Monday, November 5, 2007

Why is that auction "Chinese?"

That was the first question my daughter asked yesterday as we were wound our way through our church's "Chinese" auction.

"Do they auction Chinese people or Chinese things?" she asked.

The origins of the "Chinese auction" aren't clear, but I am willing to bet the rent that the origins aren't in China. Conventional wisdom cites a a wealthy American socialite from the early 1900's believed to reside in NY as the creator. According to legend, she was looking for a new and unique idea for charity fundraisers. After struggling to find a new concept she hit on a "Chinese auction". What is the Chinese part you might ask? Well, apparently this wealthy woman believed that making the auction "Chinese" added intrigue, mysticism and mystery to an ordinary event-reflecting the way that many Americans viewed Chinese people at the time.

Fast-forward 100+ years.

Do we still need to put the word "Chinese" in a description? Isn't defining a person or event with this label reinforcing the stereotype of anything Chinese being a little bit odd or off kilter? What is the first thing you think of when you hear the term "Chinese" auction-confusion and chaos or a unique fund-raising event?

This type of racism is not limited to Chinese-consider the "Mexican" standoff-a gunfight where no shots were fired - a Mexican standoff - was inferior and thereby "Mexican." Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins), New York, 1977.

What about "Dutch treat?" Isn't this a stab at the stereotype that the Dutch are cheap-and would make you spring for your own meal rather than pay for your dinner?

Don't these kinds of phrases-no matter who they are directed at-put the speaker 'above' others making the others inherently inferior?

Some argue that if we have to look up the origins of these kinds of racist terms, then the racism is gone. Do you believe that?

I sure don't and neither did my seven-year old-who likened the Chinese 'auction' to the enslavement of African-Americans in the 19th century.

We often scratch our heads about what we can do about racism. Well, here's something you can do right now-rename your 'Chinese' auction-or don't patronize one that won't change the name. Don't tell your kids that you are 'going Dutch'. Don't use any of the 'common' ethnic phrases-ever.

Take action-you're kids will see that you mean business and it will make a difference.

With Respect,


youdontknowme said...

First of all, I'd like to say that I find what you're trying to do commendable for you seem to be encouraging sensitivity to other people's viewpoints and that is a laudable endeavor.

I can't help, though, wondering if going to the extreme of oversensitivity to linguistic expressions serves much to that endeavor. For example, last time I checked, the origin of the expression "chinese auction" was unclear, so I'm not at all sure what to make of your statement that "conventional wisdom cites a a wealthy socialite from the early 1900's as the creator." Which wealthy socialite and how do you verify such a nebulous source as "conventional wisdom"? Even if such a myth did happen, why it should be viewed as derogatory is lost to me.

The same with "mexican standoff". Now here, I see a real problem with the thinking behind this one because someone said that a stand off with no shots fired is "inferior" to people getting shot! Who set that standard? I seriously doubt that was the reason behind the name. It seems that one has to read offense into these expressions in order to become offended by them. We could do the same thing with french kissing, scotch tape, english horn, canadian bacon, and that cocktail called a white russian. Then we can do as you say and eliminate all reference to ethnic phrases forever and then what, we will have Paradise? Hardly.

Furthermore, I think it does injustice to the endeavor of encouraging sympathy by focusing on linguistics if for no other reason that no Chinese person I know has ever expressed any offense whatsoever to the term, "chinese auction". In short, to even think that wordsmithing is doing anything about real racism is naive oversimplification of that issue at best or blatantly misleading.

In conclusion, here is the real problem and the reason I even bothered addressing this post. I think a guiding force behind the current political correct sensitivity trend is not altruism but guilt - a less laudable motive. I say this because in so many instances, the people who consider something offensive or derogatory are not even of the group they claim would be offended so, how would they know? That's bad enough but what they (you) perhaps don't recognize is that they reinforce racism by doing this in at least two ways that I can think of:

1. A person who uses expressions that refer to ethnic groups without having checked to see if they are “okay” is put on par with someone who actually IS a racist. You’re essentially saying that you can't make the distinction or that there shouldn't be one. Really?

2. You see these groups as inferior and thus in need of outside intervention by getting other groups to treat them differently in order for them offset their disadvantaged state that really only exists in your mind and that of the racist who actually says that they ARE inferior, thus blurring the distinction that should exist between you and the "racist".

All things considered, I think, while you are totally entitled to your opinion. I don't think your stance is well thought out and likely to do more harm than any good that can come of it.

Cheng said...

The term comes from the typical bidding process commonly used in some parts of northern China. High value items in the market were bid on by putting slips of paper in a basket. In this way, it was like a silent auction.
You would do better to tell your daughter that there's no offense intended and move on to more important issues.

blue said...

Congrats Cheng, great answer!