Author Archives: Summer

Linguistics: an apology.

In the event this Twitter thread gets lost, I wanted to archive it here as well.

A few years ago, I was on a panel about Chinese Mythology with Ken Liu, Regina Kanyu Wang, and Tang Fei. While my education suggested I had credentials to be there, I had absolutely no business being on that panel, for three main reasons.

First, I was an ass. I was macro and microaggressive, and I regret my behavior to this day. That’s not on anyone but me. The other panelists were gracious enough in their corrections I didn’t fully understand how awful I was until much later.

Second, re: credentials, I’m a white American who majored in Chinese Literature. Everything I know is from an outsider perspective, and about half my instructors were also white.

Ken Liu often said in early interviews that one of the biggest problems with translated culture is that there are no direct translations. The connotations and context either don’t map, or are incorrectly implied by the word choice.

During the last few minutes of the panel, he and I got into it over how Chinese languages are organized (language family vs. dialects, etc.). I won’t go into details for fear of further errors, but his response identified my key failure, and why I shouldn’t have been up there.

Third (the systemic bit)! The thrust of his response was that the way folk organize their own information, much like particular terms, often doesn’t map exactly and isn’t translated properly. Those misconceptions continue to be taught as academic “truth.”

Good grades aren’t worth much if the ideas on which they’re built are wrong.
Needless to say, I haven’t done panels on this topic or related topics since. I think I know enough to ask useful questions, but not enough to provide answers.

To everyone whose time I wasted then, especially my fellow panelists, I’m sorry.

While this is, of course, deeply embarrassing, I hope it’s a useful example of why it’s important to continue to question, decolonize, and reevaluate academic data for white supremacist bias. And to think carefully about whether or not you’re the right person for that panel.