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Just stop with the slanted-eye racist gestures

After South Korea’s 2-0 victory over Germany, racism and insensitivity once again

Remember Chris Rock’s bit in Never Scared when he couldn’t believe the mounting allegations facing Michael Jackson? “Another kid?! Another kid?! I thought it was Groundhog Day when I heard that s—.”

That’s how I feel about the recurring emergence of a racist, stereotypical action at the World Cup that every Asian-American is all-too familiar with: the slanted-eye gesture.

Another gesture? Another one?!

After South Korea’s improbable 2-0 victory over Germany to send Mexico to the knockout stage in the World Cup, fans of the two countries celebrated around the globe in scenes that could come straight out of a Pepsi commercial that doesn’t star Kendall Jenner. At the South Korean Embassy in Mexico City, fans lifted the Korean consul general onto their shoulders and danced in the streets. He in turn took a tequila shot with the grateful fans. It was a beautiful reminder of how sports can connect cultures, like when “Baby Got Back” pops up at a bar.

But amid the glorious celebrations, it’s easy to get caught up in one’s senses and lose sensibility. On Telemundo’s morning show Un Nuevo Dia, two hosts — James Tahhan, aka “Chef James,” and Janice Bencosme — flashed the slanted-eye gesture. Both Tahhan and Bencosme have apologized for their actions, while Telemundo has suspended them indefinitely.

That incident was the second notable instance of the slanted-eye gesture made during the World Cup. Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona made the gesture to some Asian fans during the Argentina-Iceland game, according to at least two eyewitness reports. Maradona acknowledged an interaction with an Asian fan but denied any wrongdoing.

Here’s the predicament when it comes to offending people. It’s subjective. What offends me might not offend you, and vice versa. Critics complain that the offended are too sensitive. They can’t take a joke, as if the offended are all as serious as Daniel Day-Lewis prepping for a role. The problem with that tired excuse is that odds are this isn’t the first time we’ve heard the joke — or, in this case, the gesture. Are you still laughing at a Carrot Top joke from 2000? It’s not like using your fingers to pull back your eyes is “Coming to America” material.

The physical impression isn’t what is so frustrating with this gesture. For many Asian-Americans, the gesture represents the concept of otherness. The Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome is the concept that regardless of where Asian-Americans were born and raised, their American-ness is often questioned based on their physical appearance. This is best exemplified by the question every Asian-American has received at some point: “Where are you really from?” Or “Your English is great!” It’s like when a black athlete is described as “well-spoken.”

It’s a seemingly innocuous question or statement that isn’t meant to be malicious, but when you’re constantly asked that same question, it still affects your sense of inclusion, especially when you’re young. I rejected my Chinese heritage to better assimilate for the larger part of my childhood. It worked socially, but it wasn’t until well after I graduated from college that I truly became comfortable with my culture.

When you grow up as a minority, it’s easy to laugh along with stereotypes. You’re still developing your identity, and as confident as you might be, you still long to belong. The need for inclusion is a sentiment anyone can relate to, and that’s what leads to conformity. But when others reduce your entire identity to a simple facial feature, it can have a lasting psychological effect. Frank Wu, author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White and the one who coined the term Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, wrote this during the 2008 Olympics after the Spanish men’s basketball team posed making the same gesture:

“Few who regard themselves as members of the mainstream understand what it is like to be ashamed of one’s parents, to be constantly striving to be just like everyone else without ever being able to fit in.”

That’s why the gesture needs to stop among mainstream influencers such as Maradona and the Telemundo hosts. Young, impressionable viewers see what they’re doing — laughing, having a good time — and emulate, not knowing about the consequences. To echo Charles Barkley’s famous Nike ad, they’re not paid to be role models, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. I applaud Telemundo’s immediate action to suspend. Meanwhile, when Yuli Gurriel made the same gesture during the World Series and wasn’t suspended until the next season — by the way, he served the suspension while injured and unable to play anyway — it sends the wrong message. That was the equivalent of a finger wag for a finger pull.

It’s important to mention that I’m talking about these incidents via an Asian-American perspective versus a native Asian’s (Asians in Asia). It would be unlikely for native Asians to take the same level of offense. As Wu explains, “They are the dominant majority and take for granted that they belong to their societies.” For instance, in South Korea, where the population is more than 51 million, the country’s ethnic classification is homogeneous, according to the CIA. Needless to say, it would be odd for Koreans to flash each other slanted-eye gestures like they were giving dap.

It’s 2018 and easy to think we all know better when it comes to certain aspects of cultural sensitivity, but that’s not always the case. I was doing a story on a Los Angeles Rams player a couple of years ago when the player’s spouse colloquially used the term “chinky eyes” next to me (not in reference to me). She didn’t mean to offend, but she also didn’t realize how offensive the term was. Making a racist gesture doesn’t make you racist, but it does make you either uninformed or indifferent. When it comes to Asian-American culture, there’s still plenty to learn. Ten years after writing about the incident in the Beijing Olympics, Wu said in an e-mail exchange: “It’s not a new issue. It keeps happening.”

And it’s not Groundhog Day either.

Cary Chow is a writer at The Undefeated. He has an unrivaled talent for breaking video equipment, still thinks Omar was wronged in "The Wire," and roots for both the Clippers and Lakers and doesn't care about your fandom rules.