Is “Chinese whispers” racist?

Here’s something I’ve been pondering recently.

Is the phrase “chinese whispers” racist?

You may not know, because I didn’t know until I looked it up very recently, that the term is a very colonial one (late 19th, early 20th century British empire) and refers to a game which most of the rest of the world knows as “Telephone“.

As far as I have been able to determine, Chinese whispers is derived from another phrase, Chinese fire drill. Chinese firedrill is named after a fire drill done on a ship with Chinese crew who didn’t understand what was going on, the end result being it all got screwed up. It basically got blamed on the Chinese for being stupid.

So when something goes completely wrong due to incompetence or stupidity leading to mass confusion, it got called a Chinese firedrill, the implication being that Chinese are stupid, and they can’t communicate clearly.

I have been using the term “Chinese whispers” all my life (though not often, as I kind of grew out of this game fairly early on) without any thought to its origin. I have never heard the game of Chinese whispers referred to as telephone before so I suspect that most people in UK would be unfamiliar with it also (similar to how we know the song as “okey cokey” but the rest of the world knows it as “hokey pokey”).