The racist spin of the 'Chinaman'

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The term 'Chinaman' depicts not just a left-arm wrist-spinner, but the latent racism that originated it. It's time the ICC takes steps to bowdlerise the word from the cricketing lexicon.

Left-arm wrist-spinners are saddled with an unfortunate label that brims with colonial-era racism turned into a casual word. | The Hindu Archives

In cricket, wrist spin delivered by a left-arm bowler is termed 'Chinaman'. The story goes that on one of the MCC’s colonial era Test tours to the West Indies, Walter Robins (who later went on to become England’s Chairman of Selectors in the 1950s) was out stumped against Ellis Achong, a slow left-arm finger spinner, when he bowled a wrist-spin delivery as a variation. Robins failed to notice the change from the hand (that the ball was being spun with the wrist and not the fingers, a fairly obvious change) and was stumped. On his return to the pavilion, Robins is said to have remarked “Fancy being done by a Chinaman!” There is some dispute about whom he said this to. One version of the story has him saying this to Learie Constantine, the great West Indies all-rounder of that era. Another version of the story has him saying this to the Umpire.

 

 

In that era, ‘Chinaman’ was a general term used to refer to a man of Chinese origin. It was also used to describe men of Japanese origin, even though they were obviously not Chinese. You get the picture. It was used to refer to anyone who ‘looked like that’. It became a form of classification, and in some places, including the United States, laws were made to discriminate specifically against this class of people. This means that some human beings were treated in a certain way simply because they were classified as a 'Chinaman', and not because of anything they did or said or were in any way individually responsible for. It was, in other words, textbook racism.

 

It is fashionable in our present day to deride any effort to criticise such usage as “political correctness run amok”. In most cases, and most certainly in this case, this derision is little more than an effort to defend and gloss bad logic over with the privilege of position.

Assuming that the story about Walter Robins is true, it says a great deal about cricket’s comfort with casual racism that the term 'chinaman' has been used to identify a left-arm wrist-spin bowler. Robins was not describing the delivery. He was referring to the bowler. Robins’ observation suggests that what struck him was that it was a ‘Chinaman’ who had produced this variation. This is the essence of the racist mindset. Its logic is not “This human being demonstrated this skill.”. Its logic is that “This human being demonstrated this skill despite belonging to this arbitrary class which exists in my head and in the heads of several of my friends”.

Such stereotypes abound today in India. How often have we heard generalisations about Biharis (“they’re watchmen”) or Gujaratis (“they’re cunning businessmen”). In the colonial era such stereotypes were devised as a way to justify discriminatory policies against entire classes of people. As we know today, thanks to biology and genetics, race (like caste and religion) is a social construct. It has no other basis. It is self-fulfilling. A person belongs to a given race because this person belongs to a given race because the person belongs to this given race and so on, all the way down.

The race (or any similar arbitrary identity) in such cases becomes a proxy for assuming all kinds of things about the person without needing to know anything about the individual. In one form, it produces the stereotype of Gujaratis being cunning businessmen, when in reality, Gujaratis are no less likely to be engineers, mathematicians, poets, painters, lawyers, doctors or cricketers compared to anybody else. In another form, it produces far more vicious stereotypes. People of that imaginary group are thieves, or stupid, or liars, or, as was the case in the colonial era, fit only for serfdom.

 

This bad logic is not benign. It has real consequences for real people’s lives — consequences which they can do absolutely nothing about. Just consider the difficulties faced by Indian citizens from India’s north-eastern States in some of India’s biggest cities. They have suffered the indignity of being asked “Pakkaa Indian Ho?” in the capital city of their own country. News reports about discrimination, harassment, sexual assault, and gross stereotyping by calling them "chinks" are routinely found in the papers. This has become such a problem that government Ministers have been forced to address the problem. The personal intervention of Ministers helps in individual cases where government employees are involved in racist behavior, but Ministers can do little about the vastly larger social problem.

A person who was referred to as a “Chinaman” back in the colonial era had to endure many of the same indignities (and many others special to that period, such as living under discriminatory laws and not just discriminatory social customs). The fact that left-arm wrist spin came to be known as the 'chinaman' is part of cricket’s racist colonial legacy. It is a legacy in which a player got away with a bigoted comment about an opponent who had gotten the better of him through brilliant, original, cricketing skill. The fact that Robins himself bowled leg-breaks and googlies does not make this any better.

Or perhaps, we ought to call leg-breaks “racist-saheb” deliveries. We shouldn’t, but I hope you see my point.

 

It is fashionable in our present day to deride any effort to criticise such usage as “political correctness run amok”. In most cases, and most certainly in this case, this derision is little more than an effort to defend bad logic. The privileged position from which the bad logic is offered enables its poor quality to be glossed over. Robins’ privileged position empowered him to make that casually racist remark. Robins’ contemporary social descendants ask why they should not enjoy similar privileges without being criticised for using these privileges. Perhaps they ought to focus on the terrible logic of their position instead of being obsessed by the uncomfortable nature of the criticism it invites.

“Whom does it harm?” you might ask. It harms the ignorant user of the term as well as his targets, because it entangles both perpetrator and victim in a web of prejudice. It legitimises resentments by providing an apparently logical (but actually absurd) line of reasoning to justify them.

Modern sport — ranging from Baseball, Basketball, American Football, Football to the Olympic sports — has explicitly targeted racial prejudice. The ICC has done so too. But cricket cannot credibly claim to be an enlightened, modern 21st century sport if it looks fondly upon a racial epithet which is used to describe one of its most thrilling, uncommon skills — left-arm wrist spin. The 'chinaman' is a monument to the vile, disgusting logic of racism. It must be dismantled. The ICC can only do so much. The fans, observers and writers have to do the bulk of the heavily lifting in this case.

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