Tearing down people with words
I never thought I’d move to a small town and much less did I believe I would enjoy living out in the sticks. But as time went on, I found myself happy to see familiar faces in town, and to exchange greetings with the people I passed in the street. However, as much as I enjoy the people and life here, there are a few expressions I hear more often in this rural environment than I ever heard growing up in a city. These are expressions that do not speak to this being “A people kind of place” and are expressions I believe we need to stamp out in our schools, our homes and our community.
The first time I ever heard someone say, “If he had been willing to Jew,” as an expression meaning to bargain, my mouth hit the floor. I’d heard that kids in local schools sometimes use this term, or say things like “That’s so Jewish,” but I was astonished to hear it from an adult. Clearly, anyone who says this isn’t thinking about Nazi Germany, or how Jewish people were painted as miserly money-grubbers hoarding all the wealth. They’re also not thinking about how nearly six million Jewish men, women and children ended up being gassed, shot, burned or otherwise killed because of such a successful demonizing campaign.
Another expression I’d never heard used until I moved out here is the word “Chinese” to describe something bad or cheap, as in “Chinese pavement” for a gravel road. Really? I wonder if the people who use this expression have ever actually traveled to China, or if there is some other basis for their words. Maybe in China, more and more a superpower and centre of wealth in its own right, people bounce around a crappy lane and say, “Oh, it’s one of those damn Canadian roads.”
Then there was the time I heard of someone using the word “Paki.” I guess I would be considered a Paki, having brown skin, but I’ve lived in this country most of my life, even though I was born in India. But it doesn’t take a lot of work to uncover some of the negative attitudes out there about me or my fellow immigrants. One Globe and Mail survey asked respondents what they thought was the average income of immigrants. The majority of comments was that many immigrants make more than “real” Canadians. Here was one typical response: “No matter what it is, it's more than I make...and I was born here. Maybe I should paint my face brown and ‘dirka dirka barka larka.’” Smart. So smart you wonder if she realizes that white people, such as my own husband, are also immigrants to Canada.
If you can consider this woman’s comment unacceptable, what makes it better than calling a person who has lived here for his/her whole life a “Paki”? Would a person who uses such a term feel equally comfortable throwing out the n-word to describe a black person? I don’t know, but my gut feeling is no, only because of the tremendous efforts made in making people understand how wrong that word is to use.
I don’t believe that all ethnic slurs are meant to be malicious, but are made out of ignorance and a lack of thought about the message a person is sending out. It takes me back to high school where everyone would use the word “gay” to describe something lame, as in, “That’s so gay,” or “Dude, you’re being gay.” It wasn’t until there was a backlash against the term did us students stop and think about what we were saying or how the word was designed to hurt and belittle gay people.
My point is that words have a power, a subtle but directive power, to shape the way we think. If we marginalize and demonize people with our words, how far will the rabbit hole take us before a person doesn’t become a person, but a category? How far does it go before a society that accepts this type of language becomes the kind of place where anything from race riots to genocide becomes acceptable?
The rule of thumb should be this: if you feel comfortable using an ethnic or cultural slur in front of a person of that background, go right ahead. But if your greater sense prevails, do us all a favour, and bite back those trashy, rude and potentially hurtful words. The universe will thank you.
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