My boyfriend and I are having an argument over the word “shvartze,” which is how he sometimes refers to African-American people. He is from the South and insists that it is a cultural term and isn’t meant in any kind of derogatory or racist way. I am from California, and I think it’s just rude to say things like “the shvartze at the Quick-Mart gave me the wrong change” or ” that’s a shvartze neighborhood, lock you doors.” I was taught by my Jewish parents not to differentiate people by their color, religion or sexual identity. My boyfriend’s family is always making comments about African-Americans and other minorities as if it’s still the 1950’s. I love my boyfriend and respect his family, but in this day and age, shouldn’t politically incorrect terms like this be laid to rest?
– P.C. in D.C.
Yo, P.C.!: The word “shvartze” literally means “black” in Yiddish and was used as a neutral descriptive noun for things and people back in the Old Country (it was also applied to the strictly religious for their black clothing.) In an English context, it became a pejorative term for the servants used by Jewish Americans and is still employed by older generations to refer to people of color, particularly in the South. Whether or not your boyfriend and his family mean any harm, the word is unmistakably negative, and yes, racist. No one ever wants to believe they’re racist, particularly us Jews. It must have been us who invented “political correctness” in the first place since many of us are extremely sensitive at being singled out for our Jewishness. Even in benign instances when a non-Jewish person refers to “that Jewish guy” rather than “that dude with the buck teeth” or “those old Jewish ladies who push past you on the subway” instead of those “rude biddies with shopping bags,” we don’t like it when someone sticks the “Jewish” label on our heads. (Unless, of course, it’s another Jew. Then we kibbitz.)
The reasons for our collective over sensitivity are understandable, and logically, this protective feeling should extend to other groups that have been historically oppressed. But it doesn’t; the prejudices of certain Jews are our dirty little cultural secret. With respect to our shtetl ancestors, ‘shvartze’ is one Yiddish word that deserves to be lost. And while we’re going there, ‘shiksa,’ the term for a non-Jewish girl that has been delightfully usurped by the mainstream (it’s in the dictionary!) has similarly offensive origins. But how do you deal with your boyfriend and his family?
Certainly, it is your duty as a Jew to speak out against racism and prejudice. But you could make yourself meshuggeh micromanaging the vocabulary choices of the rest of the world. With your boyfriend, you can just tell him to sheket p’vakasha until he can come up with an inoffensive way to describe other people. His parents are a bit trickier, since you may be branded “difficult” or worse, “Californian,” for suggesting that their Southern ways are anything less than moral. It would be inappropriate to start ranting at them in the middle of a restaurant, but you can bring up the subject in a quiet way if you feel like opening the doors to such a discussion. If you’re feeling more passive-aggressive and the word comes into your conversation, you could just stare at the speaker blankly and say “did you mean that person over there?” or “I could have sworn you just said ‘shvartze.’ I didn’t know people still used that word. It’s a bit outdated, don’t you think?”
You may never be able to change anyone’s mind or force them to stop identifying others by race and religion and stick to neutral characteristics, but you can acknowledge to your boyfriend and his parents that any kind of racism has no place in civilized society. If they’re good people, they will realize this on their own.