Monday, January 16, 2012

I didn't mean it like that

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Someone called me a “Jew bag” recently. It was not in the context of two people, of the same tribe, ribbing one another in that way that people of the same tribe can and do…Not to mention this is not an anti-Semitic slur I’m familiar with (and I think of myself as pretty informed of anti-Semitic slurs. I always think it’s good to know these things). I also am not one to use anti-Semitic slurs to be funny—even in an ironic way.

This came out of the blue and really didn’t fit the context of the situation: A bunch of friends who hadn’t seen each other in awhile getting together…and we were not discussing anything about race or religion.

The comment came after I received my drink order from the waiter and saw that it was wrong, asking the waiter to change it:
 “You Jew bag.”
When I asked the person why they called me a “Jew bag” they said it was because I complained…ha, ha, ha.

I’m not going to play the painful and embarrassing scene out beyond that. I will tell you that the upshot of the incident is that the person later said, “I didn’t mean it like that…” My response: I hugged the person and moved on.

Obviously I really haven’t.

I can’t help but replay those words I didn’t mean it like that.
So how did s/he mean it?
***

Disclaimer: I am not mad at this individual. What I am is scared…not of the individual…but of what will happen after you read this. As I share it with the world, I’m pretty confident there will be some kind of negative response mixed in with empathy. But the negative will stay with me far longer.

But, I’m more afraid of is what happens if I don’t share this with you. If I am silent, I don’t have the opportunity to tell you why this remark was hurtful and wrong...

***
Someone said to me that what happened was a “teachable moment”, that it was my duty to inform the person that what they said was wrong, and I should tell them why it was wrong, why it wasn’t funny to me.

That, of course, made me feel responsible for the remark.

When I said to the individual that s/he had crossed the line, s/he said, Why? What do you mean? You talk about being Jewish all the time…implying that since I make self deprecating (note: ironic) comments about myself, the remark was okay.

Was it?
***

In the moment that s/he said those words “Jew bag”, I felt unsafe, and as I responded to it in the moment, as I gathered the courage not to pretend it away, or laugh it off as I have in the past, as I actually defended myself, I found that the people around me (who heard it) were speechless (some hadn’t heard the remark), or if they did come to my defense, I didn’t hear it. The feeling of confusion and hurt cut deeper and deeper until we all left, and it was over.

I’m left with two questions haunting me:

Why was it wrong for me to defend myself?
Why do I still feel so responsible for the remark?

***

Defining myself as a Jew seems to be tinged with apologizing and making self deprecating remarks…I do this to some how diffuse the bomb that might go off if I don’t…Almost an anticipated counter-attack. Why do I feel the need to block a potential attack? I don’t have an answer to that. It’s funny when you make fun of your own tribe, because it is ironic. But when someone else does, it just feels threatening.

When I relayed the story to a friend and fellow tribeswoman of mine, she suggested that maybe this person feels close enough to me to think that s/he can make these remarks, as if s/he were an honorary member of the tribe…For me, no matter how I look at the incident, no matter how much I try to understand the other side, the remark hurt and caused something inside of me to wonder…



10 comments:

mima said...

Hannah! I'm responding to your post before taking the kind of time I really need to think more deeply about what you've written. Still, wanted you to know that I'm sorry about this bummer occurance, that I applaud your courage in sharing it, and that I'm sending you one of those sort of, a tiny little bit satisfying *cyber-hugs*. Dang, words are powerful!

Lisa Champagne said...

Hi Hannah.
Your writing about this experience and confused feeling about it are timely. There has been an explosion of responses to the Sh*T White Girls Say to Black Girls video, much of which is exactly the mixed bomb you anticipate.
All the excuses (which include comments such as "I didn't mean it that way' or 'I feel close enough' etc) don't give people a pass for being culturally insensitive. Even if 'bag' isn't a known insult, it still feels yuck. If the person had said N-bag, would they have been able to make the same disclaimer??
I think you did the right thing by speaking up. People don't like getting caught in awkward moments or having unconscious flaws exposed, but it's within your rights to do so.
It would be great if we were really so advanced that bigoted comments had no meaning. We're not. They still hurt.
xo

Lisa Champagne said...

Hi Hannah.
Your writing about this experience and confused feeling about it are timely. There has been an explosion of responses to the Sh*T White Girls Say to Black Girls video, much of which is exactly the mixed bomb you anticipate.
All the excuses (which include comments such as "I didn't mean it that way' or 'I feel close enough' etc) don't give people a pass for being culturally insensitive. Even if 'bag' isn't a known insult, it still feels yuck. If the person had said N-bag, would they have been able to make the same disclaimer??
I think you did the right thing by speaking up. People don't like getting caught in awkward moments or having unconscious flaws exposed, but it's within your rights to do so.
It would be great if we were really so advanced that bigoted comments had no meaning. We're not. They still hurt.
xo

cindyzelman said...

Hi Hannah,

I agree with your friends about the courage it took to write and post this. I think it isn't just the word "bag" that was the insult; and that the insult would have been as bad/worse if whomever had said, "You Jew!" in the same situation.

I think we all have prejudices within us. I fight my own inner demons all the time. I admire you for taking a stand in broad daylight, for letting people know that such a remark is hurtful and there is no, "I didn't mean it that way," excuse.

It's the equivalent to "That's so gay," or that person I quoted to you who used to say, "What is it with YOUR people?" meaning lesbians.

You've had the courage to take your writing talent and investigate this kind of issue. I have yet to do so because of the backlash I don't want to hear.

Kudos to you, Hannah. Thanks for the inspiration.

In either case, it's a put down.

Writerwomyn said...

Lisa, Cindy,and Mima, I appreciate your support and intelligent words about this. It still surprises me how deeply I am affected by words. xo H

Janice said...

Hi Hannah,

I just want to commend you on standing up for yourself in this situation. Too often, when someone hurts us we tend to try to laugh it off and let the hurt steep.

Your 'friend' had no right to say such a thing, and to try to write it off as, "I didn't mean it that way!" only adds insult to injury. Just the implications of "that way" means this person is well aware of why such a remark would hurt. They just didn't have the level of courage necessary to own up to it.

You are 100% right for defending yourself. And you shouldn't think of it as feeling responsible for the remark - s/he is responsible for that AND for putting you in the uncomfortable position of having to respond.

Bottom line is, you took a stand to combat the insensitive, negative stereotypes that people so casually throw around and then try to cover up as "just kidding."

People need to start taking ownership of their mistakes, and when they hurt someone they need to make it right, not make excuses.

Chris said...

Very poignant. I'm glad you said and wrote something. Dialogue and honest communication are the best tools for handling this type of thing (IMHO). Sometimes people truly don't understand how their words effect others; we expect them to 'get it' because we do. It was probably a "learning moment" for your friend and by standing up you may have helped them become more aware, which can only be helpful to them and those around them from this point forward.

I know I have learned a thing or two after blurting out something stupid and realizing it immediately afterwards. Tough way to learn a lesson, but it's still a lesson!

Jacque said...

HG,
You already know how I feel about this. But, I did want to commend you for the courage it takes to talk about it in an open forum. *tipping my hat*

Faye R. said...

Hannah,

As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, my comments might come across as a bit strident -- but here they are. Whoever said such an idiotic, insensitive, anti-Semitic thing to you (because there's no dressing this up as anything other than anti-Semitic) deserved whatever you gave them You felt scared, but you reacted strong -- and a strong reaction is what this deserved. I can't imagine what I would have done in this situation, but I can promise you it wouldn't have ended with a hug.

It's one thing to make light of certain aspects of one's culture -- for example, to joke that someone is a typical Jewish mother if they are encouraging you to eat -- but that's a very different thing than putting one or one's self DOWN for any aspect of one's culture -- real or completely untrue/stereotyped. What was this person saying -- that it's a Jewish thing to complain? Please.

Be strong. Be proud. Frankly, f**k them. You're not responsible for the remark -- that "friend" is. I hope he/she is half as upset about the situation as you are, but I doubt it.

Going out on a limb here, but sometimes when something is really eating away at me, I realize, belatedly, that what I really am is angry. I can't say that's what you're feeling, but I sure am, after reading this -- and the anger is not at you, believe me.

Don't let idiots take up one more minute of your time, or one more ounce of your life. Speaking up is the very best thing you could have done, in my (probably should be more humble but this topic hits close to home) opinion.

Faye

Writerwomyn said...

Faye,Chris, and Janice, Thank you for your words and understanding...Faye, I think that your comment really reassures me that speaking up is not only okay, but probably necessary. Thank you!