It’s happened twice in the last four years: I’ve been in the middle of a lovely conversation with someone, and the “accidental slur” popped out: Jewing someone down.
Now, these two conversations were both with different people. Both of these individuals know I am Jewish, and both of them care deeply about me and have a definite respect for Judaism. So why would they say this? Well, they just didn’t know any better … but the real question each time, after someone said it to me, immediately became: what should I do?
They were very different situations, and very different people: one was my 30-something hairdresser. The accidental slur came up when he was sharing a story about buying a horse. Then, there it was: the slur.
I had been going to him for several years at the time, and my mind began reeling as he said it, knowing he meant no malice but… what to do about it?
The next case was when I met a delightful 70-something woman. It was our first meeting, but she also knew I was Jewish and had no malice in her heart for Judaism, or for me. I admired a sculpture in her home, and she then told me the story of how her deceased husband, um … effectively bargained to get it. (The slur again!)
In the first case, with the young hairdresser, I decided that for both our sakes, I needed to point out what he said. I explained that had I been a new customer, I never would have come back, but because I knew him well by now, and knew his heart and knew it was unintentional. I thought it better to explain why the “good old boy” expression was offensive. It was a good move, and he was grateful.
In the second case, although the friend I was with nearly had a coronary on the spot when he heard the older woman’s use of the slur, I silently waved him off. I quickly decided that if I were to share with her how the slur is offensive, it would have caused her great shame and humiliation, so my decision was to simply let it go.
Living in the South, or anywhere where Jews are true minority, these situations can provide quite the dilemma. How would you have handled these or other similar situations?
There it was, in the news, soon after the results of the November 6 election were announced: bigotry in the spotlight, here in Mississippi, again. Headlines declaring a “riot” on the campus of the University of Mississippi (more often referred to as Ole Miss), with white Southern students shouting racial slurs and burning an Obama/Biden campaign poster. Black vs. white. Racial tension in the Bible Belt.
How do we encounter that experience?
There’s a long and complex history of civil rights in the South, and Jewish involvement in civil rights. Luckily, at the ISJL, in addition to studying and sharing the histories, we consider it an honor to have seen and participated in the great work of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (WWIRR) in action. The WWIRR is located on the campus of Ole Miss, right in the center of the recent controversy.
This whole incident is in “our neighborhood,” but all the more so in the WWIRR’s neighborhood. And community reaction and engagement around this is in my wheelhouse, and something I – and hopefully, the readers of this blog – care about. So I reached out to Dr. Susan Glisson, Executive Director of the WWIRR, to ask her about the situation that has caught national attention, the realities, and responses.
Here’s what she had to say.
Malkie: The WWIRR’s Position on Racial Reconciliation includes an emphasis on the importance of language and “how it is often unintentionally used to blur, divide, and polarize what are essentially similar efforts”. As I was thinking about the ways in which to describe what happened on the evening of November 6th, I considered my choice of words. (Do I call it an occurrence? No, that sounds unintentional. I guess I should call it a riot, but was it a riot? Does the word “protest” capture what took place?) Each word seems blurry in its own way. How might you describe what took place on the Ole Miss campus?
Dr. Glisson: I can only say now that one of the participants described his participation in the event as “defending his beliefs” in “the Republican side of campus, the Confederate side of campus.” So, I think it is clear that racial fears underlie what happened Tuesday night.
Malkie: You informed us that a walk took place on campus called We Are One Mississippi Candlelight Walk. Were you able to attend? What was the tone and message of this walk?
Dr. Glisson: I was there. It was serious and reflective, resolved and hopeful. The message is that love is greater than hate and that we refuse to go back to any old regime of bigotry.
Malkie: For some, these events will serve as an indicator that racism in Mississippi is pervasive. How would you respond to an individual who draws this conclusion?
Dr. Glisson: The results of the election clearly show that we are the most racially polarized we have ever been. Racism is pervasive throughout the country and I think the only question may be about degrees. We ALL have much work to do.
Malkie: Our blog is called “Southern and Jewish.” What would you like Jews in the South to know about the work of the Winter Institute?
Dr. Glisson: The Winter Institute works in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference.
Malkie: Can you share ways in which you think Jews in the South can play a role in advancing racial reconciliation?
Dr. Glisson: There is a rich history of collaboration between Jews and civil rights activists; I hope we can rekindle that connection through dialogue and community building to repair the wounds of the past.
What are your thoughts on this incident? What do you think is the most constructive way for communities to come together to “repair the wounds of the past”?
As stated in one of our last posts about the hurricane, we are familiar with what the devastation of hurricanes looks like in the South. But the recent photographs of flooded cities coming out of New York and New Jersey during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy remind me of other stunning photos captured during a massive flood in this region that goes back further than Katrina or Camille.
These images are from a collection of photos and documents that once belonged to Marshall Levitt of Greenwood, MS. They depict the Flood of 1927, a devastating flood on April 21st , caused by a weather system that brought huge amounts of rain to the Upper Mississippi River Region and resulted in the levees breaking. It caused water to cover nearly one million acres of the Mississippi Delta, ten feet deep in ten days, and covered much of the area for months.
While Greenville, MS infamously suffered the worst of the flood, the expansive impact of the water can be seen in these photos which were taken over 50 miles away to the east of the river in Greenwood, MS.
At the time, The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the nation’s greatest natural disaster, affecting an estimated population of 185,495. Clearly, the scope of Hurricane Sandy’s damage is much larger. I hope for my friends and family in the Northeast that years from now, after a successful recovery, the photos captured from this storm will seem just as unbelievable as these from Greenwood do today.