Thursday, June 26, 2008

THE HISTORY LESSON . . . (More On Name-Calling) . . .

Back in high school, I had a favorite teacher, who, with his big grin, jerky movements and small, wiry frame, reminded me of a cricket--Jiminy Cricket to be precise. He was a older fellow whose wisdom and intellect I'd accepted without question until the day he opened his mouth and spat out the words, "Those dirty Japs!"

The first time I heard him say it, I was stunned. I thought to myself, Surely, I must had misheard him. I didn't want to believe that my favorite teacher, a man whom I'd admired for his quick wit and keen sense of humor, not to mention his command of American history, had actually made such an offense comment.

But it was true. Again and again, while covering the U.S. involvement in WWII, one of my high school teachers used the terms "Japs" and "dirty Japs" in reference to the Japanese. And each time he uttered the words, I squirmed in my seat, made uncomfortable not only by his use of the ethnic slur, but by my own hesitancy when it came to voicing my objections.

Some memories stay with one always.

No, I'm not Japanese. I'm not even Asian. (Well, as far as I know *smile* According to the hubby, I do sorta kinda look Asian when I'm asleep). By self-definition, I am an African American of the female persuasion. But if it matters, and in this instance it did, there was a young woman of obvious Asian ancestry in that particular high school history class. I don't recall her name. She and I weren't friends or even acquaintances. The possibility exists that she was no more Japanese that was I, as does the possibility that she took no offense to our teacher's comments. But the fact remains that we were both young women of color, bound together in one sense by our vulnerable status as the only two visible minorities in a classroom full of young, White students, and bound together in another sense by our silence.

I can't help but think we should have said something, if only to one another. Why didn't we? Was it youth? Shyness? Fear? Ambivalence? Embarrasment? Or was it simply too far an emotional distance for either of us to cross. Twenty-plus years later, I still don't know.

Looking back on the incident, I now find it both unnerving and somewhat ironic that the teacher in questin reminded me of a cricket. The truth is, I have a fear of crickets, a fear that involves my not knowing where the little critters are bound to jump next.

And indeed, it is a small jump from Jap to nigger/from faggot to coon/ from spic to jigaboo/

If I, as an African American, wait until the slur turns from slanty-eye bastard to big-lipped baboon, then have I not, in fact, waited too late? Of course, I have. I think even way back then, I somehow sensed it was so.

"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't Communists. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up for me."
(Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1892-1984)

"If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night."
(James Baldwin, 1924-1987)

And for those who still don't get it, the "History Lesson" here is--just as there is no safety in silence, there is no safety in drawing the lines of intervention around our own ethnic, racial, sexual or religious identities.

(Written while listening to Erykah Badu's "Honey," "The Healer" and "Master Teacher" from the CD entitled New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War). Check the refrain from "Master Teacher":
"What if there was no niggas only master teachers?
I stay woke . . ."


pjazzypar said...


This topic comes up way too often for my taste. I do not agree with prejudice and bigotry based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. I have gotten the "free speech" argument, or they are old (or young) and don't know what they are saying. I am not excepting any excuses for ignorant intolerance from anyone these days and I will call folks out about spewing negative epitaphs.

It's messed when your heroes disappoint. Sorry that happened to you :(

Michelle said...

It's always a jarring experience when someone you respect disappoints you, but being a well-brought-up black girl, you knew you weren't "supposed to" correct or question the teacher. I think many of us share that experience and background, as well as the sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs that something wasn't right, and we should've done or said something about it at the time. You've acknowledged it and moved on, and let's hope he's no longer making such racist comments in or out of the classroom.

Lori said...

Pjazzy @ Michelle,
I appreciate your words of wisdom, solidarity and encouragement.

Ehav Ever said...

Hey Lori,

Interesting piece. I have made it my personal mission here in Israel to convince people to not use the word Kushi, since it can at times have a similar connotation to the N-Word. At first I did not make an issue of it because I knew they were not talking about me, but at some point I decided that it was not right for us Israelis to use any term that can be offensive to others.

Even though Kushi, is not on the same level as a slur it has some element of incorrectness since Kush was a kingdom in East Africa, but the term is sometimes used similar to the word black. It is kind of complicated.

It is funny the second half of Erykah Badu's master teacher also inspired some my recent posts.