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.”

15 thoughts on “Because You Know Sometimes Words Have Two Meanings

  1. If it helps, a lot of people tend to say Mexican when referring to anyone that hails from anywhere south of Texas or Arizona. But, seriously, I have people try that shit with ME! I usually just stare at them like I don’t get their meaning…but, sometimes, if ii am in a playful mood, I’ll riff with them a bit…perpetuate a stereotype or two, invent a new stereotype, whatever. Sometimes i adopt an Indian accent like the storeowner on the Simpsons. That always freaks people out.

    I’ve come to accept that many of these types of people aren’t necessarily saying this stuff to affirm their whiteness, in fact, often it has little to do with pigmentation and everything to do with assimilation. Your example doesn’t fit, of course, since this person’s ethnicity must not be readily apparent. You were being given news is how i read it.

    Of course, you white people kinda tickle me anyway…

  2. Well, in all fairness, it’s kind of fun to tickle you. You have a nice laugh. Other groups will probably start to tickle you, too, as they elect a delegation to send to the farm to chase you around and try to tickle you, too.

  3. My gramma always says “black” in the same way you described that person saying “Mexican.” Normal voice: “There’s this woman that works there…” Quiet, conspiratorial voice: “…and she’s black.” Like it’s a secret we need to get out there, but not so loud so people will hear it. Sometimes I wonder why this information is even necessary. If you have to mention the person’s race, then it seems to imply some kind of value judgment or information that you think that racial marker conveys.

  4. Yes, the word Jew as used in the way you described definitely is the way you describe–if not, the word used would have been “anti-semite” or “anti-semitic.” Talk about having your hate and eating it too….

    And Mexican as a racist term of derision: a friend of mine has a daughter adopted from South America. One of this daughter’s so-called friends recently said to her “You’re the cleanest Mexican I know.” So offensive on so many levels and in so many ways, including the fact that the speaker of this racist hatred is 16 years old.

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  6. Oddly enough, there ARE times where HR will not allow a person to be hired because they are white. You seem to imply that is not the case.

    Racism is not practiced only by whites.

  7. Gregg, you say “You seem to imply that is not the case.”

    But I said, “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.”

    So, what the fuck?

  8. Mack, I request you do this Indian impression next time I see you in person.

    Also, a pic of Sarcastro wielding the mighty chainsaw, I think would be funny.

    Yeah, it’s all about me and entertaining me.

  9. No, no, Lynnster, you must get him to tell you the story of his brother, pretending to be two different guys at work. That’s the really funny story.

  10. Gregg, I hate to break this to you, but people don’t get hired for all sorts of reasons, sound and trivial. One may be perfectly well qualified and the would-be boss wants to hire his dumbass brother-in-law. It’s a free country and the best guy doesn’t always get the job. One might be less qualified than the next feller, even if the next feller is a woman or a racial/ethnic minority or both. The other person with equal or slightly lesser qualifications might have stated a lower start salary requirement than you — many white men overestimate their potential worth in a tight hiring market and are unwilling to take a lower start salary to get a foot in the door.

  11. One time I couldn’t take it when someone said, “She’s…black.” to me in that confiding sort of way, so I leaned in and said, “So am I.” in exactly the same fashion.

    This is only amusing if you know how white I am, though.

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  13. It’s a free country and the best guy doesn’t always get the job.

    I’ll remember that when you get your thong in a knot over some preceived racial injustice.

    Or is that the only bad one? I lost my playbook.

  14. One qualified person who doesn’t get any one job in any one instance? Not a trend. A historic pattern of qualified people not getting specific categories of job over a period of years, all of whom share a specific attribute like skin color or sex? That’s a problem.

    See, here’s the thing. If I had the money to bet on it, I would bet that the person who told Gregg that HR wouldn’t hire him because Gregg was a white man was (wait for it) a white man. To me, that suggests that the company both hires and promotes white men — just not Gregg.

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