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Sensitivity Issues and Other Terminology

Adoption, by one group, of cultural traits belonging to another group. In contrast to models of assimilation, acculturation is seen as a multidirectional exchange between two groups that can lead to multiple outcomes including hybridization, reinterpretation and dynamic change over time.

Chinese people who practice Chinese traditional religion revere their deceased ancestors by tending their graves. They also burn mock money and paper replicas of real objects, sending these things to the spirit world for the benefit of the deceased. If properly cared for, the deceased will favorably influence the descendants' earthly lives. These and other beliefs, associated with respect for the dead, are often called “ancestor worship,” but might more accurately be called “ancestor memorial ritual.”

A euphemism for the WWII temporary detention centers in which Japanese American citizens and permanent resident aliens were imprisoned prior to their being sent to War Relocation Authority concentration camps.

Assimilation describes a process whereby a minority group changes overtime, adopting the culture and practices of a majority group until the two are indistinguishable from one another. This concept was popular in American “melting pot” metaphors and much sociological and anthropological research in the early to mid-twentieth century. In recent years, however, many studies have shown that cultural contact between groups is far more complicated than the unilineal process of homogenization implied by assimilation and that true "assimilation" is never truly experienced by minority groups or granted by majority groups. In In the United States, for example, it is particularly difficult for Asian Americans to "assimilate" into the majority group. Despite being in the U.S. for generations, they are often still perceived as “perpetual foreigners.”

“A colleague recently pointed out that using the word 'Caucasian' for 'white' was perpetuating the term’s racist connotations. Since 'white' is not the 'opposite' of Chinese, and if 'Caucasian' is not suitable, then Euroamerican, or European American, is a better choice. As you can imagine, the Internet offers an abundance of information on this topic. Here is just one example, excerpted from The Racist History of 'Caucasian,' by Apoorva Dutt, July 10, 2013: “A recent [U.S. Supreme Court] decision … had … Justice Anthony M. Kennedy describing the plaintiff as a Caucasian man. It was this … use of the innocuous word that led to Shaila Dewan in the New York Times to question – why do we continue to use this obsolete racial classification? Of course, Caucasian may not immediately strike you as a racially offensive term. In its modern usage, Caucasian has become the PC word people use when they don’t want to say ‘white’. … But the word was never meant to be such a benevolent one – Caucasian has been, since its inception, a racially-charged word with implications of white supremacy and superiority deeply embedded into its history. Caucasian didn’t always simply mean ‘white’, as it does now. Before the eighteenth century, it was exclusively a term for people from Caucasus, a country lying on the border [of] Europe and Asia. But in the eighteenth century, a German anthropologist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, declared that the 245 skulls from the region that were in his possession were 'the most beautiful race of men'. … He also expanded the definition of Caucasian to mean Europeans and the inhabitants of a region reaching from the Obi River in Russia to the Ganges to the Caspian Sea, plus northern Africans – a definition which technically even included Indians. Bhagat Singh Thind was a Punjabi immigrant to America in the early twentieth century. … After fighting in the US Army in World War One, Thind applied for citizenship, following a legal ruling that Caucasians had access to that right. After a long legal battle, it was decided [in 1923] that Indians are not considered Caucasian. Thind was a ‘Hindoo’, not a ‘Caucasian’. … Whether we realise it or not, Caucasian might be the last racist term to be considered largely acceptable in modern society – and it shouldn’t be.” (Reprinted from AACC Newsletter, 31[4]:2, December 2014.)

A derogatory word for a person of Chinese descent. It comes from a former term for China, “Celestial Empire.”

In Canada, a derogatory term for a Chinese man. May come from Charlie Chan.

During the era of anti-Chinese prejudice, the terms “Chinaman” and “Chinamen” were used in a derogatory way when speaking about the Chinese. Unfortunately, many people still use those words without realizing that today both terms are perceived by many as having racist connotations. If used at all, the words “Chinaman” or “Chinamen” should always have quotes around them, or be contained within a phrase that is itself a direct quotation. For more information, please refer to pp. 47-48 of the booklet, Asian Pacific Americans: A Handbook on How to Cover and Portray Our Nation's Fastest Growing Minority Group, edited by Bill Sing (1989, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Los Angeles).

Small domed rock structures have been reported at numerous places in the West. Those that occur on railroad-related sites are mainly associated with railroad construction camps; a few are known to have been built by later section gang workers. While folklore has often referred to them as “Chinese ovens,” no archaeological or documentary evidence has yet been found that would definitely support a Chinese association with either their manufacture or use in the United States. Instead, there is reason to believe that they were built and used mainly by Italian (or sometimes Greek) immigrants, for baking bread. Intriguingly, similarly-shaped structures in Australia are Chinese “pig ovens” used to roast pigs for ceremonial occasions. See “Who's Been Workin' on the Railroad?: An Examination of the Construction, Distribution, and Ethnic Origins of Domed Rock Ovens on Railroad-Related Sites,” by Priscilla Wegars, from Historical Archaeology, 25(1):37-65, 1991.

Many communities where large numbers of Chinese people once lived are today rumored to have so-called “Chinese tunnels” under downtown buildings and streets. This myth continues to be perpetuated despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Hand-stacked, wall-like, rock tailings on placer mining sites are often called “Chinese Walls.” However, other miners, besides those of Chinese descent, often stacked waste rock neatly too. Rock walls that were actually built by Chinese miners will have Chinese artifacts in their vicinity, and/or there will be mining claim records at the county courthouse that indicate purchase or lease of that area by Chinese miners.

An “ethnic slur historically directed at people of Chinese ancestry,” ching-chong mocks the tones of the Chinese language. Contemporary racist usage directs it at other people of Asian ancestry.

A derogatory word for a Chinese person, sometimes perpetuated in geographic names that need to be changed.

Although the term “internment camp” is often applied to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps for West Coast families, the WRA facilities should technically, and more accurately, be termed incarceration or even concentration camps. While they were not “death camps” in the same sense as the concentration camps operated by Nazi Germany during World War II, they nevertheless housed both U.S. citizens and non-citizens who were forcibly imprisoned there and who could not come and go freely. Internment camps, such as northern Idaho's Kooskia Internment Camp, housed only non-citizens.

The term “coolie” has often been used to describe Chinese laborers who came to the western U.S. to work. However, because that term has come to have the connotation of “slave laborer,” it is inaccurate, since the Chinese who came to this country were not slave laborers. Although a few paid for their own passage, either by selling their possessions or borrowing money from relatives, most of them came on a “credit ticket” system, where their passage money was advanced to them. Once they had arrived and were working the advance would gradually be deducted from their wages. 

During World War II, while they and their families were incarcerated in War Relocation Authority concentration camps, a number of Japanese American young men resisted the draft as a protest against their unconstitutional imprisonment and as a protest against being assigned only to the Army, and only to segregated infantry combat units. These men should more properly be referred to as “resisters of conscience.” Their story has been told in Frank Abe's film, “Conscience and the Constitution.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Many people mistakenly believe that this directive specifically mentions that Japanese and/or Japanese Americans were to be sent to inland concentration camps. Although that was certainly the intent of Executive Order 9066, it did not mention any group by name. It is here reproduced in its entirety, with the most important passages highlighted.


  WHEREAS the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities as defined in Section 4, Act of April 20, 1918, 40 Stat. 533, as amended by the Act of November 30, 1940, 54 Stat. 1220, and the Act of August 21, 1941, 55 Stat. 655 (U.S.C., Title 50, Sec. 104):

  NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. The designation of military areas in any region or locality shall supersede designations of prohibited and restricted areas by the Attorney General under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, and shall supersede the responsibility and authority of the Attorney General under the said Proclamation in respect of such prohibited and restricted areas.

  I hereby further authorize and direct the Secretary of War and the said Military Commanders to take such other steps as he or the appropriate Military Commander may deem advisable to enforce compliance with the restrictions applicable to each Military area hereinabove authorized to be designated, including the use of Federal troops and other Federal Agencies, with authority to accept assistance of state and local agencies.

  I hereby further authorize and direct all Executive Departments, independent establishments and other Federal Agencies, to assist the Secretary of War or the said Military Commanders in carrying out this Executive Order, including the furnishing of medical aid, hospitalization, food, clothing, transportation, use of land, shelter, and other supplies, equipment, utilities, facilities, and services.

  This order shall not be construed as modifying or limiting in any way the authority heretofore granted under Executive Order No. 8972, dated December 12, 1941, nor shall it be construed as limiting or modifying the duty and responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with respect to the investigation of alleged acts of sabotage or the duty and responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, prescribing regulations for the conduct and control of alien enemies, except as such duty and responsibility is superseded by the designation of military areas hereunder.

  February 19, 1942

(Copied from Congressional Information Service, Presidential Executive Orders and Proclamations, p. 1092-1093, microfiche, Documents Department, University of Idaho Library).

Resisters of conscience from the Minidoka concentration camp.

An incorrect designation for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; possibly confusing that group with the 100th Infantry Battalion.

This was a World War II all-Nisei combat unit that fought in Europe. For their numbers, they were the most highly decorated unit during the war. See also 100th Infantry Battalion (under “o”).

Although the term “internment camp” is often applied to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps for West Coast families, the WRA facilities should technically, and more accurately, be termed incarceration or even concentration camps. While they were not “death camps” in the same sense as the concentration camps operated by Nazi Germany during World War II, they nevertheless housed both U.S. citizens and non-citizens who were forcibly imprisoned there and who could not come and go freely. Internment camps, such as northern Idaho's Kooskia Internment Camp, housed only non-citizens.

A derogatory word for a person of Japanese descent, sometimes perpetuated in geographic names that need to be changed.

An early derogatory term for a Chinese man.

The term “joss” comes from the Portuguese, deus, meaning a god. Many western communities had Chinese temples, which Euroamericans called “joss houses.” Today, the more respectful term “temple” is best used, since it is the English translation of the Chinese word for these structures.

One often hears this phrase to describe Asian Americans. While it is well-meant, and certainly preferable to last century's “yellow peril,” the current phrase is as much a stereotype as its predecessor, since it implies that all Asian Americans are the same. The United States' resemblance to a “melting pot,” amalgamating people from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds, should be replaced by the image of a “tossed salad,” in which people from many races and ethnic groups make their own individual and distinctive contributions to our nation's cultural and historical banquet.

A derogatory term for a person of Japanese ancestry.

This was a World War II combat unit composed of Nisei from Hawaii. They fought in North Africa and Italy. In June 1944 they became the first battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (see also, under “f”).

Opium processed for smoking could be legally imported into the United States until 1909. Because it was a legal drug, the U.S. government taxed it heavily, just as today's legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, are also heavily taxed. Some, not nearly all, Chinese used the drug, as did some Euroamericans. Opium was used socially, similar to today's custom of “happy hour,” and it was also used medicinally. Where opium was not outlawed by state or local ordinance, its use was legal. Therefore, places where it was legally smoked are more properly called opium-smoking establishments, rather than “opium dens.”

The booklet, Asian Pacific Americans: A Handbook on How to Cover and Portray Our Nation's Fastest Growing Minority Group, edited by Bill Sing (1989, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Los Angeles, 1989), p. 54, states: “No longer preferred, except for objects such as Oriental rugs. Although some Asian Pacifics, particularly older [people] and those living in Hawaii, still refer to themselves as Orientals, most persons active in or familiar with the Asian Pacific American community flinch when hearing the term. To them, Oriental has a negative and outdated ring, much as Negro does in the black community. Also, many Asian Pacifics object to the term because it was imposed on them by non-Asians.”

A euphemism for the WWII concentration camps that imprisoned both U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, many Chinese people came to the West intending to make their fortunes and then return home. So did people from other ethnic groups, such as Italians and Greeks. However, some authors have used the word “sojourner” in a way that implies that only Chinese people were sojourners. This association is inaccurate, because many Chinese immigrants died before they could return to China, and others settled here permanently. Consequently, its use for Chinese people should be limited to describing ones who are known to have returned to China permanently.

Chinese names that were historically spelled using Cantonese pronunciation should not be given modern respellings to reflect Mandarin sound. For example, the name of Cantonese speaker Ng Poon Chu, a Presbyterian minister who founded a newspaper in San Francisco and who lived in California from 1881 to his death in 1931, should not be respelled as “Wu Panzhao,” the Mandarin pronunciation for the characters of his name. For more on this subject, see “Ramifications of Respelling Chinese Names,” by Emma Woo Louie, Asian American Comparative Collection Newsletter, 9(3): 5-6, September 2002.

The word “tong” has come to have unfortunate connotations because of its association with the term “tong war,” referring to armed conflicts between rival Chinese groups seeking to control illegal activities such as gambling, opium smoking and prostitution. “Tong” actually means “hall” or “parlor,” in the sense of a society or association, and most Chinese tongs were men's fraternal or social organizations that existed to provide benevolent services to their members.

White, whether it is written white or White, is not the “opposite” of Chinese, Japanese or any other Asian group. Euroamerican is a better term, or one might use non-Chinese, non-Japanese and so on.

People whose native tongue is English have often made great efforts to study a language other than their own. As they progress in their facility in speaking that new language, they feel flattered when someone compliments them on their skill. However, if they were to receive compliments on their ability to speak English, their native language, it would feel weird and inappropriate. Yet that is exactly what American-born persons of Asian descent experience, all too frequently. Such people, often Americans for several generations, are still perceived as being “different” or “foreign,” so are often complimented on their English-speaking abilities even though for many, English is the only language they have ever known. When they reply that they are from Oregon, or Idaho, or some other state, then the questioner usually continues with, “No, I mean, where are you really [meaning, originally] from?” People who are on the receiving end of such inadvertently insensitive questioning could “misinterpret” it by answering, initially, “I am American-born,” thus deflecting the questioner's real intention, that of rudely inquiring into their racial ancestry.

Asian American Comparative Collection

Physical Address:
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Mailing Address:
Asian American Comparative Collection
University of Idaho
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Moscow, Idaho 83844-1111

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