NPR Racial-Sensitivity Bloggers Want to Ban the Term 'Chinese Fire Drill'

NPR’s “Code Switch” bloggers are taking offense at the phrase “Chinese fire drill.” It’s racially insensitive. On Thursday, NPR blogger Lakshmi Gandhi explained it’s a prank when people get out of a parked car, run around it, and then get back in. “One of the most famous pop culture references to the game appears of the classic 1970s sitcom Happy Days, in which Richie Cunningham and friends can be seen racing around his car, holding up traffic in the process.”

Gandhi admitted the term isn’t exactly common today, but the NPR cops want it stricken from American lingo anyway:

But the question remains: What exactly is "Chinese" about either of these definitions? While blog states that "Chinese here is not necessarily a racial sentiment," its hard to see how that's true. Starting around World War I, the descriptor "Chinese" began to be frequently added to phrases to describe situations that were confusing, incomprehensible and messy.

These included a "Chinese ace," which referred to an incompetent pilot; "Chinese national anthem," to describe an explosion; and "Chinese landing," which was used by pilots to refer to bumpy, dangerous touchdowns because the aircraft had "one wing low" (a cringeworthy joke about what Asian languages sound like that )...

Note how all of the above phrases refer to things that are negative and inferior in some way. It's also important to remember that anti-Asian sentiments had existed in the United States for decades before World War I and that the United States government did everything it could to keep Chinese and other Asian immigrants off American shores. In fact, the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Usage traces the first pejorative use of "Chinese" to around 1880...   

After the two world wars, "Chinese" continued to be used as a descriptor to indicate things that were hasty, cheap or amateur. The late New York Times columnist William Safire noted in his book I Stand Corrected that in the 1940s and '50s "Chinese home runs" referred to home runs that were either high pop-ups or ones that exited the park just along the foul line. And schoolchildren used to play "Chinese whispers" instead of the game Telephone because the messages would quickly become garbled and lost along the way.

These terms are antiques. Did NPR really start a brand new blog to complain about lingo from the from the 1940s and 1950s? Gandhi concluded: “Aside from the occasional reference to the car prank, the phrase ‘Chinese fire drill’ has mostly faded from everyday use today. Perhaps it is time to rename the 1960s-era prank? Suggestions are welcome in the comments.”

The typical NPR listener offered this comment “Let's see...a car prank that is chaotic and leaves people behind. Why don't we call it ‘Republican carpooling’?” Another added: “In blue-collar land we always used the word ‘Texas’ to describe a job that's slapdash, improvised, and just barely good enough to hold for a few moments.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis