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Racial Discrimination in Language

Updated on February 29, 2012

Discrimination happens when someone is treated worse ('less favourably' in legal terms) than another person in the same situation because of of his/her race, sex, religion or belief, disability, age, sexual orientation. Here I will discuss racial discrimination language phenomenon.

Racial discrimination is universal. There are always some stereotyped words to describe different groups of people. In this article, I discuss these words used by different community and in different languages, and discuss the phenomenon academically, either in linguistic or culture, nothing in my mind implies anything to do with racism. If anything inappropriate, please tell me in the comments.

How Chinese call White People: Ghost Man, or Foreign Devil

Within Chinese community, especially in Hongkong and Macau, Chinese call White people gweilo, that means literally "ghost man" and arose as a comment on the pale complexion of white foreigners, which was seen as being ghost-like. This pejorative term commonly used by Cantonese speakers to refer to white people, mainly in speech. Some claim that its use can be neutral, or sometimes even in a sense of complement. A. Giles wrote in his book The civilisation of China: "The Chinaman may love you, but you are a devil all the same". And he told a very interesting story of a Chinese who once appeared at a British Consulate, with a present of some kind, which he had brought from home a hundred miles away, in obedience to the command of his dying father, who formerly been cured of ophthalmia by foreign doctor, and who had told him, on his deathbed, "never to forget the English." Yet this present was addressed in Chinese:"To His Excellency the Great English Devil, Consul X."

Prior to the 1980s the term was commonly prefixed with sei, meaning death or damnation, to make sei gweilo meaning "damned ghost man" or "damned gweilo.

An alternative neutral term is Xiren (Xi: western, ren: people).

Chinese also called White people "Red-haired Man". Jean Baptiste Du Halde wrote in his book The General histroy of China, "When, the Hollanders were Masters of the Port of Formosa, they built a Fort at the Extremity of the large Island of Pong hou to defend the Entrance; there remains no more at present than the Name of Hong mao tchai, which signifies the Fort of the Redhair'd Men (so the Chinese call the Hollanders.)"

There are different words for different sex and age accordingly, young male white person is called gwei tsai; a young female white is called gweimei, which literally means ghost sister, and very lovely; as for middle-aged or old married female they has a name gwei p'o, which mean ghost granny.

They also has a prefix for black and white people generally, that is black ghost and white ghost respectively.

Canadian Chinese: "I am a banana and proud of it!"

In Canada and the United States, native Indians are "apples" (red outside, white inside); blacks are "Oreo cookies" (black and white); and Chinese are "bananas."

These metaphors assume, both rightly and wrongly, that the culture in America has been primarily Anglo-white.

British born Chinese are called BBC, and America born Chinese are called ABC, they are all "bananas", because they have a yellow face and white heart. Wayson Choy who himself is a "banana" claimed: "I am a banana and proud of it." He rediscovered the Chinatown history and culture after his parents' death, and wrote a book, The Jade Peony. In this books, he tried to recreate his past, to explore the beginnings of the conflicts and struggle between being Chinese and being North American, and discovered a truth: these "between world" struggles are universal.

Japanese Devil

Japanese Devils (or Riben Guizi ) is a term used by Chinese, Korean and other Asian nation who were suffered from the Japanese invasion in WWII. Nowadays Chinese still use this word to refer to Japanese in daily life. There is another word little Japan (Xiao Ri Ben) to describe their small build in body and small territory of Japan.


In the USA during United States war againt Vietnam (1960's - 1970's), many US Soldiers, Sailers and Marines refered to the the people of Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia as "gooks". This term is highly offensive.


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