“Can I get Oracle text for this card. It’s in karate.”
At SCG Atlanta, a player said this to a judge, asking about Oracle text for their opponent’s Japanese Saheeli, Sublime Artificer. The judge, in addition to providing the Oracle text, issued an Unsporting Conduct Minor to the player. After consultation with the Head Judge and tournament staff, which included myself, the infraction was changed to Unsporting Conduct Major, a more serious infraction as the penalty goes from what was a Warning to a Match Loss. Before going any further, I want to post the definition of USC Major from the Infraction Procedure Guide.
“A player takes action towards one or more individuals that could reasonably be expected to create a feeling of being harassed, threatened, bullied, or stalked. This may include insults based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Threats of physical violence should be treated as Unsporting Conduct – Aggressive Behavior.
It is possible for an offender to commit this infraction without intending malice or harm to the subject of the harassment.”
Furthermore, the first example for the infraction is: “A player uses a racial slur against their opponent.”
Given all of this information, I want to start by acknowledging that this phrase is not a slur. However, the example is just that, an example, and it should not be used as a demarcation line of what is acceptable. That is to say, just because the example states that a slur is an example of USC Major, that doesn’t mean that anything below a slur is not. There is a wide sampling of unacceptable behavior, and no document could hope to document and categorize all of it, and even less so of coming up with a widely accepted scale with an established minimum line.
If not a slur, I would characterize this phrase as is a racial charicature based on historical stereotypes. Karate obviously isn’t a language; it’s a martial art form from Japan. That the card was also in Japanese could be an indication that the player knew this and was drawing a direct line between them in this way. In some ways, this would have been better, and in others worse. Also, it isn’t the correctness of the relationship between the word karate and the language of the card that is of importance here.
I’m going to talk a little bit about my personal experiences growing up in the United States as a Japanese person. For East Asians (Japanese, Chinese, and Korean), there’s a blending that tends to take place in the eyes of Americans. Of course, the same no doubt happens to Southeast Asians as well, but in my personal experience, there is this divide, probably because of an overall difference in skin tone (Yay! America), similarities/differences in language and culture, and historical patterns of immigration. A few examples of this blending that I’ve dealt with all my life:
“You all look the same.”
“Are you Chinese/Korean?”
Attributing things that are culturally or historically a part of another nation’s heritage to yours. Given the ascent of Japanese manga and anime, I imagine this was a bigger problem for non-Japanese Asians.
In the eyes of Americans, we all fit neatly under one umbrella and share certain traits. We like anime. We are shorter. We are good at math. We know martial arts.
Ah, yes. Here we are. All Asians know martial arts. This is a pervasive stereotype. It didn’t help that I grew up during the prominence of the original Karate Kid movie series. Hence, “Do you know karate?” was all too common of a question, often accompanied by an open palm kata and a “Hi-ya!” Not only is this a really broad brush to paint with in general, but recall that karate is a Japanese martial art. Kung fu is Chinese, and tae kwon do is Korean. Despite these distinctions, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility for people of any of these races to be asked about a martial art from another country because “we’re all the same.”
This blending is so bad that the remake of the Karate Kid starring Jackie Chan and Jayden Smith took place in China and featured kung fu rather than karate. But due to the strength of the brand, they kept the name of the movie and saw no problem in the complete erasure of cultural distinction. Can you imagine if a King Arthur movie inexplicably took place in France? This is what it’s like to be Asian, where “Asian” takes precedence over an individual national/cultural identity.
This blending erasure is by no means exclusive to Asians. The Unites States’s original sin of slavery completely obliterated any connection that many black Americans can have to their nations of origin in Africa. And “Middle Eastern” is another broad stroke that is currently used to cover dozens of unique cultures.
Returning to the original statement, and the definition of the infraction, some of you may be asking whether this is an insult. If this is an insult, who was the player insulting? The opponent was not Asian. Neither was the responding judge. Is the player insulting the card? (No.) Or are they insulting all Asians? (Maybe closest to the truth.) It’s a stereotype, and a very bad faith one at that.
Stereotypes hurt. It is an insult to be lumped and judged, and especially so for immutable traits, which is why the whole idea of protected classes exist. I can’t help being Japanese, and thus I will always be a target for this type of thing. This can be true even for supposedly positive stereotypes. “Asians are good at math” is one I mentioned earlier. This one was even true for me growing up as I took college-level calculus courses while still in high school. But again, accuracy isn’t the benchmark of harm here, and even though it is positive to be good at math, my white classmates who also took college math classes didn’t have to deal with this type of stereotyping. They were good at math on their own merits, not because of a broad categorization of their race. This doesn’t begin to address how harmful the stereotype is to an Asian who isn’t good at math.
It’s already an erasure to be stereotyped as Asian, a category that already erases one’s individual nationality. Calling an Asian-language card “in karate” takes that erasure one step further, not even giving it the dignity of a real language, but calling it by a stereotyped trait that itself has a long history of harmful usage as a blending agent against Asians.
One thing that people might bring up is that this seems like a joke, that it was said in jest. No doubt. I spoke to the player after the (revised) ruling was given, and they said as much, that it was something that they said around the kitchen table with their friends, and it slipped out. Recall the last sentence of the definition for USC Major: “It is possible for an offender to commit this infraction without intending malice or harm to the subject of the harassment..” After speaking to the player, I believe that they did not have a malicious intent, that it was just a joke.
I get it. I myself have made jokes like this about myself. That doesn’t make it okay, and in fact it points to a larger issue with these types of caricatures. When minorities make self-deprecating jokes about themselves, they are reinforcing and justifying the bigotry of the majority in order to fit in. “Hey, look, I can laugh at myself. You should laugh at me too. Just don’t oppress me in a more malicious way please.” The United States has a complex history of this wherein various racial or ethnic minorities have gone through periods of mockery prior to being assimilated into the general white hegemony. Think about groups like Poles, Italians, and Irish. The remnants of these jokes may seem harmless now, but there were times when they were much more malicious.
Bad taste jokes will likely always be a part of our culture, and I don’t care much what you do in your private circles. But I will say that this player’s admitted normalization of such jokes among their friends led directly to this slip up that came at the cost of a Match Loss. Like any habit, if you make a habit of shitty behavior, it’s more likely to come up. People who use slurs say that they slipped up. That’s true to an extent, but what it means is that they use those slurs in private, and slipped up in using it in a more public setting. And if you use slurs or make bad taste jokes about race, gender, religion, etc at a Magic event, you can expect a penalty.
Postscript: After writing this, I sent a draft to the player, and I’ve been engaged with them in a dialogue about race, self-deprecating jokes, and where the lines are for acceptable behavior at Magic events. To me, this is the most important aspect of this story, that this player can slip up and be punished, but be able to turn around and focus on becoming part of the solution. My publication of this isn’t meant as an attack on the player. I have intentionally kept their identity out of it, and if you are aware of those details, I would ask that you do the same.