The Origins of “gook”

Imperialism

I was walking down the streets of downtown Seattle with a friend the other day when I heard the word “gook” directed at me for the first time in many years. A small group of young Black men were standing by the wall. As far as I could tell, one of them was on some confused, pseudo-Black nationalist diatribe while another was videotaping him. As we walked by, he shouted, “…Death to whitey! …And to all gooks too!”

After about half a stride, I looked back at him, and we made eye contact for one moment – one seemingly infinite moment, pregnant with rage from within each of us at lives lost from racism, lives lost from war, and all the racial history that our locking of eyes in that moment encompassed.

When I turned back to my friend, she asked me, “What’s gook?” She was visiting from Mexico and had no context for the word. I answered, “It’s a very bad slur for people who look like me.” She remarked at how calm I had remained, to which I said that it wasn’t worth a fight; I just wanted him to know that I’d heard him. And then we went on about our day.

But of course, I thought about it for a long time afterward. Ironically, I had just reread a piece by David Roediger on the history of the word “gook” while preparing to write this exact post about that exact word, as a way to talk about race and imperialism. I guess the universe really does give you what you need.

By imperialism, I mean a system of unequal power relations based on ideas of superiority and inferiority, imposed by military, political, economic, and/or cultural might. It exists through practices of domination, not necessarily through the actual takeover of land and political authority, but also through hegemony, a less direct but very real form of control through indirect power and the threat of force. Today, the ideology of American exceptionalism, which claims that the United States is a global exception as an egalitarian, democratic, and free nation, is used to justify its leadership in the world economically and militarily – with 737 military bases at last count, and nearly half of the world’s total military spending.

Roediger’s is a very good essay (despite his poor judgment in using the word “gung-ho” in the last paragraph). He tackles the difficult task of unpacking the origins of “gook” with a clear-eyed understanding that varying accounts are more likely overlapping than distinct from one another. He explains how across the board, sources including the 1989 Oxford English Dictionary claim that “gook” is a distinctly American word. OED cites its first usage in the Philippines in 1935, and then later by U.S. troops in Korea and Vietnam as “a term of contempt; a foreigner; a coloured inhabitant of (south-)east Asia.”

However, Roediger also dug up far earlier accounts, some especially gendered:

Irving Lewis Allen, in The Language of Ethnic Conflict, refers to goo-goo as “originally a Filipino in the Spanish- American War, 1899-1902″ and some scholars of American English suggest that gook itself found usage during the same conflict… An 1893 citation from Slang and Its Analogues finds gooks to be “tarts” and particularly camp-following prostitutes or “barrack hacks” catering to the army. A 1914 source similarly defines a gook as “a tramp, low.”

What struck me about the essay was the breadth and depth of the word’s usage as a way to dehumanize native inhabitants of lands where the United States was the foreign colonizing force. It shows how Asia is less of a fixed, bounded area on a map, and more of a region (or an imagined set of regions) defined by U.S. military aggression. The word “gook” literally stretches from continent to continent to span the globe, long before the current-day, more commonly known reference to Asians in Korea and Vietnam. Forgive the long citation, but this is truly mind-blowing to me. Roediger explains:

By the 1920s, gooks were French- and Creole-speaking black Haitians and Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans. Marines, as we have seen, made the Haitians into gooks. They also, after the 1926 invasion of Nicaragua, were responsible for so naming “natives” there. Into the 1930s in Costa Rica, goo-goo described the citizenry, at least to Americans. Such a term, in the Philippines or Latin America, could hardly have failed to conjure up an image of an infantilized subject population.

By the time of the Second World War, the identity of the gook expanded again. The West Coast’s brilliant amateur student of language, Peter Tamony, took notes on radio commentator Deane Dickason’s 1943 comments on gook—the Marines’ “word for natives everwhere” but especially for Arabs. The latter of Dickason’s conclusions is likely closer to the mark than the former. “Natives” of France, or of Britain, or of Holland, were not gooks, but people of color were. In particular, the mainly Arab population of North Africa acquired the status of gook. Indeed the usage spread to French colonialists so that, even a decade after the war, panicked settlers reacted to Algeria’s national liberation struggle by indiscriminately slaughtering villagers in “gook-hunts.”

So this is what I would’ve said to that young man on the street, had I had the energy and will to do so: The word “gook” has not only a racial present, but a racial past. It was created as a tool of American war and conquest – a tool used to ensure the dehumanization of subject peoples, so that they could be killed and disappeared and stolen from with impunity. The word is, then, a symbol of racism and imperialism that has touched not only Asia, but also Latin America and the Caribbean, and by way of the slave trade, Africa. It has also extended, by way of war, to Arabs in Europe.

“Gook” is a term of imperialism. And if the flipside of imperialism is struggle and resistance, then the word is also a symbol of a solidarity among peoples of color that, while yet aspirational, should serve as the basis for striving to love, even through the deeply stacked layers of rage within us all.

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9 Responses to The Origins of “gook”

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  1. Tobias Grace August 22, 2013 at 9:38 am #

    The process of dehumanizing an “enemy” begins by re-defining them as a gook, a Hun, a Commie an [N word] or whatever. Once one has done that, one can think of them as not being a “real” human, thus allowing the commission of abuses, atrocities, etc. It is an unfortunate aspect of human psychology that is evidenced throughout our entire history, the world over. The question is, how can this evidently fundamental mechanism in the human psyche be counteracted? Is it even possible? If it is, then how would that effect the conduct of war? While in my view the vast majority of wars have been unnecessary and fraudulent, there are exceptions. The Nazis, for example, had to be destroyed root and branch.
    As for the incident on the Seattle Street, I too have run into street corner black militant preachers in New york and have been called names in passing. Being white however, it had no effect on me whatever. I was not enraged – merely quizzical – taking it as coming from an ignorant and aggressive person who was a product of a less fortunate environment. This is condescending of course, though true. However, if we permit ourselves to always become upset by the random comments of the world’s ample stock of embittered fools and haters, we only damage our own well-being and risk becoming infected with the same bitter attitudes in response. One must always reflect that “the hater doesn’t know me so he isn’t really talking about me at all.” Recently my son was walking in NY with a middle aged female friend. They passed a homeless beggar, ignoring his mumbled appeal. The beggar lashed out ” you just another fat white woman who don’t care nothin’ about the homeless.” Well – it so happens this woman, who is my idea of a living saint, has devoted her entire life – 24-7- to the care of homeless LGBT youth in NY and has accomplished miracles on their behalf for many years. The beggar didn’t know that of course. His rage was generic, not actually personal. One sighs and moves on.

  2. Jody Rutherford August 22, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    Another great post! I’m so glad you are writing more, Soya. Oh, and Happy Birthday!

  3. Tariq West (@tariqwest) August 25, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    Thank you for this thoughtful and educational piece.

  4. Aaron Brandon Robinson August 26, 2013 at 5:06 am #

    after living in korea for a year i was under the impression gook (국) meant nation, like 미국 (migug) means america and 영국 (yeong-gug) means england, i personally believe there was most likely some confusion between past war vets and the local civilians

  5. Phil Chung August 26, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    I’ve always heard the term “gook” as a derogatory term towards Koreans. ‘Chinks”, “Japs” and “Gooks” referred to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, the majority of the east Asians coming to the US in the late 60′s and early 70′s. From my understanding and what I had learned from my neighbor, a Korean War Veteran and Sgt. Major, “Gook” was a term used by the American soldiers first coming to aid of the South Koreans during the Korean Conflict.
    Somehow, it went like this: A Korean would try to introduce himself to an American Soldier. Trying to establish a frame of reference, the word for “Korean” is Han-gook, so he would point to himself and say,”Han-gook.” And then he would point to the soldier and say, “Mi-gook”, which happens to be the Korean word for “American.” According to legend, the ignorant soldier would hear this and his conclusion was, “I’m no Gook! You’re the fuck’n Gook!”
    So, my Sgt. Maj. neighbor explained to this little Korean boy(me) that I should not be offended by this slur, but laugh at the ignorance of it’s origin….

  6. Soya Jung
    Soya Jung August 26, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    Thank you all for reading and commenting! I, too, once thought that the word derived from the Korean language, but the usage of “gook” predates the Korean War. Beyond taking personal offense, I think the word’s history calls upon us as Asian Americans to critique the role of U.S. military aggression in the lives of peoples all over the world.

    • Mark Levine September 1, 2013 at 12:27 am #

      Very good essay and response; however, I think that you should drop the word “Asian” from your response.

  7. asian pride August 30, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    I have been called gook,chink,slope, while living in australia.I am chinese btw.

  8. DJPM February 27, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    Apparently, the ‘G-word’ predates the American assault on Korea in the ’50s, but surely the reason it became associated with Koreans during the conflict and other Asians afterwards is down to coincidence- the way the sound features in the Korean language to describe nationalities.

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