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Can a crossword be racist?

When Hannah Yang complained about a racist clue in the daily paper, she was reminded of the prevalence of casual racism in New Zealand.

I’d never seen a racist clue before.

It appeared one morning when I sat down in our break room to look at the day’s cryptic crossword (yes, this is a thing we do at our workplace, don’t judge us). There it was, right up the top. Seven across: a racist clue.

The racist clue (Image: supplied)

For context, cryptic clues (as the name might suggest) aren’t to be read literally. They’re cryptic in the sense that they contain hidden instructions (such as “solve this anagram”) which lead you to the correct answer. Nevertheless, “Chink, i.e. Chinese leader concerned with evildoing” is a plainly racist clue, regardless of what other meanings it is also capable of supporting.

So, finding the offending clue, well, offensive, I sent a message to the Dominion Post and suggested that an apology in the next issue might be appropriate. The response was sadly predictable. While the paper didn’t “think racism – in any form – is acceptable”, it also thought this clue was just “ a very unfortunate combination of words rather than an outbreak of racism”. “Chink” was a synonym for the clue’s answer, “crevice”, was the explanation given by the puzzle company, which provides crossword puzzles to all the Stuff papers. It wasn’t meant to be racist. The Dominion Post wouldn’t be publishing an apology.

But racism doesn’t disappear for lack of intent. A clue like “chink” is racist even if the newspaper didn’t intend to be racist because the word “chink” within close proximity of the word “Chinese” carries a distinct, offensive meaning regardless of cryptic context. So, it’s not an unfortunate combination of words rather than racism; it’s an unfortunate combination of words and racism.

The belief that accidental racism can’t happen is part of why casual racism is so insidious: people don’t think it’s a problem, so it persists precisely because of this. In the meantime, statements like “we don’t think racism is acceptable” are stripped of their meaning. Asserting zero tolerance for racism doesn’t count for much if your very definition of “racism – in any form” excludes self-evident forms of racism.

Taking responsibility for a racist clue appearing in your paper doesn’t mean you admit the paper is racist. It’s a matter of being grown-up, acknowledging harm was caused, and rectifying that harm by making it clear where your organisation stands on the issue. And reasonable people will give you credit for that.

Taika Waititi in the Give Nothing to Racism campaign (Image: Give Nothing to Racism)

But the Dominion Post was not moved. It told me that while the Post has a “proud record of correcting and/or apologising”, there wouldn’t be one on this occasion. My complaint was the only one they’d received, it said, and it would be “counter-productive” to apologise as it would “only get more people looking for it”.

As the Human Rights Commission’s Give Nothing to Racism campaign underlines, however, most people who experience racism don’t complain. The fact that this clue might otherwise have been left undiscussed doesn’t diminish the problem – it’s part of the problem.

As for being counter-productive, a friend of mine made the excellent point that drawing attention to the issue is the point of an apology. “Casual racism needs to be corrected publicly so people learn. [Otherwise] casual racism slips past and, like you said, is more insidious,” they said.

So when it comes to racism, we have a collective duty as a society.

If we’ve had experiences, we should share them, and share them civilly. Well-meaning people won’t realise why it’s problematic to tell a person of Asian appearance “Your English is very good!” unless we talk about it. Honest and kind-hearted people won’t know that they unintentionally but routinely ignore the one non-white person in the group, unless we talk about it. Ordinary and empathetic people, through no fault of their own, simply won’t begin to understand how paralysing it can be when you can’t tell anymore whether that person who didn’t look at you in the meeting was racist or if you’re just over-thinking it – unless we talk about it.

And all this we have to talk about civilly, because no one will listen to what we say if they sense even a whiff of anger.

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Conversely, if we ever find ourselves listening, then we should bravely and humbly acknowledge that experience and seek to learn from it. I say “bravely” because I realise that doing so is difficult. No one wants to be told that something they did was racist. Certainly nobody wants to be told that they are racist. And so, in our selfish desire to be right and to convince ourselves that we were right all along, we confuse the calling out of racism with a personal attack on our character.

Finally, if we ever find ourselves bystanders, then we should always call out racism for what it is, because every unintentionally prejudiced statement that goes uncorrected, every misguided and ignorant comment swept under the rug, is another contributor to the collective, subconscious mindset that tells us “Chink, i.e. Chinese leader concerned with evildoing” is not racist.

And I still have no idea what the hell “concerned with evildoing” has to do with “crevice”.

Update (17/10/19): I am happy to say that since the publication of this article, the Dominion Post has apologised to me, assured me that an apology will be printed in the next day’s paper, and promised to learn from this. This is a very heartening response, and I hope it demonstrates the power of frank and open dialogue around difficult issues such as racism.


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