Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Sticks and stones...

If common ethnic references bother you, keep moving. And no flames - violators will be published. As for you Mexicans, you're all.....Mexicans!

Boy, it's a good thing I'm not a professional basketball coach or I could lose my job for that one. Alright, Issel actually quit, and he didn't stop with "Mexican". But really, how far does this silliness go? How did we get to this point where something like this is called racist? Would the heckler have liked it any better if he had been called an Anglo "piece of (excrement)", or just "piece of (excrement)"?

It's possible for anyone to slip. When you're raised around a word that's used casually, it can creep into your usage innocently. Just ask Cruz Bustamante, who said he was trying to say "negro" when what came out was "nigger". (He's lucky he's a Democrat or he never would have survived that one politically. You can even be an ex-KKK member if you're a Democrat)

Of course "nigger" isn't the only poisoned word, and I learned a few others at an early age. For instance, my home town had a very few Mexicans, and I heard 'spic' once in a while. Forget about Asians, even in movies and on TV - I had an idea of what they looked like from National Geographic and Charlie Chan, and I never heard the word "gook" until it showed up on M*A*S*H. Likewise for Indians (you know who I mean).

The rest of us were lily-white Catholics (fisheaters) and Protestants, with a few Jewish families right out of the stereotype (a banker, a lawyer, a doctor, and a merchant). Ethnically we were mostly German (krauts), Irish and Italian (dagos, with an occasional wop). I don't recall anyone being picked on for ethnic reasons, but kids don't need a reason to be mean. One family was given a hard time because they were pretty ragged looking and had filthy personal habits, but they were as white as everybody else. You'd hear a slur now and then, but I don't recall any adults ever telling me to hate any particular group, and I didn't.

The surrounding area had some diversity, as long as you're talking Europeans. The 'bohunks' (eastern Europeans such as Poles ("polacks")) lived to the northwest, with Swedes were to the west of them. Farther west yet, in Moline, IL, I understand there is the highest concentration of Belgians in the US. Go up the Mississippi from there and it's thick with Dutch - the tulip motif is everywhere.

In about any other direction it was thick with krauts with a few Mennonites, and if you went far enough into the sticks you could still hear farmers with strong German accents.

To the west and a bit south there was Pekin, IL. I don't think there ever were many Chinese there. But the town was named for the Chinese city now called Beijing, and until political correctness set in, their high school teams were called the "Chinks".

My family moved South while I was in junior high school. At this point I hadn't been around any appreciable number of blacks unless we happened to venture somewhere like the south side of Chicago, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I did know that all of the people I had ever met that had a certain accent seemed to be trashy, and I later learned that that was a Southern accent.

There my vocabulary expanded more. I learned that "nigger" was a universal prefix for anything inferior. While fishing I caught a gar - it was a "nigger bass". Anything makeshift was a "nigger rig". Having a few extra bucks made you "nigger rich". Once we trapped a mean old raccoon - a neighbor took it down to "niggertown", got it skinned and gave me the hide. On the flip side, if somebody did something for you and made a big deal of it, you could say "that's mighty white of you".

I don't know if any of these ever really influenced my perceptions. Although as a babyfaced Yankee kid I was hazed a little, I never had any trouble getting along with my black schoolmates, and the only ones who did really asked for trouble. That might have had something to do with a stereotypical Southern sheriff who ran the county with an iron fist, but I don't think so.

About the only secret to getting along was to refrain from using "nigger" or any number of others ("jigaboo" being my favorite - where did that come from?). I thought it was a bit much to make such a fuss over some words, but it didn't cramp my style too much. It just meant that I had more word to censor along with the classic Anglo-Saxon ones. I suppose things would have been easier if I'd never heard them, but that's not realistic - the world is what it is.

Sometime in this period "All in the Family" showed up on TV. Produced by archliberal Norman Lear, the conservative character's dialogue was filled with words that were new to me, especially for Jews. Some of them amused me - "kike" in particular seemed funny. At this point about all I knew about Jews was from TV coverage of Israel, so I didn't know that certain words carried a lot of freight justifiably or not. Anyway, I used "kike" once with reference to a Jewish kid who was new to the neighborhood, simply as a neutral description like "red-haired", meaning absolutely no harm. From that day forward he avoided me and his parents were usually good for dirty looks. Whoops, better scratch that one too.

Then came "Blazing Saddles". I'm not sure you could make a movie with so much ethnic humor in it today. Call me a troglodyte if you want, but it was funny.

All I'm trying to say is that these words can be used innocently, and there's no point in anyone going around with a chip on their shoulders. You'll know if I'm putting you down, @#@$%.

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