Posted on: July 26, 2012
Bitch, Hoe, Slut, Shiksa
Coon, Blackie, Nigger, Schvartze
Christ Killer, Dirty Jew, Kyke
Towel Head, Camel Jockey, Sand Nigger
Are they simply words? Does it depend on who’s listening? Are they okay when used behind closed doors? Does it matter that it may not be understood by the intended person? Should we simply not use them?
Race and Racism-Get over it! Why are you so hung up on race? Why are you painting Jews as racist people? Don’t you, can’t you find anything other to write about?
The first lesson in blogging is to never read the comments. I generally follow that rule, but felt compelled to answer some of those questions on the piece I wrote for The Sisterhood.
Confession-I’ve said “Don’t Jew me”
I had no idea what it meant, I didn’t understand how it could be hurtful, but when I said it while working at a retail store in Toledo, Ohio in front of one of only two Jewish friends I had I saw the hurt and disbelief registered in his eyes. I’d heard it before-from friends maybe family members, but it didn’t occur to me that in saying it, the way that I was saying it was hurtful-whether I meant to or not I hurt him. He and I talked about the phrase and discussed the mutual pain of language and remained friends. Does this make me a self-hating Jew? Am I a Jew-hater because I made one stupid mistake in 2001?
To say that a word-schvartz*, which does mean black doesn’t have the same meaning as schvartzer is absurd, in my opinion. To call someone a schvartzer is not the same as saying my schvartz car. Would it be okay to say, I only meant kyke to describe someone who was a Jew or I only meant bitch because I was describing a woman. or I only meant beaner as a joke…or whatever terrible and stupid excuses you made for yourself.
Do I think all Jews are racist? No. Do I think all blacks are racist? No. Do I think all white folks are racist. No. Do I think that some Jews are racist? Yes. Do I think some blacks are racist? Yes. Do I think that some white folks are racist?Yes. Are some people racist? Yes. Being black or Jewish doesn’t make you immune to racist actions, thoughts or words. In fact, I am sometimes a racist. I’ve been conditioned to think that Arabs or anyone who looks like they could be Arab could be (most likely is) a terrorist. I’ve been conditioned to think that a group of black men probably want to do me harm. I’ve been conditioned to think that a group of white men with southern accents want to do me harm. As women, we’re taught to walk on the other side of the road if it’s late or dark and a man is approaching, be even more cautious if said man is black or Latino. As a result, I do clutch my bag tighter if I pass a group of men on my walk home. I walk faster if it’s getting dark. I’ve walked an indirect route to avoid the streets I know young men congregate. And I can hear former President Bush’s voice in my head warning me about “terrists” when I see a man with brown skin getting on my flight. Obviously, I don’t have these thoughts all of the time but, I’m not afraid to say that sometimes I do have racist and prejudice thoughts. I’m not willing to pretend that they don’t exist because they do!
In New York City police officers stop and frisk men because of the color of their skin. An unarmed child with Skittles in his pocket was shot and killed. When I worked retail no matter how many times we told our associates that thieves can be anyone, our walkie talkies came to life when groups of black women came into our store. We’re skeptical of people who are different than we are and throughout American history words have been created and used by the majority to put those people in their place.
So why do people make excuses for the racist words we speak rather than admitting that we use them? Furthermore, why should I shut up just because speaking my truths about my experiences as a black, lesbian Jew by choice have sometimes been less than ideal? Should I give up my Jewish identity because of a few superbly stupid individuals?
It is my believe that Jews (and all monotheistic religions) have an obligation laid out in our tradition to treat people equally. It’s not fluffy, pseudo new-age babble it’s written in Torah. Moreover shouldn’t it be human practice to treat everyone equally with dignity and respect because it’s simply the right thing to do? It’s not a Jewish thing or a Christian thing or a Muslim thing or an Atheist, Buddhist or Mormon thing, it’s basic respect and kindness. The words we put out into the world, especially about another person should be thoughtful, kind and honest, not words that bring pain or sadness.
I’m being bullied to just shut my mouth and be a good, quiet Jewish woman rather than standing up for the (to borrow a phrase from a friend) complete fuckery that people pretend doesn’t exist in the Jewish community. And frankly, I’m tired of the excuses.
*From my conversation with Edward Portnoy, Linguist at Rutgers University:
“Shvarts” means “black” in Yiddish. It’s a simple adjective, just like in English. To turn it into a noun, you add “er” or “e” on the end (for masculine and feminine variants). The origins of the word’s use for African-Americans is kind of murky. It’s a slang term that’s part of the spoken language, so there’s no real way to find out how its use began. One can make a simple conjecture that because it means “black,” Jews used it as a kind of code when they spoke English. There’s a possibility that it may have begun innocently, because the most common usage in the Yiddish press before the 1960s was “neger,” which is the Yiddish variant of “negro,” the term of choice in most of the English language press. Using the Yiddish “neger” in English probably sounded too close to the n-word and, as a result, speakers may have moved to “shvartser” as a replacement. So it may not initially have been derogatory. On the other hand, it may have been. It really depends on who’s talking and what the situation was. I’d say that anyone who uses it today is using it derogatorily, since it’s meaning is now well known. When your dealing with a group of immigrant Yiddish speakers who are moving into English and don’t have full command of it, its use can be acceptable. But if it’s used by someone whose mother tongue is English, I think it’s a different story.