Because You Know Sometimes Words Have Two Meanings

The good thing about RSS readers is that they sometimes result in these serendipities where two people are talking about two different things, but because you read them in near proximity to each other, you start thinking about what it is that, in your mind connects them.

A while ago, I was talking to someone and she said, “You know, so-and-so is…”and then she lowers her voice in the way people do when they’re about to say some shit you’d rather not be complicit in but they’re going to try to make you complicit in it anyway, “…Mexican.”

And I was a little confused because she said “Mexican” like it was a slur, but the dude she was talking about really was Mexican.

And so I said, “Yeah, I know.”

And she just nodded, so I said, in a phrase so stupid I wish I could strike it from my vocabulary,”Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

And she smiles like we’ve just had this shared moment of racist bullshit and nods and walks off.

The Butcher and I were talking about it later, and he said he’s noticed that, too, how there’s a certain way people say “Mexican” that makes it clear that, for them, that’s a problem. But how, exactly, when it’s also just a benign fact, do you call a person on that?

You know and they know they mean it to mean something damning about the person, but they also know that, when called on it, they can hide behind the benign fact.

(Same thing, obviously, with the whole “Barak Hussein Obama” thing. Yes, it’s a bening fact and yes we all know it’s also being used as a slur and yet we all have to sit around and pretend as if the people using it as a slur don’t know that that’s what they’re doing, but instead are just pointing out a benign fact and we’re overreacting.)

So, anyway, I’m reading over at S-town Mike’s this quote from the ever charming Robin Smith, with the TNGOP, and she says something about the “anti-Jew minister” Farrakhan and, for me, this sends up enormous red flags and I’m about to come over here and write something about how, if you really want to talk about anti-Semitism, look at Smith calling Jewish people “Jews.” But see? It’s ridiculous. Jewish people are, in benign fact, Jews.

But, growing up in the almost completely white, completely Christians (where even the non-Christians were just Christians who’d stopped going to church) rural midwest of the 70s-90s, the most regular use of the term “Jew” was as a slur. You’re perceived as an unfair bargainer, you were said to “jew someone down.” The Jews, of course, killed Jesus. The Jews controlled Hollywood. So-and-so had a kind of Jew look.

And so, in my head, I’ve always semi-consciously made this distinction, that calling someone who is a Jew (in the factual sense of the word) a Jew is, at best, problematic. Far better to call that person a Jewish person, if, for some reason, I need to make reference to a person and his or her religion. And, in fact, I think this is a semi-conscious distinction a lot of people where I’m from make. If you use the term “Jewish person” or even just “Jewish,” you are seen, I think, as being PC in that way that makes people stop talking their casual vile shit around you.

And yet, it’s hard for me to even explain it. I look back over this stuff and I’m afraid it sounds stupid, or like I’m giving it too much thought and reading into stuff that’s not actually there. And yet, even here in Tennessee, I feel like, among non-Jewish white people, often using the term “Jew” and using the term “Jewish person” connote two different thing about your attitudes towards people who are different than you, in general. Though, I also think that it’s less clearly the case than it was back home.

All this is just a long way of saying that I see that term “anti-Jew” used by the TNGOP and I’m leary of it and yet, I feel like trying to articulate why I’m leary of it makes me sound like a crackpot. But it has to do with how the white people I know can turn benign fact into slur (and, obviously, this is just human nature and other people do this, too, but I’m talking about what I know and this is it).

But it’s that feeling of there being some kind of… secret, insider’s club of Whiteness… where two white people meet in a hall and one uses, say, the term “Mexican” or “Jew” to suss out of the other is also one of them–meaning also a like-minded white person who really gets how the world works–that I want to dwell on just for a second, too.

Over at Rachel’s Tavern, she’s talking about the phenomenon where a white person doesn’t get a job because it instead goes to a non-white person. I encourage you to read it, because she’s absolutely right about how “Many white Americans assume that they are somehow more qualified than the people of color who apply for the same job.”

But there’s an important moment in her post that I don’t want to overlook. The commentor says

I can’t get a full-time job at my school because I’m white. The administration (dean) has made it clear to the departments (hiring committees) that there WILL be 50% minority professors in all departments.

I love this moment, because I recognize it. I’ve seen white people do this to each other often. There will be a person, like the commentor in this case, who has a job that she or he is perfectly good at, but not what the higher-ups would think was the ideal person for that position. Now, the higher-ups have made it clear to the person or people directly responsible for hiring for that position that the ideal candidate would have different or better qualifications than the person they have in the job right now.

The person in the job right now is perfectly fine, just not as good a fit as the higher-ups would like.

But the hiring person doesn’t just want to say “Hey, sorry. You’re not right for the job.” because the hiring person likes the job applicant or is a little afraid of the job applicant or owes a favor to the job applicant’s brother, but cannot make the hiring of said job applicant said favor or whatever and so the hiring person evokes the secrect club of whiteness, “Hey, I would love to hire you. I think you’d be perfect for the job, but, well, you know, we have to hire 50% minority people and so I just can’t.” In other words, I think, what the hiring person is saying is “Hey, I recognize that you and I belong to the same secret club and, as members of the same secret club, I’m supposed to do what I can for you, when I can do it for you, but, see, if I hire you–after I’ve been explicitly told not to [the 50% minority hires part]–it will reveal that there’s a secret club where white people do for each other, help each other out when we can, and then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. So, what can I do? I’ve got to give the job to someone less well-qualified.”

It’s really rich in stuff going on. The white person doing the hiring gets to make use of whiteness in order to protect himself–“because you are also white, I will share with you why you cannot be hired (because, of course, I would totally hire you otherwise, so see, it’s not my fault, so please don’t direct your anger at me)”–the person not hired has the consolation both of still being a member of a privileged group (“I know the real reason I was not hired, a reason not shared with others”) and the consolation that it wasn’t his or her own lack of qualifications that kept him or her from the job, but an unfair order from above.

And because the whole conversation is framed around race in the way it is, both people bond over their shared whiteness and reaffirm for each other that white people deserve jobs in ways that other people don’t.

And, to loop it back around to the beginning of this giant post, all this happens in a way that’s very hard to call people on. When you hear that someone has told someone she didn’t get the job because the company is looking to hire more minorites, there is a way in which that may be a benign fact. The company may indeed be looking to hire more minorities. The person may, indeed, have not gotten the job because, when it came down to it, the company decided they’re rather have a non-white person in that position.

But when that reason is presented in the way it’s usually presented, it’s not at all benign. It is about reaffirming whiteness in really fucked up and damaging (to everyone, I think) ways.

Edited to add: Dolphin makes a good and similar point about “a gay.”