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.