Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why ethnic labels matter

One time as I was waiting in the hall for a class, I began a conversation with a woman sitting nearby, and when she asked me what I was taking, I said, "Hebrew." She then inquired, without a hint of irony, "Why do you need to take Hebrew if you are a Hebrew?"

I was struck dumb. It wasn't just her ignorance of the fact that most American Jews are less than fluent in the Hebrew language, it was her referring to me as a "Hebrew." I hadn't encountered that nomenclature before, and if I'd ever expected to, it would have been from a small-town dweller in Alabama or some such place, not from a fellow student at U. of Maryland!

Was I offended? Not really. While I'm suspicious about the sorts of ideas that might accompany her terminological illiteracy, this use of the word "Hebrew" was once considered perfectly respectable--like, oh, back in the nineteenth century. As British historian Paul Johnson notes:
From about the second century BC, when it was so used by Ben Sira, 'Hebrew' was applied to the language of the Bible, and to all subsequent works written in this language. As such it gradually lost its pejorative overtone, so that both to Jews themselves and to sympathetic gentiles, it sometimes seemed preferable to 'Jew' as a racial term. In the nineteenth century, for example, it was much used by the Reform movement in the United States, so that we get such institutions as the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
A quick search on Google News, which has a mammoth historical archive of newspaper articles, turns up numerous instances of this usage between 1875 and 1915. For example, one 1913 article from The New York Times reports, "More than 500 Hebrews crowded Clinton Hall last night and took part in an enthusiastic honor of Nahum Sokelew, the Zionist, and editor of the best-known Jewish newspaper in Russia." To this day there are statutes on the book that refer to things like "Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements." But in the common language this sort of phraseology sounds ignorant, if not anti-Semitic, to most people. That it once was standard usage has been all but forgotten.

If you keep up with current events, you may already have suspected where this post was leading. Two apparently coincidental news items recently have sparked a debate in the media and blogosphere about the use of outdated racial/ethnic terminology. In one, the census forms for 2010 included "Negro" as an option for racial identification, because some older blacks still prefer the term. In another, a 2008 quote by Sen. Harry Reid was uncovered in which he had stated that the country was ready for a black president, especially one who was "light-skinned" and spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

If Reid had said "black" instead of "Negro," would his statement still be objectionable? Depends who you ask. (I personally think no.) But most commentators agree that there's something exceedingly strange about hearing the word "Negro" used in earnest, and not in a historical context, by the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.

Unlike "Hebrew," which few if any individuals alive today remember as an accepted term for a Jewish person, "Negro" fell out of fashion only about 40 years ago. Martin Luther King used the word several times in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and Bobby Kennedy used it when he suggested--with considerable foresight, as it turns out--that the U.S. would elect a black president in the next 40 years. People of Reid's generation (b. 1939) had to expunge the word from their vocabulary when they were well into adulthood. Can younger people like me (b. 1977) understand what that's like? Why, yes we can. That's exactly what happened with the word "Oriental" when I was growing up.

Anyone should be able to understand why terms like these persist in the margins of society for decades after having been purged from mainstream discourse. Apart from the fact that old speech habits die hard, the changes usually seem a little arbitrary on the surface. Why is "Hebrew" more demeaning than "Jew"? Why is the Spanish word for "black" worse than the English word? Partly it may be their closeness to a slur ("Hebe," "nigger," etc.), but the real reason is probably that it is just a way of marking a shift in public attitude. Therefore, any person who continues using a linguistic casualty of this type gives the impression of not having fully absorbed the social developments that left it behind.

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