Pop Report: The N-Word and Censorship of Asian Words

Hey readers!

I’m back with another article for my series, Pop Report, and this time I’ll be focusing on a more sensitive matter regarding the N-word.

Background

I decided to write on this topic after reading an article about Dr. Greg Patton getting suspended from teaching his class, Communication of Management, for introducing a Chinese term, nèige. In this class, students learn effective skills when communicating in global markets. That day, Dr. Patton was talking about filler words such as er and um and refers to the Mandarin word, nèige that means that but is commonly used similarity to er in English. After class, he received messages and emails from students saying that they felt uncomfortable with the Chinese example. While Dr. Patton did send out an email apologizing for any discomfort he may have brought upon, the Dean receives an anonymous letter from a group of Black students. In the email, they “accused the professor of racism and harming their mental health by using a Chinese-language word” that sounded like the N-word. A graduate of the university has also said “He’s a white American. He knows what it sounds like, right…It was distasteful because you know what it means to people. You know what it sounds like. And you didn’t care how it came off to Black students in your class.” In an interview for Los Angeles, Dr. Patton argues against allegations remarking, “This is a Chinese word that has a different sound, a different accent, different pronunciation. It never once crossed my mind it would lead to this.”

Opinion

“This is a Chinese word…” says it all. There are obvious reasons why the N-word should not be spoken by people outside of the African American community and people need to be educated on the history of the word. However, is it necessary to censor or avoid foreign words that sound similar to the N-word?

Fake Love, a song by BTS, a seven-member South Korean boy group, has also been censored when played on US radio stations. In J-Hope’s rap verse, there is a word naega and niga which respectively mean “you” and “I”. These words can easily be mistaken as the N-word and therefore were taken out to avoid issues of racism. ln BTS’s case, the edited version was distributed by their label, Big Hit Entertainment, so it was their choice to avoid using the word that could create conflict. Although the consideration towards the African American community and the American public is admirable, I wonder if there is an issue of ethnocentrism in work.

Ethnocentrism is defined as an “evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one's own culture” according to Oxford Languages. In the case of nèige and naega, it may not be a certain culture that is becoming a standard but it is the language English. People are looking at other languages through an English lens.  My friend calls this "anglophone supremacy" because the Chinese word and Korean word are only problematic when regarded in the eyes of an English speaker. Henderson explains that the N-word has been used since the mid-1800s as a racist insult and has become a term that is considered to be “unspeakable and has now acquired a taboo associated with the most obscene word of the English language”. If you think about it, the Japanese word for sour, nigai in its shortened form, niga, can also cause quite a discussion.

Although I did my research to write this article, to be honest, I can’t say that I can propose a solution. The situation with Dr. Patton and BTS’s song is complex and there are numerous ways to view these occurrences. While words similar to the N-word may need to be used carefully such as censoring them to avoid conflict, at the same time, those are words that people use and it’s part of a language. The University of Southern California which suspended a professor who had used a Mandarin word without ill intent is in a way being quite racial to its Chinese students. While I can’t say what is right or what is wrong clearly on the topic, I do think we need to think about the balance between globalization (possibly westernization) and respecting other languages.