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I heard a conversation near me at work where a manager told her colleague that one of the female colleagues have chinky eyes. The manager, the colleague and the female colleague are all not Asian.

I was taken aback but didn't say anything.

Was this remark offensive and prohibited language in a workplace setting?

For those who are not familiar, "Chink" is an English-language ethnic slur usually referring to a person of Chinese ethnicity.

For reference, this is in the United States.


Thanks to everyone for your answers and comments -- there's a lot to think about, but overall, I view the situation as benign rather than a malicious attack. We're also sort of a startup tech firm that comprises a close-knit work community, so I can't really afford to blow the whistle or call people out to HR (we don't have much HR structure, to be honest ...).

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    @Gregory Curie No it is not. Yes, chinky is a real word, not related to Chinese people. But in what way can a person’s eyes have little cracks and divots? – Damila Sep 14 '19 at 3:06
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    @GregoryCurrie, no it is not at all similar. You can find thousands of examples in literature and popular culture of the use of the word niggardly in it's original Middle English meaning of cheap or stingy. You might be able to find a handful of usages as a mutation of a racial slur. The situation is exactly reversed for "chinky". You'll find thousands of uses as a racial slur, and none or next to none describing someone's eyes as fully of "chinks". – Charles E. Grant Sep 14 '19 at 3:12
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    let me ask you, if a white colleague said of another white colleague, "her nose is kind of [n-word]y" would you even pause to ask about it? Casually using a racial slur as though it was a simple descriptor is NOT ok even if the person it is used about doesn't normally qualify for the slur. – Kate Gregory Sep 16 '19 at 0:00
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    @OldPadawan The reason it would be considered offensive is because "chink" is a racial slur used to refer to people of Asian decent. – David K Sep 16 '19 at 11:55
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    "a close-knit work community" Have you asked your Asian colleagues whether they feel part of this close-knit community? – Philip Kendall Sep 21 '19 at 7:11
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There may be not enough context for answering this question, as the correct answer very much depends on whether the colleague the others were talking about is actually Asian or not.

Assuming ignorance about the latter, there is a high probability that they were not talking about an Asian person, because it makes no sense to tell someone that an Asian has chinky eyes (lack of motif). It is more likely that they were talking about an Caucasian ("white") colleague that incidentally has chinky eyes.

Anyway, you were overhearing a private conversation with you being the only witness, so this should be none of your business. Even if it was a racial slur uttered privately, reporting trifles like this would be a severely career-limiting move.

50

That is absolutely, insanely, over the top unacceptable. Every HR training manual in existence would tell you to ask the person to stop, if you can do so safely, and report them to HR if you can’t, or if they continue.

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    To address one of OP's paragraphs in the answer, HR or equivalent should also make sure that OP's protected against retaliation from the colleagues when stuff hits the fan. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Sep 24 '19 at 16:28
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Such a comment is offensive in any setting.

At work, I’d be quick to reprimand such a comment and very quick to let someone go if the behavior continued. Bigotry and total disregard for the feelings of another are unacceptable traits in any professional environment.

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    offensive in any setting -- this. – Mister Positive Sep 16 '19 at 17:28
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    This is blatantly true. Bigotry is one of the things that is blatantly unacceptable in any setting and will call consequence upon the offender in any setting. – Magisch Sep 23 '19 at 9:58
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In my opinion, people make hasty decisions to go straight to HR or straight to the lawyers. It was maybe not the best word choice, depending on intent (which we cannot know), but start by privately confronting the offender.

We should be careful in situations like this since you overheard a private conversation. Maybe it was accidental or had neutral intentions. We have all done and said something stupid in our lives. I don't think HR should be the first step in this situation.

Tell them you overheard that and you don't appreciate it and move on with your life.

4

While the term 'chink' DOES have a definition suitable for everyday conversation (e.g: a chink in the armour), your co-worker was most certainly using it in a racist/xenophobic context. Many xenophobes with a hatred towards the Chinese will make references to their eyes and how it may differ to the eye shapes of people from other parts of the world. This is infact where the slur originates from.

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Intention is important

Do they know the word is a racial slur and intentionally use it as one?

There is a Chinese word that sounds like "nigga". Its actual meaning is "that one", or it can be used as "emmmmmmmm". It's not unimaginable that some Chinese people who don't speak English travel to the US and utter that word out. Do they mean to offend black people? My bet is on NO.

As a non-native English speaker, I have for many times used words that I learned from daily conversation, thinking I know what it means - only to find out I was wrong. Those people could have heard other people use the word "Chinky" without knowing it's a racial slur, and thought it was OK to use. OP did not indicate whether those people knew it was not OK to use. We don't know that, therefore we are not to judge.

Now imagine a kindergarten boy for the first time learns what an eggplant is, draws one and shows it around other boys and girls. You as a guardian of one of those girls, calls the boy's guardian and threaten to sue sexual harassment and declare jihad against child sex. Absolutely absurd!

Don't get me wrong, I do not approve of such speech, but given the information we have, do we really have enough to make a judgement? As much as I am oppose to racism, the level of judgement and political correctness in this post is probably even worse and more toxic.

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    Regardless of the coworker's intent or ignorance of the term, it is still an offensive word that should not be tolerated in a professional environment (or anywhere, really). If the coworker was really completely ignorant of the term, then they don't need to be punished, but they do still need to be told not to use that term again in the future. – David K Sep 23 '19 at 13:10
  • @DavidK I agree with you, and surely the racial slur isn't acceptable. But saying "no it's not acceptable" would be too easy. I don't get the extreme double standard when treating a potential case of "never assume malice that could be explained by incompetence". – Billy.Bob Sep 25 '19 at 9:03

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