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.