On his campaign bus recently, Sen. John McCain told reporters, "I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." Although McCain said he was referring only to his prison guards, there are many reasons why his use of the word "gook" is offensive and alarming.
It is offensive because by using a racial epithet that has historically been used to demean all Asians to describe his captors, McCain failed to make a distinction between his torturers and an entire racial group.
It is alarming because a major candidate for president publicly used a racial epithet, refused to apologize for doing so and remains a legitimate contender.
Contrary to McCain's attempt to narrowly define "gook" to mean only his "sadistic" captors, this term has historically been used to describe all Asians. McCain said that "gook" was the most "polite" term he could find to describe his captors, but because it is simply a pejorative term for Asians, he insulted his captors simply by calling them "Asians" -- a clearly disturbing message. To the Asian American community, the term is akin to the racist word "nigger." A friend of mine, a white male Vietnam veteran, pointed out that veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, know how spiteful the term "gook" is. It has everything to do with labeling someone as "other," the enemy and yellow. McCain sent the message that all Asians are foreigners and remain forever the "other" and the enemy.
The perception of Asians as "foreigners" or "the other" isn't new. This sentiment is what led to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese American internment during World War II. The internment of Japanese Americans is now recognized as one of the worst civil rights violations in our country's history and a powerful lesson in what can happen when race alone is used as a test for loyalty or who is defined as an American.
We've made tremendous progress as a nation in overcoming racism. That is why it is so disturbing that a major candidate for the U.S. president can perpetuate the stereotype of Asians as permanent foreigners, hurtling us backward to a time and a place where such racial epithets were an acceptable part of mainstream discourse.
What makes this incident even more disturbing is how neither the media nor the other presidential candidates have highlighted that his use of a racist term is unacceptable.
Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing minority populations in the United States. And the media's choice to ignore or excuse McCain's behavior is a painful reminder that Asians remain outsiders on the back steps of national American politics.
McCain's main campaign message is inclusion. What his actions have told me, however, is that his inclusion does not include people who look like me.
I love this country just as much as McCain does, and I am committed to serving my community and my country. That is the reason I have entered a career in public service and why I am committed to making America a great country where equal opportunity and justice for everyone is a reality and not just a vision.
This is also why I am so hurt by McCain's comment: He has reminded me that despite my commitment to serving my country, there are still some people in this country who would first perceive me as the enemy.
Katie Hong is a Korean American woman who lives in Seattle and works for Washington state government.
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