Racism, Americans and Israelis, the Worst Word in the English Language, and When Can I Start Posting Funny Stuff Again?

Well, to those of you who like when I write serious, chew on this one for a few minutes…

I first thought about writing this post a year ago and put it off because it required too much thinking and I didn’t know how to do it sensitively. Hey, anybody want to talk about racism? Fun fun fun! Race is a sensitive subject in America and clearly we’re still not in a place where we can address it easily. The Henry Louis Gates incident and aftermath made that clear. Now…I have come to appreciate that for just about every cultural difference, there are positives and negatives to how Israelis and Americans act in a situation. TO GENERALIZE, Americans have rigid rules which I very much appreciate. They provide a framework for action, set expectations, and create a system where things run smoothly. However, in the event that you need to make room for an exception to the rules, it can be frustrating when Americans will not think outside the box or say anything but “I’m sorry, Sir, that is our policy” like a robot or broken record. In Israel, things are much more informal and rules can be negotiated. However, Israelis sometimes do not understand why systems and rules exist and have less respect for these rules which exist for the greater good and in the name of order. The point is that societies are different and often we can not appreciate the logic behind cultural norms in places where these societies evolved differently.

In my last job, I had the fortune (misfortune?) of trying to explain racial tensions, diversity, and political correctness to a few of my Israeli co-workers. Let me tell you…that was a freaking field day. One day, one of them jokingly used, ahem, what we all refer to as “the N-word.” Is there a more sensitive, frowned upon word in American English? No need to answer that question; we all know the answer is no. Hearing it usually elicits a reaction which includes an “OMIG-D, WHAT DID HE JUST SAY” and a look around to make sure nobody heard it. I forget how my co-worker (we’ll call him “Yoni”) first used it but it was probably in a joking comment about then Presidential candidate Barack Obama, satirizing dumb Americans. When it happened the first time, I probably said “OMIG-D, YOU CANNOT SAY THAT” while smiling because of the ridiculous sound of whatever fish-out-of-water Americanish statement he said in his non-American accent. (Sort of like if Borat were to say “I’m getting jiggy with it.” Foreigners are funny, we discussed this in one of my first ever blog posts.) Unfortunately what I came to realize is that at almost any age, when a friend pick up on something that bothers you, he is often likely to do it again, especially when you have even a small smile on your face. If I had given him and any of my other co-workers a mixed message, I made it clear VERY SOON AFTER that I didn’t find it funny while trying to teach them that WE DO NOT SAY THE N-WORD. It didn’t make a difference. They continued saying it to get a rise out of me which may have been secretly amusing in the way that a friend pushing another’s buttons can be funny. Still, the most disturbing thing was never their saying of the word. It’s a good question to debate: is there anything wrong with saying a word offensive in one country…in another? Is it offensive if I utter a racist Malaysian word in the middle of Wichita, Kansas where its social implications are stripped away and irrelevant? What more bothered me was that they apparently didn’t respect my explanation of how offensive it was and that I feared they didn’t understand its power. Speaking of cultural differences, for both better and worse, more than Americans, Israelis don’t spend a lot of time fretting about what others think of them as individuals and as a people which is part of why they’re able to speak their minds. So I do fear Joe Israeli speaking the word aloud in Randomtown, America and getting his ass shredded into falafel bits or even “just” using the word in public, offending others and representing us Jews and Israelis extremely poorly. (A year or so ago, there was a Facebook invite for a party in Israel where the hosts posted a picture of people dressed in white sheets. Anybody want to see that forwarded around the internet or showing up on CNN? Me neither. A bunch of Anglos wrote on the wall begging them to take it down which they eventually did.)

What I found difficult….impossible, actually….was to convey why a word held such offensive power to people living in a country where the related meanings, social implications, and history and hatred behind that word simply don’t exist. Why is it so fun and easy to say curse words in another language? Because they don’t mean anything to us. Eventually one woman in my department who had spent several years in America raised the topic at a departmental meeting, explaining why it offended her also and why it was such a horrible word. Not much changed. Whereas Yoni and others might have said the actual word to push my buttons, going forward they might have made the same joke but instead said “N-word” instead of the actual word or continued to push my buttons by hinting at it. Was I being too sensitive by letting them upset me? Maybe. Did they fully get it? I don’t think so. (After one of them only a month ago wrote ‘nig…’ on my Facebook wall, I’m pretty sure the answer is no. I deleted it.)

Months later, I had a few conversations with another co-worker about political correctness. His take was that there’s something crazy and wrong about a society which spends so much mental energy arguing about labels and words. “What the hell is the difference between ‘blacks’ and ‘African-Americans’?” Forget that….what about “retarded” vs. “mentally challenged”? Or the granddaddy of them all, midgets vs. little people? He claimed that it is insane to change your labels every few years which I agreed with and that a special-needs person shouldn’t define himself by what he’s capable of and how much he can achieve, not by what label others define him with. All good points truthfully…but at the same time, in a country with such a history of racial problems, I appreciate where the PC movement came from and that it represents our effort to create equality, respect, tolerance, and empowerment, even if it’s not perfect.

Two weeks ago, as has been well-documented, Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant Jim Crowley got into it. Gates felt like he was racially profiled and Crowley felt disrespected as a cop. While I believe the cop probably was doing his job, I also respect that the situation is probably more complicated than my white eyes are able to see and that, as many have reported including Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, most of us are “just a little bit racist” whether we realize it or not. President Obama’s quick response and half-retraction confirmed that race is a complicated issue in America, whether or not my old co-workers can appreciate it or not.

I kept thinking, how would I explain this to them? Would they get it? Are we Americans just being silly here? Clearly the answer to the last question is no, isn’t it? Am I oversensitive when they say the N-word in a country where it doesn’t mean anything? Or does it mean something? And how much of it is “well, I can do x, y, and z because I’m part of said group, but YOU can’t do x, y, and z…”? I’ve heard stories about officers using it in the army in a different context maybe to mean a slave or something. I cringed when I heard that….wouldn’t you, Americans? We should, shouldn’t we? Or would non-American eyes see it differently?

What do you think?

Epilogue: So what made me finally decide to write about this yesterday? After watching another CNN segment about the Gates incident at the airport, I board my plane to Atlanta and find my seat next to a black man. Possibly thinking I was in the back of a taxi cab in Tel Aviv, I said, “Hey, can I ask you a weird question?” “Yes.” “I don’t usually talk politics with strangers but what do you think of the whole Henry Louis Gates thing.” “No comment.”


I apologized for bringing it up. Later on, on my way back from the bathroom, I saw him recounting this to the black flight attendant. Yeah, there was probably no good way to raise that topic. I had a good laugh with my friend Philip about this later.
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