Sunday, April 27, 2008

SOUND OFF: CHANGING FACES, CHANGING NAMES

Joseph Groh likes the name of his Philadelphia restaurant fine the way it is. He bought the restaurant after the death of the guy who had opened it in 1949. Now, however, some Asian-American groups and individuals want Groh to change the name that's been in place since the doors opened: "Chink's Steaks."

"It's definitely a derogatory term," Ginny Gong, national president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, told The Washington Post.

On the other hand, Groh told the newspaper that he sees the name as part of the restaurant's tradition and sees no need to change it.

Should Groh consider changing the name, given that it clearly offends a particular ethnic group? Or is it right for him to hold to tradition and keep the name? (You can also answer the poll about the name on the right-hand channel of this blog.)

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

10 comments:

Maddy said...

Mr Seglin,

You didn't state in your column how long ago the restaurant was purchased.
If it was a recent purchase, the community may have been waiting for a new owner to make the request. If this is the case, the new oner may want to seriously consider the name change as it may also increase his business. Even though I do not have asian heritage, I would be personally reluctant to try a new restaurant that so prominently displays such an obvious slur.
If the transaction took place a number of years ago, I would be more understanding on the owner's reluctance to change the name and go with the tradition argument. Otherwise there is another common tradition in business: new owner, new name.

Phil Clutts said...

I agree with Maddy. Not only is changing the name the right thing to do, I think the owner might be doing himself a favor by putting up a new, modern sign that proclaims “Joe’s Steakhouse,” “Groh’s Great Steaks,” “Filly’s Finest,” or some such thing. There are probably people who don’t eat there because the name is offensive or they thought “If I’m going to eat a steak in Philadelphia, I’m not going to do it in a Chinese restaurant.” These people are potentially new customers. The “regulars” are going to keep coming if the food and service are of the same quality.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC

M. Lawrence said...

Where is the evidence from these hyper-sensitive people that "Chink's Steaks" refers to Asian ownership? The word "chink" traces its roots all the way back to Old English and refers to a small cleft or opening (like a hole in the wall), a means of escape, the sharp sound of money, also money itself, or as a verb to make a sharp metallic sound. And it could have been the previous owner's nickname. (Does anyone besides me remember the ludicrous outrage that resulted when a public figure used the adjective "niggardly" correctly in a speech and the usual suspects went into contortions demonstrating how offended - and uneducated - they were?) All that aside, the owner has every right to keep the name and people who want to be offended, have every right to not eat there. But since this is about ethics, I would challenge anyone to find an ethical base for this problem, which is not the same thing as rights or etiquette. It's the owner's call and no one else's.

Anonymous said...

Some diners of a certain age may remember the restaurant chain Sambo's, which regularly featured the fable of "Little Black Sambo" on the placemats in the dining room. About 800 of those restaurants where purchased by the Denny's chain in the early 1980's. Denny's had no problem in changing the name.

In the mid 1990's, the owners of the Washington NBA franchise changed the name of its team from Bullets to Wizards, in part because of the negative association with the gun violence plauging the city at that time.

The point: businesses always have the right to use whatever name is legally available. Ethics enter the picture when someone makes a conscious decision to use a name which hurts a group of people, even when there are other options. Hypersensitivity is in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder has just as much right to his/her feelings of offense as the owner has to name his establishment.

Bethesda

A. Mora said...

Excuse the potential ignorance of this question: But was the restaurant originally named as a derogatory proclamation?

I can't imagine anyone benefiting from this—then or now. Therefore, I don't think it's necessary to change the name. If this was, say, a 1940s gentlemen's club created to bond racist "gentlemen," then that's another story. Clearly, any establishment or organization using a slur as self-promotion would need to shed that mistake. But to simply say the restaurant's name is offensive, is to project something onto the name that was never intended—and I think the fault in that lies in the observer, who sees the name as offensive.

If people are inferring racism, can we, instead of "erasing" the term, have a public conversation about etymology, and how so many words in the english language have multiple meanings? Or do words that have racist tendencies need to be automatically eliminated?

Pubby said...

To piggy-back on the idea of having a "public conversation about etymology," I think that's an interesting point to bring up. In certain cases, derogatory slurs have become ultimate taboos in English usage, whereas in others, the words were re-appropriated or adapted by said minority groups as expressions of empowerment: some examples being "queer" and "chicano/chicana."

But in the case of "chink," it's always been a derisive term used to dehumanize Chinese and Asian Americans. After decades of fighting more or less vocal slurs, if Asian American groups want to speak up against this vestige of offensive language (whether or not its intentional), I think people should listen.

Also, on probably more than half of the reviews I read of "Chinks," customers said they liked the cheesesteaks despite the name. As a business owner, why force customers to "get over" an obvious linguistic issue in order to recommend your product? Joseph Groh may not have caused the controversy, but he can do something about it. And from the sound of those steaks (can we get something like that in Boston please?), he'll probably keep all of his happy customers coming back for more.

lcd said...

I encourage everyone to read the original Washington Post article. The restaurant owner Joseph Groh makes it clear that he doesn't care much about what the name means to Asian Americans. Case in point, he planned to reuse the name at a second location. (So he could have a chain of Chink's? Nice.)

There is no neutral interpretation when the word is used to describe someone's (supposed) ethnic background. It is negative and has been used as a slur since the 19th century. To deem those who protest the name hypersensitive is to deny how the word has been and is still used in the American lexicon.

The owner can keep the name, and people can vote with their wallets. If the people of Philadelphia can overlook the name just to eat a cheesesteak, well then, they are welcome to him.

Anonymous said...

How far do we have to go to be totally PC? There will always be someone who is offended by something. In this case, since the name has been around for years, it s should remain so. Strange that it wasn't offensive some 10 or 20 or even 45 years ago. However, to name it such a thing now would be wrong and insensitive. Chink also has other meanings, none of which are offensive. So, no, the name should not be changed. It might be different if it were a Chinese restaurant. Would there be an uproar if the new owner were Chinese?
My alma mater, New Mexico State University's yearbook is "The Swastika." The swastika is an ancient native American symbol . The yearbook was named many years ago, and survived WWII and the Nazis and their use of the swastika {However, the native American swastika's arms face the other direction.} Several years ago a misguided group of PC activists tried to get the name changed, but the attempt was soundly defeated, as the symbol no longer had any negative connotation. Also, there are many other words that COULD be derogatory, such as whitey, frog, dago, wop, red, etc etc. Give it a rest!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

"Chink" has always been a negative connotation and offensive, such as calling an African American or dark colored person the "N" word.

Check out U.S history in regards to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It should give you an insight how Chinese were treated and outlawed.

http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/immig/chinese6.html

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