Monday, March 08, 2010

Shabbat shalom

At a recent Shabbat lunch, one of the other guests, Alef, was complaining about the offensive behavior of his youthful "white trash" neighbors. Nobody there but us Orthos, so it was OK to talk like that.

What are we to make of "white trash"? The most cynical explanation I can think of is that in Alef's opinion, blacks are trash by default and whites are not, so if whites are trash, you need to specify. I reject this explanation because I choose to. Another possibility is that Alef wanted to show his lack of racism--whether or not he actually lacks racism--by making it clear that the people he objected to were white. And since in most contexts it's unusual for us melanin-deficient people to say, "Well, this white person did whatever he or she did," he used "white trash."

Then one of the other guests, Beyt, who used to live near where Alef now lives, asked some questions about the family. Beyt recognized them as the people who moved into her old place. The mother in the family is the daughter of a respected Jewish professional, and she married a non-Jew.

Shock!, tohubohu!, foofaraw!, and balaganism! at the table. These kids are Jewish? These kids are Jewish! Vey'z mir!, gevalt!, shrek! Strong men weeping. Delicate ladies falling in vapours. Jewish people behaving obnoxiously? How can this be? And amid all the chaos, Alef was heard saying (and I'm not sure of the exact words--if I'd remembered my mp3 player, I would have recorded it), "Now that I know they're Jewish, I'm going to treat them better."

So now more questions arise. Had Alef been treating them abusively? If so, how would their not being Jewish have made that OK? Had Alef been reproving them appropriately? If so, why would he stop doing that because they're Jewish?

Another question, of course, is what a supposedly pious person--one who's into all this "image of God" stuff--is doing by calling anybody trash.

And if I'm sounding superior, that's unintentional, because my behavior at the table was unacceptable--I wimped out, didn't object to anything, sat on my mouth. As always.


Lisa said...

Well... you did refrain from using an MP3 player on Shabbat. That's worth a pat on the back.

There's a great song by They Might Be Giants called "Your Racist Friend". Here are the lyrics.

It's tough, because people really don't have much of a sense of humor when it comes to being called on their obnoxious chauvinism. Personally, I don't have as big a problem as maybe I should when it comes to the term "white trash", because it's pretty descriptive, and akin to redneck and trailer trash, in my experience. But the bit about now he's going to treat them better because they're Jewish? Feh. That's disgusting.

Michael Koplow said...

Lisa, to me "refrain" suggests intentionality. I wrote "if I'd remembered my mp3 player, I would have recorded it." So I don't deserve that pat on the back, and you wouldn't give me said pat anyway, me being a man and you being a woman and us both being pious children of Israel.

I'm not going to quarrel with you about "white trash" since I already gave my opinion, and you yourself said you should maybe be more of a problem for you. Maybe another time.

And thank you for the lyrics. I like them.

S. said...

Ha. That's a nice piece of writing.

As for the term white trash, another possibility is that people really don't think philologically unless their consciousness is raised about it as in other racial or ethnic slurs. The other day the verb "to Jew" came up, and I pointed out to (another Jew who understandably didn't like it) that she probably uses the verb "to gyp" without any malicious meaning. Not only does she use it without malicious intent, she had no idea that it referred to Gpysies at all. Presumably with things like to jew, or white trash the literal meaning is more front and center, but I would be shocked if most people who use these terms think about what really means. Its is of course amusing that once someone's consciousness was raised ("oh my, you mean they're Jewish?") they then realized how insulting it really is, but of course in this case in a very blind way.

Michael Koplow said...

S., I disagree. "White trash" is pretty straightforward; you don't need any etymological knowledge to know you're calling someone trash.

Here's a paper that may be interesting to you (or not): a review by Denis Dutton (baal Arts 'n' Letters Daily) of Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing

I think Dutton goes a little over the top in this article, and there's at least one place where he's disingenuous for the sake of a pretty good pun, but it's mostly good. If you read it, I'd be interested in your opinion.

S. said...

I mean that people don't think about it until their consciousness is raised. It's obvious what it means, but how nasty it is may not be that obvious, and I think that holds for "to jew" as well, at least outside of New York or a very Jewy place. Same thing when people try to show off their vocabulary and use pharisee for hypocrite or talmudic for contorted thinking. Very often they're not even subconsciously antisemitic.

In this case, your guy had his consciousness raised but in a telling turn of events, got a different message from what you intended (ie, he realized how nasty it was, but not that he shouldn't be so nasty to all people.)

Thanks for the link, Mike. I'll read that article and let you know what I think.