Is Chinese Whispers Racist?

Some people believe that the term Chinese Whispers is a racist and offensive term and should therefore be avoided.  I grew up using the term Chinese Whispers and so for me the term is nothing more than the name of a game so I will now spend some time discussing the issue.

The best starting point is at the beginning, of course, so I will first look at the origins of the name itself, and then look at other similar terms form various countries to see if there is an intentional racist slur or not.  Once I have done that, it will then be possible to discuss whether the name is offensive and whether it should be avoided or not.

In my article, Origins of Chinese Whispers, I actually conclude that it is not possible to know the exact origin of the name but that it is very likely to have come from the British as an observation on Chinese behaviour or the way in which Chinese communicate either in English or their own language.  It is most probable that the term was therefore originally used to make fun of Chinese and their methods of communication, either making fun of the sound of the Chinese language itself or of the sound of Chinese people speaking English.

Many other countries (including the likes of America, Italy, Spain) use the name Broken Telephone Game or simply Telephone Game.  However, in France, they call the game Arab Telephone, which is almost certainly a negative racial reference.

So, is it a "racist" term?  I suspect it is, on the basis that is clearly intended to isolate the Chinese and make fun of them.

Is Chinese Whispers an offensive name?

I think only somebody who is Chinese really has a right to answer that question, as surely nobody else could be offended by a term that does not refer directly to themselves, so I cannot really answer that question myself.

But I can say that I do not believe that many Chinese would truly be offended by it and that I do not believe anybody should find it offensive.  There are many references in many countries that joke about neighbouring countries, usually in a negative light.  For example, we use many racist phrases related to language in England, as I am sure many other countries do.

and the French again poke fun at their neighbours

It is totally commonplace to do so and I do not see anything wrong with doing so, provided it is not used as a term to purposefully victimise somebody.  I grew up with the term Chinese Whispers and at no point did any of us, as children, really question the name or even end up with a negative view of Chinese people because of it, although we may have realised that as kids we do not have a clue what Chinese are saying and therefore the name is a bit funny.

A final point: recently, I asked a young Filipino child to speak English.  She opened her mouth and spoke some made-up words that sounded much like this:

"A choeas a shoosh toosh sheesh shaa schta."  That probably does not sound like much to you, but to me it sounded like the noises my friends and I used to make if we were trying to pretend to speak the Chinese language, when I was still a child.

So yes, it is a racist term and no it should not be offensive and I do not believe anybody should be offended by it, any more than I would be offended if somebody called the game English Whispers.

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