Last month, a popular northeast Philadelphia sandwich shop rebranded its store Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop. Since opening in 1949, it had been called Chink’s Steaks. In 2004, heated criticism came from the Asian-American community and other residents of Philadelphia charging that the name was a racial slur. The shop was named for its original owner, Sam Sherman, who acquired the nickname “Chink” when he was 7 years old because of his almond-shaped eyes.
As an Asian American, this stereotype and racial slur is not new to me. I’ve heard and seen many more. But they never fail to make me cringe and somehow grow smaller. I think of the countless people who have walked by or have eaten at this establishment not knowing or caring about the history and offensiveness of the racial slur, “chink.”
In fact, racial slurs and derogatory words are designed to alienate. These words create the divide between us and the other, and they run counter to the inclusive and diverse classrooms that anti-bias educators seek to create. As educators, we need to be aware how biases come into play in our daily lives and society at large. We must understand that it is not isolated to one store, one person, or one word. I want my third-graders to be aware and to question and challenge stereotypes.
The story of Joe’s Steak + Soda Shop is also an example of how change can come, even when it’s painfully slow. The community was divided, with some people feeling the tradition of the name was more important than creating an inclusive community. But those who stood for justice rallied. The Steak Shop story also provided an opportunity to reflect on our own prejudices. In order to teach the skills of questioning, critical thinking, and challenging stereotypes, we must also practice these skills. Anti-bias education is not just an approach to teaching, but also a way of viewing the world.
So as we look around our community, we must be mindful of the books we choose to read to our students, the posters we put on our classroom walls and the terms we use to talk about different groups of people.
Joe Groh, the current owner of Joe’s Steaks + Soda said, “It is very important to me, my family and the entire staff that we no longer inadvertently alienate anyone in the Philly community.”
Progress sometimes starts with a small gesture, but if we are to continue these strides toward a sustainable and equitable community across cultural barriers, we must also take into account the power of our words.
Huynh is a third-grade literacy teacher in Philadelphia who is passionate about social justice in the classroom.