black Americans are targeted with the entire history of minstrel-speak — which is particularly tricky, because every time a generation of white Americans decides one set of minstrel-speak is taboo, a new iteration comes bubbling up to take its place.
Actually, let’s talk about minstrel-speak for a minute, because when I started thinking about the codified bad grammar in the phrasing of “me Chinese,” I thought of a grammatical parallel from that world: “I’se” in place of “I am.” Here’s the thing about “I’se:” It’s practically shorthand for the entirety of minstrel-speak, which mainstream U.S. culture unilaterally recognizes to be racist as hell, an artifact of an ugly part of our history. Unless you’re referencing minstrelry itself and clearly being ironic about it (and really, you can only get away with cracking a joke about minstrelry if you’re African-American — the history is that nasty and loaded), you’re going to have a problem if you bust out with an “I’se” in conversation. And if you consider the grammatical construction together with the legacy of racism in the U.S., “me Chinese” does basically the same thing. It’s just that it’s not universally recognized as taboo, for some reason. The grammatical structure and the intended belittling effect are the same thing. Hopefully, one of these days we won’t have to explain to people why or how it’s the same thing. But it is. It’s the same manner of mocking and excluding the Other, making the Other sound ignorant, and doing so in a distinctly coded way.
The defenders of the band Me Chinese are wont to point out there’s a long tradition of punk bands giving themselves irreverent names, and that it’s wrong to assume the people in the band meant anything racist about it. After all, you can name a band Perfect Pussy or Cerebral Ballzy, for example, so why not Me Chinese? The problem is, those arguments assume all offensive language offends in the same way, and it doesn’t. Some offensive language is squirm-inducing for subjective, hard-to-qualify ways. There’s a much smaller set of words and phrases that are codified as problematic, words and phrases that point to a distinct legacy of oppression and exclusion, and that are offensive in exactly the same way every time they occur. I’m willing to believe the guys in Me Chinese didn’t intend to be racist. But in giving their band a name that points right to an established, distinct code that has historically been used in specifically racist ways, they’ve basically done a racist thing. They can cop to it, or I guess they can do something else.