Slurs have a history, even if we forget them with the passage of time.
Then suddenly, there it is – ancient invective carried via modern technology. We witnessed it last week when a college student from the Sacramento area posted a video on YouTube that gave new voice to old prejudice.
Alexandra Wallace, once of Fair Oaks and Bella Vista High School, covered a lot of ground in that three-minute video, in which she disparaged the parents and extended families of Asian students at UCLA. She complained about being unable to study at the university library while students with relatives in Japan called to check on family in the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami there.
She mocked the way Asian people sound to her ears: "Ohhhh. Ching! Chong! Ling! Long! Ting! Tong!"
Now, I'm not sticking a toe in the pointless speculation of what's in Wallace's heart. She has apologized for her actions.
Still, the words she spoke are a reminder of attitudes handed down through generations, like a genetic disease. And yet the response to her video has revealed some societal progress.
Unlike victims of years past, some young Asians pushed back on YouTube with the swagger of a societal status their grandparents never enjoyed.
By far, the best was the "Asians in the Library" song, in which a guitarist derisively sings to Wallace, telling her, "Ching, chong – it means I love you."
According to the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, more than 40 percent of the school's 36,000 students are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The students Wallace mocked can inspire resentment, jealousy and fear – the kindling of ethnic slurs – because their success is about achievement and a pathway to status.
Who doesn't want that for their children and themselves? Who isn't susceptible to the weakness of resentment?
In January, a book serialized in the Wall Street Journal set off a cultural firestorm with the headline: "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."
Amy Chua, the who wrote the book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" about trying to raise her mixed-race kids in the strictest of Chinese traditions, was condemned from all sides.
Non-Asians went wild at the thought of an Asian mom raising super kids while seemingly belittling the namby-pamby "Western" ways of child rearing, though that's not really the point of Chua's book.
Meanwhile, many Asian Americans were resentful that Chua was promoting stereotypes of domineering Asian parents and their robotic Asian kids.
In the end, both Chua and Wallace may prove to be nothing more than provocateurs. Chua took some heat, but she wrote a best-seller that made serious money. Wallace is leaving UCLA, and she may yet try to capitalize on her notoriety if recent popular culture is any guide.
But their cultural scrapes are fleeting compared with the real wounds and profound losses suffered by those who knew too well the history of slurs easily forgotten.
I thought of one in particular last week, a farmer named Noboru Taguma who lived for years in West Sacramento. I wrote about him in a story for The Bee in 1999 and was saddened to hear from his family that he died the same day the horrific tsunami swamped Japan.
He was 87 and a proud, dignified man who loved America despite being part of a generation of Japanese Americans who were locked in internment camps during World War II.
Many of Taguma's peers turned themselves inside out to prove their loyalty to this country, even as it rounded them up. Japanese American soldiers were among the most decorated of the war.
Taguma, however, refused to be cannon fodder while his family was imprisoned back home. He steadfastly declined to serve in the military and was thrown into a Tucson camp where he did hard labor while incurring the wrath of Asians and non-Asians alike. "Our own people called us traitors," he said.
Many Japanese American families had money and status before the war, but it was taken away from them.
The slurs of the day – "Ching! Chong! Ling! Long!" – were not only insults, they kept people in their place. This burned deep psychological scars in an entire generation. The scars affected their children.
"I was a man without a country," said Hideo Takeuchi, a friend of Taguma's.
Today's Asian college kids can crack back at Wallace with humor because their status is not in jeopardy of being ripped away. With the help of their families, they've earned their place at UCLA and in society as a whole.
So, while we can forgive the individual who foolishly mocks them with slurs – people make mistakes, even those who transmit them to the world – we must remember that the words themselves belong in the past.