[This is a modified version of what I originally wrote. After posting it, I thought about my reaction to the issues addressed in this post and realized how far off base I was. So, here is my revised version. I need work.]
I read yesterday evening about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke greeting Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, with the Japanese word, “konnichiwa,” for “good day” or “good afternoon” during a congressional hearing. Zinke’s remark was derided by Asian-American lawmakers as “flippant” and “blatantly insensitive.”
My first reaction was, “Really? I would take the remark as one of reverential acknowledgement, not racism.” You see, I assumed Zinke knew something about Hanabusa; that she is of Japanese heritage. And I assumed his greeting was meant to honor and respect that heritage. But the more I thought about it, the less certain I became that the comment was innocuous. Even if Hanabusa is of Japanese heritage and even if Zinke was attempting to show honor and respect, he failed. He “assumed” she would know the meaning of the word, simply because of her name. That’s equivalent to assuming someone whose surname is Russo speaks Italian. Acting on that assumption is beyond insensitive. In other words, it’s a colossal blunder. And it’s one I might have made (not with Russo, but with Hanabusa). THAT is evidence of insensitivity and failure to think things through. It’s evidence that we (I) have more work to do before I can claim that I am not culturally insensitive. I don’t know that I’d call it racist, but maybe it is.
Let me reiterate: I loath Zinke. But I’d give him a pass on this one, beyond chiding him severely for being insensitive and culturally tone deaf. I’d like to see the guy fired, by the way, but not for this blunder. He has plenty of other egregious faults that warrant his imprisonment in a toxic waste site.