Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Is "Schwartze" A Racial Slur? Reflections on Jackie Mason's Comedy and Yiddish Vernacular Speech

Is "Schwartze" A Racial Slur? Reflections on Jackie Mason's Comedy and Yiddish Vernacular Speech

Jackie Mason is in trouble again . The folksy comedian, whose conservative politics are as in your face as his humor ( he now claims "white people in America no longer have freedom of speech "), says, after being criticized for calling President Obama a "schwartze" in a stand up comedy routine, that the word "schwartze" is merely a Yiddish slang expression for blacks, not a racial slur.

Although I am a little younger than Jackie Mason, like him, I grew up in a family where Yiddish was spoken along with English. In my family, the word "schwartze" was a common expression, one which my parents used with some regularity, but for the life of me I can't think of a single context in which they used it which was positive

They never said

" The schwartzes at the local high school are making it a much better school. They are wonderful students!"

" I love having "schwartzes" as our neighbors. They are so well mannered, and so polite."

" I am so excited, we're having the Jones family for dinner on Sunday afternoon. Whenever the shwartzes come over, I make my best pot roast.""

"The schwartzes loves Jewish deli almost as much as I love grits!"

" The Concord is my favorite hotel. At least half of the guests there are schwartzes, so you know everyone is going to have a good time."

But I heard plenty of the following"

If the schwartzes keep coming into the neighborhood,, I am moving to Queens"

"Even when the schwartzes are educated, they don't have the same moral standards we do"

" I am not letting my daughter go to Wingate. It's full of schwartzes!"

" He married a schwartze and his family disowned him. They are sitting shiva right now!"


Lest I be accused of fomenting anti-Semitism, let me make one thing perfectly clear- not all Jews of that generation were closet or open racists At a left wing summer camp I attended, Camp Taconic and at Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where I transferred after getting in a fight at my local high school, I met many Jewish young people whose parents were militant anti-racists, and participated in civil rights protests well before they became fashionable. Some of those people, whose houses I occasionally went to, spoke Yiddish as fluently as my parents, and sent their children to left wing Yiddish "shules," but none of them EVER used the word "schwartze" in conversation. It was not a part of their family's vocabulary

The refusal of left wing or anti-racist Jews to use the term casts doubt on Mason's claims that the word "schwartze" lacks pejorative connotations..While the word"schwartze" doesn't have the same awful history as the "N" word, or the same rage filled connotations, it conveys a level of discomfort about Jewish encounters with Blacks that cannot be dismissed as "neutral." Given the history of Jews as an oppressed people, it is a discomfort tinged with ambivalence,but is discomfort nonetheless. "Schwartze" was a term rarely used in anger, but often used in fear. It reflected a perception of Blacks as a dangerous "other.," an alien people who might subject Jews to the same danger they had been in throughout most of their history.

Although I understand the experiences, and the emotions, that might lead some Jews to express their racial fears and animosities through a term like "schwartze," I would never use the word "schwartze "in conversation, and would not accept it's usage from a casual acquaintance, much less from a friend

Jackie Mason is on shaky ground in arguing that the word lacks negative connotations.. "Schwartze" is a term loaded with racial meanings, and none of them are positive.

Mark Naison

March 17,2009

12 comments:

stephen said...

Very interesting article... and quite enlightening.

Until I recently came across the controversy of Jackie Mason's comedy routine, I hadn't even considered the possible derogatory meaning of the word "Schwartze". Growing up in a Jewish home where my parents, aunts, and uncles used Yiddish to speak among themselves without my generation understanding what they were discussing, I did learn enough in spite of it. I do recall the rare use of the term "Schwartze", but honestly don't recall the context of it's usage.

I think that you've hit upon the root of why people use terms like this when discussing other races, which is fear. Fear is a powerful motivator to find a means of discussing our fears among our own ethnicity without our (potential) oppressors understanding what we're talking about.

If "Schwartze" is now taken to be a racist term, then we must look at it in the context of the speech used and the time in which it was used, lest we dispose of all Mark Twain's works into bonfires as well. I believe one must look at the heart of the person speaking more than at the words they say, because even the most benign words can be said in a vile hateful way.

- S -

skidram said...

Once, when as a child, I witnessed a family discussion about the propriety of the term "schwartze." My great aunt unabashedly and seemingly innocently proclaimed, as though it was a better alternative "I just call them darkies." Yep, I agree, its derogatory and demeaning and not a word anyone would typically use in referring proudly or even neutrally to themselves.

dom said...

People like Mason who use the word "schwartze" need to ask themselves one question..."would I call a black person "schwartze" to their face?"...if the answer is "no" then presumably this is because it carries negative conotations or because they KNOW that the word is basically a polite way of saying "nigger".

An argument over whether "schwartze" is racially offensive or not is akin to a debate over whether "kike" is offensive or not. It IS offensive ( however slight ) in meaning & Mason knows it, it's just that it's a yiddish word ( from the German for "black" ) that is not in common usage these days, so he can use it without people noticing too much.

If you can use a racial slur it's either because nobody cares about the group affected or because the word itself is not in common usage.

dom said...

To give some perspective on Mason's use of the word, I saw a youtube video by a right winger called Bernard Chapin, a man who attacks feminism & defends "mens rights", defending Mason & claiming that "schwartze" was a legitimate & non offensive term for "black people".

No doubt Chapin would not have defended Jesse Jackson's use of the word "hymie" in his famous "hymie town" reference, nor should he have done.

Jackie Mason's record on the Jesse Jacksons & Al Sharptons betrays racism as surely as Jackson's "hymie town" comment does. Whether you regard either comment as "racist" or not boils down to whether you take sides or not.

Who calls a jew "hymie" to his face? Who calls a black "schwartze" to his face? If you evenly vaguely feel that both terms are negative, surely you would never use them unless your intent was to provoke. Mason has always provoked, but racial provocation? Shouldn't he know better in a country where Rush Limbaugh is the most popular radio host?

JeffnDenmark said...

Jackie Mason is a (Gods chosen people bullshit) Talmudic, supremacist, racist, Pro Israel Zionist.
Israel is one of the most racist places on earth.

John said...

I like the word "schwartze." We used it in college all the time and no one had a problem with that. In fact, people who employed black housekeepers, maids, butlers, etc....used to always say...."what day is the schwartze taking vacation?"

Unknown said...

I'm black and whenever I've heard this term it was from a person too old to care or in a comedy routine by another person too old to care. It seems to be used knowingly, as if the person is getting one past me because I'm too young to know what it "might" mean (I'm not). I don't take any more offense to it than someone calling me black instead of African American. If you're trying to insult a black person, calling us stupid or poor is more likely to get us angry than schwartze, if that's your goal lol. How about we just ask for the proper name of the person and go from there?

Larry Siegel said...

If you are speaking Yiddish then "schwartze" just means black. If you are speaking English and interjecting the Yiddish word "schwartze" to mean a black person then it is slightly offensive to very offensive, depending on the tone and the speaker's background.

Torch Ramrod said...

So you're offended? Guess what happens? NOTHING.

Beautiful Brown said...

The most offensive thing about this is that I have heard that word. I live in Crown Heights. My family was the family that when the Jewish neighbors had a candle fall over on Saturday and almost burned their house down, they’d ask for help. If you had asked me growing up, I would have told you these people were nice and that I considered them regular, good people like the rest of the families in the building. It wasn’t until I got older that I started hearing about things like them praying their sins into a chicken, killing it and feeding it to Black people as part of their ritual. Or started realizing that the rap music that is DESTROYING my people, the POS who make the music, who take the beauty and talent the Most High gave them and pervert it – they all die broke or in jail as their punishment. Their children end up messed up, they get killed, they suffer. The Jewish lawyers, accountants, record label execs and other assorted parasites, they never die broke. Their kids don’t even have radios in their houses to be subjected to that hypnotic programming and they never get killed in the “rap beefs” they CREATE and get paid off. I also learned that the racist basis for enslaving black people came from the jews. That they were the ones that teach in the Talmud that the curse of Canaan is being Black and having big lips and black men having big penises but also play the liberal, the English teacher who tells you all the subversive books to read or who teaches you about fighting against racism and EUROPEAN racists. So, yeah…nothing about people calling themselves Jews even though they are Eastern European Caucasians and have NO blood ties to the people of the Book would surprise me.

Sam said...
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Sam said...

Speaking as a religious Jew I have to disagree. The word 'Schwarzer' (pronounced 'shvartzer') simply means a black person. If you enter 'black person' into Google translate and choose for it to translate it into German, 'schwarzer' is the response you will get. There are plenty of Jews (and Germans) with the name Schwartz. How else is a person who speaks Yiddish supposed to refer to black people?

Of course, you can say any word - even a plain non-offending one - in a negative tone or inflection. I don't claim that everybody who ever used the word wasn't prejudiced; it could well be that some were. But that would not be due to the meaning of the word itself, it would just be down to the attitude of the person speaking. There are plenty of nice people who use the word without meaning prejudice, and I know it is still in use. I think that as Jews assimilate into the American mainstream and most speak very little if any Yiddish nowadays this word is thought of as an anachronism, but that doesn't mean it's racist.

Btw while I sympathize with the commenter "Beautiful Brown", and hope that her experiences were a misunderstanding rather than being literal, a lot of what she said is false, unhelpful and nasty.