Monday, November 26, 2012

Involuntary Anti-Semitism: Confronting Ignorance

I like to think that we live in a more enlightened age, where people are cognizant of speech that is offensive. Racial slurs, comments pertaining to sexual orientation in a derogatory manner, jokes about women (or men, for that matter) - these are all things that a modern, intelligent, education person should know are not acceptable.

You would think, right? Something happened to me today that made me wonder how prejudicial language could become normalized to the point where the person speaking the language has no clue that he or she is being offensive.

I was shopping with a friend of mine for an item in a store that was having a "buy one, get one half off" kind of sale. At first, he was going to get something, and then I was going to get another item with the discount. My friend changed his mind and decided to get two things for himself.

Our young, bubbly salesperson who up until that point was being very helpful, looked at me and said in her cartoon-ish voice, "Looks like you're getting jewed."

My friend and I were silent. Did I hear her correctly? She gave me another chance to clarify. "Yup, he jewed you." I still could not believe what I was hearing.

"Did she just say, 'jewed'?" I asked my friend, in a whisper. He nodded.

Let me explain that this young woman was very, how shall I put it? - unsophisticated. I had shopped in this store before, found her very friendly, albeit a bit chatty to a point of being somewhat too personal. I chalked it up to a personality thing combined with perhaps bad boundaries. In any case, she did nothing to put me off coming back to the store, which specializes in the particular item of which we were in search.

I had a sneaking suspicion that she honestly had no idea that the term she just used was offensive. She also had no idea that the customer she happened to say that too was Jewish. I have a degree in secondary education. This was what we would call a 'teachable moment.'

When it came time to pay, she noticed my friend had by now left the store, appearing to have stuck me with the bill. Actually, he has been suffering from a leg problem and needed to go somewhere to sit down, but I played along. Guess what she said? "Looks like he jewed you again."

"I have some friendly advice for you," I began. "Using the term 'jew' in that manner is offensive. I happen to be Jewish and I wanted to let you know this, because somewhere along the line you're going to say that to someone and they are going to get very upset."

She was immediately apologetic. "I am so sorry," she said. "To me, it is just a word used to mean what I was saying." She meant that my friend screwed me over. Usually, that particular epithet is also used to refer to someone who is cheap.

I compared her use of the word 'jew' to the way my classmates and I used to use the word 'gay' in elementary school, to refer to someone being stupid. At that point, I did not realize that the word also referred to a group of people and as such, using the word in that manner was insulting to them.

Apparently there are people still left in the world who also don't realize that using 'jew' as a verb is offensive. They don't understand that using the word in that manner is offensive to Jewish people (and should be offensive to everyone, for that matter). A close friend of mine used to use the word in that manner, until he met my brother and later me. He told me that we were the first Jewish people he had ever met, and suddenly 'jew' had a face and a name. It wasn't just some word any more to mean a cheap swindler or a method of haggling.

Back to the young woman in question. She kept going on and on that she did not mean anything bad by saying that, and that we're all the same people of flesh and blood and she actually is not prejudiced against anyone. And you know what? I believe her. I believe that she just seriously did not know that what she was saying was inappropriate. I shudder to think what could have happened if she happened to use those lines on someone other than me.

My friend later told me that he at first did not know if he was hearing her correctly, and was shocked. He was also concerned for how I was going to react. I told him how I handled the situation and he agreed that it was the appropriate thing to do.

I could have reacted in a number of different ways. I could have asked my friend to quietly put down our merchandise and leave the store, never to return. I could have lost my temper and thrown a fit. I could have ignored it and done absolutely nothing. I could have contacted the store's management when I returned home.

Of utmost importance to me was making sure the young woman knew her language was offensive, why it was offensive, and to hopefully ensure it never happens again. Everything happens for a reason, and I think that is why we ended up at this store and she just coincidentally happened to speak that way to a Jewish person (in case you are wondering, my coat was concealing my Star of David - there was no way she would have known I was Jewish).

When we are confronted with ignorance, we have a responsibility to speak up. In most cases, the other person is not a hardcore racist or anti-Semite. Just like this young woman, they are most likely just unaware. Usually, all we have to do is make a simple statement identifying someone's words or behaviour as not acceptable. If we remain silent, we're being just as ignorant as the offender.

Postscript: I purposely did not name the store, the shopping centre where it is located, or the items for which we were shopping. I honestly believe this woman meant no malice and I feel the situation has been resolved appropriately. So, if you ask, I am not going to tell.


Linda Leibovitz said...

Well said Paula!

Linda Leibovitz said...

Please read Paula Kirman's latest blog!;e

JWinslowYEG said...

Well put Paula. I handle that about the same way, though I like them to be completely red in the face when I am done.