Using racial slurs doesn’t tear down walls -- it builds them up
As the story concerning Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tam's use of the term "wetback" continues to play out in the press, it is clear that more people than just the Councilman are in need of some serious tolerance training. It is unfortunate that any public official today would ever think to use a term whose meaning they were unsure of. That alone shows ignorance, lack of education or both.
What is equally disturbing is when an otherwise well-intentioned citizen tries to defend the use of the term by pulling out the dictionary in an effort to take the intellectual high ground. If you are going to go that route you should be careful to do two things; first, make sure you are right, and second, make sure that you are not selecting narrow definitions to fit your argument, thereby intentionally misleading others.
So let's put the argument over definitions to rest. The American Heritage College Dictionary, 4th Edition, copyright 2004, has the following entry for the term "wetback": "n. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Mexican, esp. one who enters the U.S. illegally (the fact that the Rio Grande is a common entry point)." The same dictionary defines racism as: "1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others. 2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race."
The second definition of racism is really the focal point in the ongoing debate. A term that is considered offensive by many was thrown around to describe certain "illegal laborers" who also happened to be from Mexico. So I suppose the one thing Tam got right was, he applied the correct derogatory term to the right minority group, but that offers little solace for it clearly shows he knew exactly what he was talking about.
The problem therefore is not a matter of political correctness, rather it is a matter of words having meaning, and the word in question carries racial baggage. The usage of derogatory words is one of the reasons why the immigration debate in this country has become so polarizing and continues to spread ill will toward certain racially identifiable groups.
Furthermore, the continued use of such degrading terms undermines the myriad achievements of minorities in this country. Their usage builds up walls; it doesn't tear them down. It perpetuates stereotypes instead of getting rid of them and in many cases, for those who have been victims of bigotry, these words bring back memories that many would just as soon forget.
Tam has a valid point in his concern over the hiring of illegal immigrants, but let's be honest about one thing: for an illegal immigrant to get to Hawaii, it's not as simple as jumping the border. The distance between the mainland and Hawaii is slightly wider than the Rio Grande. The real problem lies with the companies that recruit and then send undocumented workers to Hawaii. It is illegal hiring practices that are in question, not illegal immigration.
Councilman Tam, in his apology, claimed that Hawaii was a liberal place and made up of multi-ethnic cultures, yet one would think that these two defining qualities make Hawaii the last place in the United States where one would expect to hear such remarks.
Tam claimed that "we just don't think the same way as people on the mainland." Maybe for his sake and the sake of others, it's time to start.
Tim Werlinger is a graduate student in history whose research interests include immigration and the Southwest United States. He lives in Ewa Beach.