The Myth of Round-eye
27 May 2006
We English speakers have at our disposal an astounding variety of racial slurs. I don’t need to give a list here; we all know it to be true. I think one of the most interesting slurs is “round-eye” because it seems to be invented by the very group of people to whom it refers.
If you’re not familiar with the term, it frequently shows up on racist websites or websites that play up the East/West divide (but not on certain ones–more on this below). It is also used seemingly innocuously at times. It’s supposed to be a term that Asians use for non-Asians.
It may be obvious to many Asians, but as a white American, I didn’t notice anything strange about the way the term is used until after living in China for some time. The truth is, I’ve never heard any Chinese (or Japanese) refer to whites or any non-Asians as “round-eyes,” in Chinese or any other language. At times non-Asians in China might get called hairy, simian, uncivilized, or even evil, but never round-eyed.
The reason for this is simple. While non-Asians often see Asian eyes as “slanted,” Asians do not see themselves that way. If you ask a Chinese person about the difference between Chinese and white people’s eyes, for instance, they will tell you that white people’s eyes are often blue, but Chinese eyes are “black.” In addition, white people’s eyes are usually much deeper set, and all seem to have the “double eyelids” that the Chinese find attractive. What they don’t say is that “their eyes are rounder than ours.”
I think it’s pretty obvious where this racial slur came from. The logic went something like this:
> Asians have slanted eyes, but we don’t. Asians’ most readily identifiable feature, to us, is their slanted eyes. So our most readily identifiable feature to them must be our non-slanted, or round, eyes. We can’t understand what they call us in their languages, but it’s gotta be round-eye!
The fact is that the Asians themselves just don’t see it that way. I’ll admit that I’m basing most of what I’m saying on my own personal experience in China, and to a lesser extent my experience in Japan. It’s possible that some groups of Asians use this term, maybe as a reaction to being called “slanty-eyed” by racists. However, I suspect that it is a wholly non-Asian invention, and that the most likely Asian groups to use it would be ones living as minorities in the West.