Skip to main content

China's awkward 'banana' slip

By Eric Liu
updated 12:43 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Chinese state media outlet referred to U.S. ambassador as a "banana"
  • Eric Liu says use of an ethnic slur reflects anger at his performance
  • He says China has a different concept of ethnicity than America
  • Liu: America's openness to immigrants is a big advantage over China

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu

(CNN) -- Have you heard about China's banana slip?

A few days ago in Beijing, as Gary Locke wrapped up his tenure as United States ambassador to China, he was lambasted in a Chinese state media editorial. The piece called Locke a "guide dog." It said he had stirred an "evil wind." Worst of all, it called him a "banana."

As in yellow on the outside and white on the inside. It's a slur, akin to "Oreo" for African-Americans or "coconut" for Hispanics, used by people of a given ethnic group to judge another member of that group for being insufficiently, well, ethnic. The point of saying a person of color is "white inside" is to accuse him of being a race traitor, ashamed or in denial of his true heritage.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

In this case, the idea was that Locke, though of Chinese descent, wasn't Chinese enough. Why? He couldn't speak the language. Oh, and he apparently didn't do the bidding of China's leaders, choosing instead to go to Tibet, work with dissident human rights activists, point out smog levels in Beijing and generally represent the interests and values of the United States.

That's what the editorialist meant when he called Locke a banana. Many Chinese citizens disavowed the slur, calling it an embarrassment. But what it revealed was that despite modernization and burgeoning wealth -- or perhaps because of them -- China still has a fragile identity. (And America still has some advantages.)

Let's start with the fact that the editorial was published in an organ of state media. It got attention because in a country where the government controls the press, editorials are assumed to express the views of top national leaders. They may not, in fact. It's quite possible this particular opinion writer was just an individual. But in the absence of a free press, who can really tell?

This is the price of propaganda: No one believes what you say, but they believe you meant to say it.

A second notable aspect of the banana rant was that it completely conflated ethnicity and nationality, and in a particularly Chinese way. The Han Chinese are the overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group of China, and their ethnocentrism frames Chinese political culture. (Just ask Tibetans.) It also fuels the nationalism behind China's territorial disputes with Japan and other Asian nations.

So the premise of the banana comment was that someone of Chinese ethnicity, wherever he may live, should be considered Chinese to the core and therefore in the end loyal to the Chinese nation.

Of course, that's a notion white Americans have often used to justify mistreatment of "indelibly alien" Chinese immigrants, whether during the era of Chinese exclusion in the late 19th century or the persecution of Wen Ho Lee at the turn of this one.

But it's as wrong now as then and as wrong here as there. Even if Locke could speak perfect Mandarin, even if he could read the Chinese classics and write calligraphy, this Eagle Scout, child of public housing, prosecutor, state legislator, governor, Cabinet secretary and diplomat was made in America.

Whether Locke is "Chinese enough" is for him and his family to judge, not for any other Chinese American, much less an apparatchik in China. But there can be no doubt that Locke is plenty American, and that's really what stuck in the craw of some commentators in China.

Ultimately, the banana rant reminds us that the United States, for all its manifest failings and its continuing racial tensions, remains exceptional in its capacity to synthesize the peoples of the world into new hybrids. Which is also why the United States, for all its economic troubles and relative geopolitical decline, retains a competitive edge over rising powers like China.

To put it very simply: America makes Chinese Americans, but China does not -- and does not particularly want to -- make American Chinese.

It's in America's operating system to welcome an immigrant who becomes a houseboy and to make it possible for that immigrant's grandson to hold high public office. This is the Locke family arc: truly American.

It's not so much in China's operating system to welcome an immigrant -- whether ethnic Chinese or not, however steeped in Chinese civilization -- and make it possible for her family to be seen as truly Chinese.

When operatives in China call Locke a banana, they assume, wrongly, that to be American is to be white. America is not white anymore. It never really was. China may be four times more populous than America. But America is many times more diverse, intermingled, open and adaptive than China.

I'm proud to be Chinese American: proficient in Chinese culture, fluent in American life. Call me what you will; I like my country's chances.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT