O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand’st between her father’s ground and mine!
Though wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink to blink through with mine eyne!
– Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V, Scene 1, 174-177)
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s final act, the common folk perform their crude farce of a play before Theseus and Hippolyta. Shakespeare uses “chink” twice in this scene. It was written approximately 300 years before the term was used pejoratively. Though, the play has been staged countless times since without causing offense or calls for those lines to be bowdlerized.
We bring up Shakespeare, the language’s master manipulator, not to be pretentious but to make a point he understood better than anyone who has yet written in English. Words are groupings of letters. Their meaning comes from their tone, their timing and their context. Words can mean different things. Words can mean multiple things at once. Words can be different when spoken or written. Once uttered, words can assume a new definition well beyond what their creator intended.
Words are seldom simple, though the Internet invariably treats them as such. While finding a racist (or a witch) fills a noose created by immediate consensus, such serious condemnation should stand the light of cold reason. Looking at Max Bretos’ comment on ESPN, we have a hard time understanding where, precisely, he erred.
“Chink” is a racial slur, which came into use in English-speaking countries during a period of Chinese immigration in the late 19th century. It is odious. It deserves to be treated with the requisite severity. Unlike other words I need not mention, however, “chink” also has multiple, etymologically unrelated uses in English. The word “chink” can be a noun, meaning a crack or opening or the beam of light passing through said opening. It can also be a high-pitched ringing sound, or a verb denoting the striking of objects together to make that sound.
The word is also used in a common idiom, “a chink in someone’s armor,” to describe a weak point or pivotal flaw. It is that last usage that has caused so much trouble. Self-contained, the phrase “a chink in someone’s armor” conveys no racial animosity. Context must make the expression offensive. One could argue the mere presence of a Chinese-American, either in person or as subject matter, loads the phrase with racial malice. Though, there should be firmer grounds for such a serious accusation, a plausible link between idiom “chink” and uppercase, objectionable “Chink.”
By this definition, ESPN’s “Chink in the Armor” headline was offensive. Wordplay is essential to headline writing. It is a forum for wit, puns and double meanings. The intentions may have been innocent, but it was reasonable for the reader to assume, in that context, the “Chink” in the idiom was a reference to Jeremy Lin.
By that same definition, we would question Max Bretos’ suspension. The ESPN anchor asked Knicks analyst Walt Frazier: “if there is a chink in the armor where can Lin improve his game?” Conversational speech deserves greater leeway than premeditated writing. Bretos uses the “chink in the armor” idiom in its correct context. He doesn’t smile, linger over “chink,” or give any indication this was an intentional play on words. Even claiming this was “a Freudian slip” is specious, since that would imply the use of the expression was not in its proper context or there was a subconscious intent for which there is no evidence.
Bretos’ comment was an idiom, neither a slip-up nor a slur. He was trying to glean insight from a basketball analyst, not implying white superiority. This may be ignorance, that Bretos was not sensitive enough to Asian-American racism to consider the hurtful nature of a word he used in a different context, but that’s again leaping without concrete evidence. The most likely explanation is Bretos did not make the connection, because it never crossed his mind to offend anyone.
The WWL earned praise, justifiably, for its professional and contrite handling of the original “Chink in the Armor” headline, but it’s hard to see the month-long suspension of Bretos, four times the length ESPN meted out to Sean Salisbury for disseminating pictures of his penis in the workplace, as anything other than offering a scapegoat to end the story. He is being penalized not for the incident itself, which went unnoticed initially, but for the unfair, viral context it assumed outside his control.
ESPN reacted harshly, emphasizing a zero-tolerance policy against racism. However, the cycle of overreactions have distanced us from what was, to any reasonable observer, an unintended slight. We need an earnest discussion about race in this country. Inflaming tenuous incidents into mortal sins through Internet-induced consensus only bring us further from that point.