April 5-15, 2012

What a name!

There must be some ugly fun or at least an emotional release to be had in letting those racial slurs fly during the “What a Game!” baseball fan number. Interestingly, we’ve not yet discussed the show’s use of the n-word. And the k-word(s), the p-word, and the m-word. Maybe the script gives us the necessary permission and context to mollify any reservations. Maybe we’re avoiding a thorny conversation. Given recent furor over an ESPN headline about Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin and other ways in which Linsanity has provoked a debate over which public notices are an honor (Lin getting his own Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor) and which seem tinged with racial stereotypes (the inclusion of fortune cookies in said flavor) it seems that even if one believes we’re closer to a post-racial world, we’re still struggling with deeply-rooted notions about racial difference.

Since we staged “What a Game!” in the last rehearsal before Spring Break, it seemed the right time to look some history behind the epithets that appear in Ragtime. I will do my best to convey the rationale behind usages as objectively as possible, but I welcome a conversation in the comments to this post about these histories and the fact that I’d make a post about them at all. Do some (all?) seem part of a bygone era and therefore innocuous? Do they still bubble underneath daily conversations today, ready to erupt in moments of challenge, anger, or fear? Is reappropriation of slurs by groups they’re meant to denigrate a step forward towards empowerment or a step backward towards self-hate?

If you are interested in a deeper historical examination of the “melting pot,” particularly the complicated story of how certain immigrant groups came to understand themselves as “white,” check out historian David R. Roediger’s masterful book, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrant’s Became White. The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs.

The n-word

Double-sided Coke machine from Caldwell County Soda Machine Museum.

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia housed at Ferris State University (MI) has an amazing online database of some of the most outrageous images and text I’ve ever seen. The purpose of the museum is to preserve these relics of racism in popular culture so Americans might avoid cultural amnesia that would allow us to avoid or disavow the threads of racism that remain to this day.

Of course, you don’t have to travel to Michigan to see such artifacts. At the Greensboro Civil Rights Museum there’s a double-sided Coke machine, an example of machinery used across the Jim Crow South to assure that the bottled soda drunk by blacks and whites would stay as segregated as the businesses that served it.

From the museum’s “nigger and caricature” page:

The etymology of nigger is often traced to the Latin niger, meaning black. The Latin niger became the noun negro (black person) in English, and simply the color black in Spanish and Portuguese. In Early Modern French niger became negre and, later, negress (black woman) was clearly a part of lexical history. [...] It is likely that nigger is a phonetic spelling of the white Southern mispronunciation of Negro. Whatever its origins, by the early 1800s it was firmly established as a denigrative epithet. Almost two centuries later, it remains a chief symbol of white racism.

The word nigger carries with it much of the hatred and repulsion directed toward Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, and mocked African Americans. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal justification for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it reinforced the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless parasite. No other American ethnophaulism [defined as three types by social scientist Howard J. Ehrlich, 1) disparaging nicknames, 2) explicit group devaluations, and 3) irrelevant ethnic names used as a mild disparagement] carried so much purposeful venom, as the following [abbreviated] list [from Jonathan Green's 1985 The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang] suggests:

  • Niggerish, adj. Acting in an indolent and irresponsible manner.
  • Niggerlover, n. Derogatory term aimed at whites lacking in the necessary loathing of blacks.
  • Nigger luck, n. Exceptionally good luck, emphasis on undeserved.
  • Nigger heaven, n. a designated place, usually the balcony, where blacks were forced to sit, for example, in an integrated movie theater or church.
  • Nigger rich, adj, Deeply in debt but ostentatious.
  • Nigger stick, n. police officer’s baton.
  • Nigger work, n. Demeaning, menial tasks.

The (first) k-word

The origin of the term, “kike,” is a bit more difficult to trace. One history from a Soc.Culture.Jewish newsgroup connects the term to Jewish immigrant arrivals at Ellis Island:

One explanation is that the word kike originates from the word “keikl”, in Yiddish, which means “circle”. At Ellis Island, one of the main immigration check-in points, immigrants were initially grouped by religion and language in order to make it easier for them to communicate with each other and also to be identified more quickly by waiting relatives there to meet them. Christians were marked off with an ‘X’ which was likely really supposed to be a cross; Jews were marked with a circle which was really likely supposed to be the Star of David. It is easy to see how the staff could become sloppy at drawing these symbols as ‘x’ and ‘o’. The word “keikl” was used by the Jews making fun of the poorly drawn star; they referred to each other as being ‘circles’. Unfortunately, from this innocent usage, the term acquired a derogatory meaning.

Other origins are offered by Professor Kim Pearson’s (now archived) dictionary of slurs (2003-4). She is a professor of English and African-American Studies at the College of New Jersey.

c) Others argue that kike derives from a rhyme off of the last syllable of many Ashkenazi Jews’ last name, -sky or -ski. “Ki-ki” would have given way over time to kike, it is supposed. This theory is a bit counter-intuitive, however, since the syllables -sky or -ski are universally pronounced to rhyme with “key,” as opposed to “fly.” Hence one would assume, were this theory correct, that kike would be pronounced KEEK, which it most certainly is not.

d) Still others believe that kike derives from the German kieken, which means “to peep.” P. Tamony, quoted in Cassell’s Dictionary [of Slang] claims that Jewish clothing manufacturers “peeped” at fancy European haute couture, and then made cheap knock-offs.

Although any of these explanations could be truthful, only [the Yiddish, keikl] has the weight of strong oral history in its favor. All parties agree that the term was originally used by German Jews who had emigrated to the United States earlier in the 19th century to describe their later-arriving Ashkenazi counterparts. In its origins, kike was used by Jews to describe other Jews who they felt were vulgar, and from there it became appropriated as part of the American vocabulary of slang.

Kike is certainly the king of the pejorative terms for Jews in America, beating out yid, hymie, sheeny, and hebe hands down. Unlike yid, for instance, kike has never lost its bite, and is not considered funny by contemporary Jews. Although Jewish authors will use the term in their writing in order to accurately represent the hateful speech of others, they would not jokingly refer to themselves by that moniker. Kike has spread all over the English-speaking world, and can be heard in Great Britain and Australia.

The p-word

Pollack (or sometimes Polack) might seem comparatively innocuous to the other racial insults we hear in Ragtime. “Pollack jokes” aren’t the same kind of playground staple as they were when I was a kid (thank goodness). The conservative leaning Polish-American Journal argues that these jokes appeared for the first time in Nazi Germany as part of Hilter’s campaign to humiliate the Polish people as inferior. Hilter bolstered this insult by taking deliberate steps to eradicate the Polish educated class, steps aided and extended by Soviet Russia. This journal goes on to argue these jokes were brought to America by “Left-wing Hollywood sympathizers” (such as Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family). The PAJ offers no hard evidence of leftist racism except for the ubiquitous character of Polish jokes (and, I might add, a great deal of racially based humor) in 1960s and 1970s television and film. PAJ asserts that such jokes are now unacceptable because of the vigilance of Americans of Polish ancestry to call out insults, most recently and publicly done in 2008 when then Senator Arlen Spector (then R-PA) included a few “Pollack jokes” in remarks to a Republican State Committee luncheon.

Another source, Philosopher’s Playground, a blog maintained by Steve Gimbel, professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, offers an intriguing history of “Polish jokes.” He notes that the “-ak” suffix was commonly used in nineteeth-century Eastern Europe to denote a resident of a country: Polish people were “Pollaks” like Lithuanians were “Litvaks.” So, “[Pollak] became a derogatory term in English through usage, not derivation.” This assertion certainly makes sense within the world of Ragtime where we see a whole city, where new immigrants with “unusual” traditions and languages, clashing with established white communities that are carrying their own racial and ethnic baggage from the Civil War and Western expansion where the stronger forces often dismantled, muted, or destroyed other racial “others” (such as African slaves, the children born in America to African slaves, and Native Americans).

In addition to the terminology for “being from Poland” warping into a stand-in, insult for “being Polish” (i.e., being different), Gimbel asserts that “the Polish joke wherein the Pole is supposedly stupid seems to be a warping of the original meaning of the jokes.” These “original jokes,” Gimbel traces back to a small Jewish village in Poland and stories about the town’s Rabbis and their advice. From his 2006 post on the subject (emphasis mine):

as an educated guess I would put forward the possibility that Polack jokes derive from a series of Jewish jokes about the town of Chelm. Chelm was a small village in Poland and the jokes were about the townspeople, especially those who came to the Rabbis for advice with a problem. The advice always solved the problem…sort of.

The Rabbis of Chelm decided they had a problem when half the inmates of their prison claimed they had been wrongly convicted. So they built a second prison. Now they have one for the guilty and one for the innocent. [...]

My guess is that these jokes came over to America in the beginning of the 20th century with the European Jews immigrants. When they got here, some goyim asked where Chelm was. When they were told Poland they looked around and saw Polish immigrants right off the boat trying to figure out their new homeland, and lo and behold, Polack jokes. These strange new people are inferior, they are stupid.

But it’s Gimbel’s deeper exploration about how jokes a community tells about itself get transformed when others start using similar jokes to demean that community from the outside that resonated so strongly with me about how these words appear in “What a Game!” Gimbel again:

[...] Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, had a multi-faceted view of human nature [...]. There were different types of people and each had a stereotypical set of characteristics. There were butchers who were strong and strong willed, but not too bright. There were merchants who were clever, but not honest. Jewish wives were nags and their husbands intentionally obtuse. And there were Rabbis. Jewish scholars studied the Talmud with its cryptic circuitous reasonings and they were always lampooned as never quite having the reality thing figured out despite a sense to the contrary. The idea is that no matter who you are, there is a joke about you. There are a fixed number of types of people and everybody gets it evenly.

But when these jokes were taken out of the context of a world view in which there are multiple human natures and put into a cultural context in which there is a single picture of human nature. Now to have a joke about you is not to make you like everyone else, now it makes you less than everyone else. Because there is a single sense of what a human ought to be, we can rank people according to how well they meet that standard. Jokes at your expense aren’t appreciative ribbing of your place in the web, they are marks of your inferior position along the chain. In this switch, the jokes became weapons that they were not before. By making a joke about you, I put myself above you in a way that did not exist in the earlier context.

The (second) k-word

Cambridge Dictionaries Online has an “About Words” blog that discusses the origin of “kraut” in an entry titled “Food Fights,” exploring how racial insults may be derived from a nation’s culinary tastes. Notice the story of its early use on the baseball field!

English speakers have disparaged the French as frogs since at least the seventeenth century, and the Germans as krauts since the nineteenth. The first refers to the French liking for frogs’ legs, the second to the German appetite for sauerkraut. Both insults may be employed  in various ways. [...] the Germans have been called kraut-eaters, kraut-faces, and kraut-heads. And it follows naturally that they talk Kraut and that their national home is Krautland.

Though dated to 1841 in The Oxford English Dictionary, the term wasn’t used widely until the twentieth century, when it was popularized during World Wars I and II. An early example of the personal kraut-head comes from Ty Cobb, the great Detroit Tigers baseball player, who announced his intention to steal second base during the 1909 World Series, telling the equally great Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner: “Hey, kraut-head, I’m coming down on the next pitch,” which he did, getting the base plus three stitches, where Wagner tagged him in the mouth with the ball. This anecdote has to be taken with a grain of salt, not having been committed to writing until forty years afterwards, but it accurately reflects Cobb’s fierceness as well as the spirit of the times.

If this k-word seems rather harmless, consider a BBC story from 2001 when the UK’s advertising watchdog, the Advertisers Standards Authority, “ruled that the word Kraut is a light-hearted reference to a national stereotype.” Reactions were decidedly mixed with the German attache very displeased that the disparaging term wasn’t being taken more seriously (not least because it continues connecting the German people with a food, he argued, most do not eat). The BBC countered this argument with its own question about whether the stereotype of the “humorless German” wasn’t being proven a reality by this response.

The m-word

Perhaps it’s fitting to close this post by examining the epithet attached to Irish immigrants since the coming week includes St. Patrick’s Day. According to The Language of Ethnic Conflict by Irvin L. Allen (Columbia UP, 1983), “mick” has its origins in the nineteenth-century and though specifically tied to the Irish, Catholics as a whole were often termed “micks” in colloquial speech. From what I can find, the reasons are tied to names: the frequency of the first name “Michael” in Irish families (a transformation of Mike to Mick) and the frequency of the “Mc” prefix in Irish surnames. I’ve also found unsupported assertions that “Mick” sounds like “hic” as in “hiccup,” making a link between the slur and alcohol consumption among the Irish. Also, that the work refers to “ickies,” the open coals upon which many Irish immigrants cooked their potatoes. Certainly the first and surname origins make the most sense, but we can see with the other stories how much stereotypes and communal practices get connected to slurs. And, as with Pollack, it wasn’t enough that “Mick” = Irish, it also meant a particular type of Irish (usually) man: large, loud, loutish laborer who loves liquor and giving others a lickin’ (as in fist fight). There are some interesting sources that trace the “tangled roots” between Irish-Americans and African-Americans in the nineteenth century and others that explore the role Irish immigrants (and US Army deserters) played in the US-Mexican War (1846-1848).

Although the frequency of this term has faded, just last year CT state representative Themis Klarides (R-Derby and the VP of the state Republican Party) found herself subject to public criticism (from Democratic party leaders) for retweeting the slur against Governor Dannel Malloy (D). She later issued the non-apology apology that has become de rigueur in politics today: “Apparently today I retweeted a comment authored by someone else that contained a slur against the governor. If you know me, you know that I would never use these words myself. The intent of the RT (retweet) was to highlight the hypocrisy of the administrations’ actions. If that author’s words offend anyone, I apologize.”

And, just last week, the Chairman of the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs sent a letter to the CEO of Urban Outfitters in protest of a new line of “alcohol themed” St. Patrick’s Day merchandise. The letter read, in part:

“By selling and promoting these items, Urban Outfitters is only fueling stereotypes that many Irish Americans, as well as the people of Ireland, work so hard to dispel.”

“We understand that such items may have been created with the intent of good humor. And, as members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs, we know that Irish and Irish Americans often revel in self-deprecating and blunt humor. However, we believe these items represent a step too far, crossing a line into stereotyping and denigration.”

This letter was not the only protest. America’s oldest Irish organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), and the Irish Anti-Defamation Federation have organized public protest campaigns, joined by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to call on the store to pull the materials. Who knows if they’ll be successful. Urban Outfitters has weathered these kinds of complaints before, the most recent being October 2011 when it quickly rebranded a series of “Navajo” products (everything from purses to panties) as “patterned” or “Southwest print” under threat of a lawsuit by the Navajo Nation. Maybe we just shifted fields where slurs and stereotypes are alive and well in the twenty-first century from baseball to the mall.

1 Comment

  1. Jules Odendahl-James's Gravatar Jules Odendahl-James
    March 18, 2012    

    Not to belabor my own points, but I noticed two stories during the week of March 12 that illustrate how much racist language and stereotypes are alive and well in “post-racial” America. The first was about a campaign ’12 bumper sticker reading “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012″ on a red, white & blue background with a circle/line through Obama’s campaign symbol. Since an image of a car displaying the sticker went viral on Facebook and got picked up by the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/racist-anti-obama-sticker_n_1349423.html?, the company that sold the stickers has deleted the item though still offers confederate pride and other anti-Obama materials. And, a story out of Virginia where a ninth-grader was directed by his English teacher to “read blacker” when he recited a Langston Hughes poem for an assignment. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/fairfax-investigates-allegation-of-racially-insensitive-behavior-by-high-school-teacher/2012/03/15/gIQA6IyGHS_story.html?tid=pm_local_pop

    I was sad to see in the public comment threads to these stories charges of fabrication, exaggeration, and over-sensitivity being tossed around. So not only do we have a long way to go to eradicate racism but when it appears, when people say they have been hurt by insults and stereotypes, the possibilities for productive conversations about redress, respect, and community seem sadly elusive as well.

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