I was brought up Jewish. In New York, being Jewish is a cultural thing. When people ask me about being Jewish I say, “I know the foods—give me a bagel with a schmear or a piece of chocolate babka cake and I’m happy.” I haven’t been exposed to much anti-Semitism in New York or in North Carolina for that matter. But twice in my life, I’ve received the warning—don’t let them Jew you down!
I’ll explain what happened the first time in a moment. But the second time is freshest in my mind because it was said to me just last week. And I was very surprised. Not shocked, and not even offended. It’s just not something you expect to hear—especially during a business call.
My organization is sponsoring a conference in Austin next month. The conference Chair has been negotiating with a local rancher who runs a business in which he brings Longhorn steers and miniature burros to events and corporate functions. He’s scheduled to bring three of his animals to an event at the conference where guests may have their photo taken sitting in the saddle of a Longhorn or miniature burro. Not my thing, but whatever. I phoned the rancher as a follow up, to put an agreement in place and to pay his fees.
When I finally connected with him, I went over the specs the Chair forwarded to me. We discussed date, time, place and fees—at which point he told me he usually gets paid a whole lot more. He went on to name drop the famous movies his animals have appeared in. Then I commented about the long email trail of negotiations between him and the Chair, and he exclaimed, “Yeah! He really Jewed me down!” And it’s beside the point—but the Chair is not Jewish and doesn’t have a Jewish last name.
I’ll admit I’m not the most normal person, because as stunned as I was, I found his comment hysterical. The way it just rolled off his tongue hit me in the funny bone. I could tell he had no idea he was saying something offensive. And he certainly had no way of knowing I’m Jewish. So we just continued to discuss final details and agreed to wrap up the contract over email within the next few days.
Going back to the first time I heard the expression—or I should say the first time I was exposed to the expression (since it went right over my head)—I was on a road trip with Mr. Groovy and his sister. Our car broke down in Virginia and we needed a hotel room for the evening. As we were checking into a Hampton Inn we asked the hotel clerk if there was a Jeep dealership in town. He said there was, in fact, right near the hotel. “But don’t let them Jew you down,” he warned us. But I didn’t hear him.
When we returned to the parking lock to retrieve our belongings, my sister-in-law kept shouting my name and flailing her arms at me until finally I begged her, “WHAT did I do?” I thought maybe I had toilet paper hanging out of my pants since I made a quick trip to the restroom. “You’re not angry?” she asked me. “About what?” I answered. And then she told me about the remark the clerk made, and I replied that I thought he had said, “Don’t let them jerk you around!” Then I burst out laughing because the clerk had used the phrase incorrectly. If the dealership were to “Jew us down,” that would have been in our favor! No, he should have said, “Don’t let them Jew you up” to imply that they would jack up the prices.
But what most surprised me was that this came out of the mouth of a black man from Wyandanch, NY (Long Island), now living in Virginia—we chatted while we were checking in and he told us he was originally from New York. New Yorkers usually have a pretty good sensibility when it comes to Jewish people. It’s not like they’re alien in New York and one would expect Jews to have horns! So how did “Don’t let them Jew you down” get into his vernacular?
I think I know.
During a debate about a bill on price controls in 2013, Rep. Dennis Johnson of Oklahoma broke out the phrase “Jew me down ” on the state house floor. When he was approached at the podium with a note pointing out his transgression, he read it and asked, “Did I?” And then he said, “I apologize to the Jews. They’re good small businessmen as well.” He knew he had said something wrong but he wasn’t exactly sure why it was wrong.
He later explained that the comment was not made intentionally and “it just came out of one of the wrinkles in my brain.” He expanded on his apology the next day in writing and acknowledged that his comment was “a serious offense.” He promised never to do it again.
The thing that strikes me about his apology is his reference to the comment coming out of the wrinkles in his brain. That rings true to me. I mean really, do any of us know the reason we say half the things we say? Like “Burro Man” and the hotel clerk, I honestly don’t believe he meant to offend anyone.
This got me thinking, though—what expressions do we use that might be offensive, that we don’t even know are offensive? I did a little searching and came up with an extensive list. Here’s just a sample:
- Indian Giver
- Sold Down the River
OK, I surely know why the word Chinks is offensive. But I don’t even think Johnny Boy had a clue what an insensitive, bigoted clod he was being when he said it in Mean Streets. Check out this clip of him asking Charlie for five bucks to get Chinese food. (If you don’t like profanity skip to minute 4:10 near the end).
And what about Indian Giver? Did I know the term had negative connotations when I accused a friend of being one when I was a teenager? She gave me a beautiful blouse she hated, but when she saw it looked good on me she wanted it back. No, I had no clue I was slighting Native Americans. Never mind that many would argue the term first referred to a bartering system practiced among Native Americans that was later misinterpreted by Europeans.
What about gypped? Have you ever bought a fountain soda for $6 bucks at the movie theater that wasn’t even filled to the brim? And you thought to yourself, “Man I got gypped!” Did you know you possessed bigoted thoughts? I bet you didn’t know that the word “gyp” refers to the supposedly thieving nature of gypsies.
And did your grandma ever chase away one of your trouble-making boyhood friends and call him a hooligan? Did grandma intend to slight all descendants of Irish background? Have a look at the lyrics of the song “The Hooligans,” performed by two Irish comedians in 1891 at the Theatre Royal Hull in the UK:
Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
Always on the riot,
Cannot keep them quiet,
Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
They are the boys,
To make a noise,
In our backyard.
And lastly, we come to the expression, “sold down the river.” Have you ever used that phrase to describe how someone betrayed you? Maybe I’m dense or maybe my grade school education was worse than I thought, but I didn’t know the phrase refers to the slave trade that existed in Kentucky. Since Louisville slaves were treated better than those in more rural Kentucky, the threat of being sold down the river was a serious one. It implied that a slave would be sent to the lower Mississippi, and subject to harsh conditions, at best.
But this is the question. Can we find it in our hearts to forgive people for bigoted or racist comments? Do we accept that sometimes these remarks are based on ignorance, and not hatred or malice? Back in 2013, many folks wouldn’t let go of Rep. Dennis Johnson’s “Jew me down” remark. The press certainly wouldn’t— publications ranging from Tulsa World to New York Magazine all had something to say. But ironically, it was the Anti-Defamation League (a nonprofit agency formed to combat Anti-Semitism) that said it best. After the ADL’s Community Director for the Oklahoma region, Roberta Clark, spoke with Rep. Johnson on the phone, the ADL put out a statement:
“After corresponding with Representative Johnson and having several conversations with him, I am satisfied that he deeply regrets his words and that he is sincere when he says that he did not mean to use hurtful language,” Ms. Clark said. “While we understand that many people were upset with his behavior, we are disappointed that some chose to respond by leaving hateful voicemails and e-mail messages to his office. We accept his apology, and we hope that Mr. Johnson will make good on his commitment to learn from this experience and speak out against anti-Semitism and bigotry in the future.”
If the ADL can find it in its heart to get over this comment, I think I can too.
Tell me—do you think you’ve been guilty at some time in your life of saying something bigoted?
Maybe you made a comment you weren’t aware was bigoted until years later?
Maybe you made an offhand remark you thought was funny or cute, only to realize later it was racist or anti-Semitic?
If someone directed a bigoted remark towards you that you thought was idiotic, but not meant with malice—could you forgive?