Once, I playfully called my friend a “gweilo”, the term “gweilo” being popular local slang for an expatriate living in Hong Kong.

“You can’t do that,” she deadpanned. I thought she was joking – she was not, to my chagrin. “That’s extremely racist.”

The term “gweilo”, word for word, means “ghost person” in Cantonese. Though “Gweilo” began as a dig at the light complexions of Europeans and Americans, the term has become less inappropriate over the years. Now, it is a generic term referring to any foreigner of Hong Kong, regardless of skin colour.

There even exists a bar named Gweilo that is reportedly popular amongst its namesake demographic. Is “gweilo”, then, still racist?

File photo: Pexels.

My gauche “gweilo” moment came to mind when I learned of the recent Charlottesville protests in the United States. I watched the white supremacists of the initial rallies – primarily male college students not much older than myself, clad in polos and bearing lit tiki torches – chant “You will not replace us” and “Jew will not replace us” as they crossed the University of Virginia campus. Their words reminded me that white supremacy remains the source and the guide of most racial slurs in existence today.

Factually, the notion of white supremacy can be traced to the 17th century, as European countries continued to carve out territories across Asia and Africa. Conquest, destruction, and enslavement were justified with fallacious “scientific racism”, which purported that Caucasians were biologically superior to all other races. Western physicians and zoologists argued that physical features, such as skin colour and skull shape, dictated intellect and cultural sophistication.

Despite a lack of corroborating evidence, these theories led many Europeans to believe that they, as members of the ideal human race, were compelled by a “White Man’s Burden” to enlighten “savage” countries. White supremacy, not to mention the world powers that it spawned, served as a precursor to the spectre of modern racism and its concomitant cruelties.

Escaped slaves c.1862. Photo: Wikicommons.

What we now know as racist slurs have a freighted history of persecution. Take, for example, two common slurs best known as “the N-word” and “chink”. The former originated from the 17th Century, when African-American men and women were treated as nothing more than commodities in a global slave trade. The latter was the product of a colonial era that began when Great Britain tumultuously dismantled China’s sovereignty, and when, later in the 19th Century, America witnessed the massacre of 19 to 20 Chinese men in Los Angeles, marking what continues to be the largest mass lynching of American history.

The very reason “the N-word” and “chink” are considered racist is that the context from which they arose was one of institutionalised injustice. As with most racial slurs, the words were appropriated by a powerful, white majority that ritually subjugated smaller ethnic groups. To be branded with a racial slur meant leading a broken life. On a political level, it was to live as an unequal citizen with limited rights. On a social level, it was to endure discrimination without the possibility of reprieve. On a psychological level, it was to live under the constant threat of harassment and even death. More than that, it was to feel a lesser being for not being born white. It was to teach children to be ashamed, to hate, and to fear their peers.

Simply put, racial slurs are anything but innocuous. They have been used to degrade and to tyrannize. They are words that are grafted to the suffering of millions of people who, in a world from which we are less than a century removed, were enslaved and discriminated against based on nothing more than arbitrary indicators of ethnicity.

These slurs are everything what the term “gweilo” is not. Before “gweilo” became the household word that it is today, it was a means of articulating defiance without staging outright rebellion. During British colonial rule, to publicly attack the status quo would be suicide, and to remain silent would be mindless acquiescence. The solution many Hong Kong citizens adopted was simply a word that compared the European colonialists to the pale ghosts of Chinese lore.

Yes, “gweilo” points out whiteness. Yes, “gweilo” can be used in a derogatory sense, like most phrases known to man. But is gweilo morally corrupt, “extremely racist”, and inexcusable? No. Because behind “gweilo”, unlike most racially charged terms, is a history of resistance to oppression rather than its perpetration.

In retrospect, I see now that my friend was not reacting to “gweilo” itself as she was to her own social situation. She had moved to Hong Kong a year before our conversation, and she was finding it difficult to adjust to her new school. When I called her a “gweilo”, I had inadvertently accentuated her sense of estrangement as a foreigner in a large city.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

My friend likely rejected “gweilo” due to her own sense of displacement. What she experienced in that time – a sense of anomie within an international environment, a vague feeling of resentment over a monumental, yet somehow ineffable, loss – appears to be plaguing today’s white supremacists, and is what leads them to continually reject racial discourse.

The modern white supremacy movement is borne by a growing sense of disempowerment, unimportance, and cultural dislocation within the white majority. The white men marching on Virginia? They are the foreigners now.