There is a monster in our Cthulhu Wars game named Gla’aki which is often pronounced as “glakey” (although sometimes spoken as “glocky”).
In our most recent Kickstarter update on the project that includes this monster as a plastic miniature, I included a video of the factory in China making it. And I put the headline over that video as “They Makey Glaaki.” In my head I was like a toddler babbling about a new toy coming soon. Because I like silly rhymes. I even published a book that is full of very silly Lovecraftian rhymes. I also like ‘serious’ poems. Really any type of wordplay. So that’s where my mind was.
I was therefore surprised to learn several days later that some considered it racist. I was personally asked by the owner of a partner company to make a public apology, which I was more than happy to do. The rhyme wasn’t meaningful to me – had I thought anyone would have thought it racist, I would have not written it!
But this whole event made me think long and hard about situations like this, which have become increasingly more common in my life, as well as in other people I know, and in the news more generally with famous people. No, not talking about “cancel culture” exactly. Rather, about the differing interpretations people have of various speech – and of the value of speech and discussion itself.
Wait, Why is That Word Racist?
Before I go further, let’s explore the actual term used: makey. It’s certainly possible it is an offensive slang used with an Asian accent generally. But I’ve never heard it used that way at all. Not that I know every racist slang term (I know very few, in fact!).
But after a quick Google search I could not find any instance of it in any Asian/racial related context. The search for “makey racist” just assumes you mean the last name “Mackey”. Try it yourself.
The main use seems to be as shown in the Urban Dictionary here, with no racial components.
There’s also an entire company called “Makey Makey” which seems to be about inventing computery things, and doesn’t look the least bit racist. Has anyone ever called that company racist due to its name?
One of my own team members pointed out to me that waaaaay back in a 2016 update on our Cthulhu Wars Onslaught 2 Kickstarter, we did a survey of all our backers to select between three versions of the Gla’aki monster, and I used the exact same silly rhyme, asking them “Which Gla’aki should we makey?“. Zero backers commented that they thought it was racist.
This time around, the inferences I can draw point to most thinking it was just playful, as I intended. You’ll notice the update wasn’t close to being ratioed, with nearly four times as many likes as comments. And of those comments, a total of four (out of 15, so less than a third), remarked negatively that what I wrote was racist. Seems those interpreting it as racist were a very small minority.
Nevertheless, that was the interpretation for some this time around, and that’s enough for a PR apology. (Again, the rhyme wasn’t meaningful to me, so there’s no principled stand for me to make; I’m thus happy to apologize).
Primed to Spot Racism
I have to admit, my very first thought when asked to apologize was that I can’t very well apologize for something that occurred in other people’s heads. Because I knew that my intent wasn’t racist, it was playful rhyme. (And since posting the public apology I have been vindicated by plenty of folks who say they took it the way I meant it, as a silly rhyme and nothing sinister).
But again, the rhyme wasn’t meaningful to me, and the hurtful interpretation was meaningful to some folks, so making a public apology seemed prudent, and I’m glad I did so.
But let’s dig a little deeper.
Can it be argued that those who assumed my intent was it should be read in a faux Chinese accent are projecting their own interpretation on to me? Of course it can be argued – that’s the first point I tried to make in this post.
Okay, so, then, if they are projecting a racist meaning on something that is not so, then is it possible they were primed to interpret racism in places where it isn’t?
What are some possibilities as to why that may be? I’m NOT suggesting I know what went on in any of their minds; this is merely a thought experiment about some possibilities:
- They have witnessed many instances of true racism against Asians, so are sensitive to its possibility.
- They have been told by others that true racism against Asians is prevalent or common, and so are sensitive to its possibility.
- They, a priori, already believed I’m racist so anything that can possibly be construed as such they interpret as such.
- They themselves are racist against Asians (they did, after all, totally imagine a faux Chinese accent without considering any alternative interpretation), and are therefore projecting their racism onto me.
If I had to guess, I’d say possibility 2 explains all of them, maybe with a touch of 3. Why not numbers 1 and 4? Well…
The first possibility is unlikely based on the simple proxy that in the US hate crimes against Asians are vanishingly rare. In 2020, in a nation of more than 300 million people there were fewer than 300 reported hate-motivated incidents according to the FBI. That’s a ten-thousandth of a percent. (Caveat: we have a global customer base and these statistics say nothing about events outside the US; but our customers are largely concentrated in US, Canada, and Europe, all three regions which will have similar hate-crime numbers against Asians). (Second caveat: people are susceptible to the heuristic mistake that if you see something in the news you assume it’s a common or prevalent type of event. There has been a recent rise in hate-crimes against Asians, and people have seen videos of Asians seemingly attacked for no reason. But these events are still overall rare given our total population).
As far as possibility four, I’m not willing to believe others are racist without very clear evidence. The fact that they may have imagined a faux Chinese accent in their heads can’t be proof of racism, especially given three other (even likelier) explanations for their thought process. I practice what I preach – I don’t have automatic uncharitable suspicions that others are racist. But if you don’t believe I’m honest in claiming I didn’t recognize it could be interpreted as racist until someone pointed it out, that may say something about your uncharitable suspicions of others! You can only see into my mind through my words.
Shouldn’t Be #3
In reading the four critical comments, the one that caught my attention revealed a belief in the #3 possibility above, stating “I mean what do you expect from them? He’s made his political views pretty open.” *** My interpretation of that is he’s saying I have made plenty of similar remarks that could easily be interpreted as racist, or, at the least, of a political persuasion that is racist.
I did some soul searching the night before I posted the apology update. I searched through everything I could find that I’ve written on social media on the topic of race and summarized them all here. I don’t believe I have ever written anything that can reasonably be construed as racist in my social media…simply because I do not have a racist bone in my body, as I was not raised that way.
Naturally, based on those thousands of words I’ve written, that when I make a silly rhyme it should be construed as racist, right?
I also noted the implication that I hold a “political persuasion that is racist.” I think the best way for me to share my thoughts on this is by using a proxy lightning rod – Trump. The idea being that those who support Trump are often labeled racist. I know this is only a weak proxy, but I think the lazy assertion from that critical comment is an even weaker proxy for a substantive claim. Here’s my thoughts on Trump!
To return to the comment that caught my attention, writing “I mean what do you expect from them? He’s made his political views pretty open,” I say: indeed I have. And they aren’t in the least ones that include racist views. Over the years I have written calls to end racism, thoughts on why racism persists, suggested strategies for combatting racism, and so forth. What you generally won’t see are simple platitudes. Every time I’ve posted on the topic it’s because I felt there was something to say. Racism is so obviously bad I’m not sure I ever felt the need to banally proclaim so without any commentary.
We’re Left with #2 as the Likeliest
In today’s world people believe racism is becoming more prevalent. They have been told this. And so they are primed to see it in places it actually isn’t. This is not good for society.
What do I hope your takeaway is from all of this?
That the battle isn’t only to combat racism (a just cause). But also to combat the uncharity of people primed to spot racism where it probably isn’t. Let’s have a little faith in each other and a little more kindness. After all, baseless accusations of racism cannot possibly contribute to the worthy goal of lessening the impact of real instances of racism. Call everything racist and true racists will be ever more difficult to identify.
I encourage everyone to pause before instantly yelling “racism!” when they think they see an example of it. It’s not always there. And imagining it is there when it isn’t is not healthy, useful or positive for anyone. Have a little charity in your heart for the different ways people can express themselves through language. I will continue to make silly rhymes. Please don’t automatically assume they’re racist.
***This comment may not actually be referring to anything I said, but rather to a Tweet my father Sandy made last year essentially saying that when you play board games that simulate colonization of the New World, this is not the same as supporting colonization, or of being racist against the real people who were oppressed in past centuries. This became a brief “Sandy is racist” moment in some online gaming forums.
(I won’t dignify their shallow remarks by linking to any of them).
I think it’s utterly ridiculous to interpret Sandy’s words that way. For those who did, to be intellectually honest and consistent one would have to likewise interpret playing any of the hundreds of published war games as being complicit in all those atrocities humanity has inflicted on itself (a claim I’ve literally never heard over two decades of playing war games as a hobby). Ever played the most famous of them all, Risk? I guess that means you condone Napoleonic style wars of aggression and naked territorial expansion. Ever played Axis & Allies? I guess that means you condone Nazism, fascism, and totalitarianism. Ever played a war game simulating the American Civil War, or the VietNam War? I guess you condone slavery, and warcrimes. There are lots of games about antiquity as well – strategy games like Civilization and Mare Nostrum which simulate worlds that had slavery, pillage, rape, kidnapping, and evil barbarism in all its forms.
In the end, colonization, like war, is a very complex topic and believing simulations of major historical events to be akin to condoning every evil facet of such events is rather silly. If you are still having a hard time being convinced, let’s make it radically clear:
When the millions of people playing video games “kill” a human character in a game, are they condoning the killing or murder of any real humans? Obviously not. It’s a simulation. Get over it.