Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wop, Kraut, and Mick

I actually listened to Tony Botello as he guested on a show on Kansas City public radio entitled "Isn't That a Tad Bit Racist?" the other day. It wasn't half bad--I thought about calling, but I would ruin the amen chorus of callers to some extend. Besides, I couldn't really distill what I was thinking into a nice sound bite. Thoughts were trampling each other on the way to attempts at expression. I thought this would be bad radio, so I didn't call. Callers who ramble on are boring in the end, and I didn't want to be boring.

The show was more or less about how we talk to each other--words, dialects, and manners of speech in different "races" or cultures or tribes. There was so much--code switching, retaining tribal and national identities but I got to thinking about those who had come to this country in the past and what their experience was compared to other groups.

The words in the title of this post are pejoratives that were lobbed at various immigrant groups over the years and are still occasionally heard. They are rather like the n-word--offensive to the person being called that. They are rarely heard these days. They were put away by the majority culture as the various groups became a part of life in the culture, and they were recognized by the tribes as too offensive even to use within the group--only occasionally will you find a German refer to themselves or other Germans as "krauts." In my opinion, the n-word needs to make this transition--too offensive to be used by anybody or applied to any person.

Blending works better if everyone communicates. I believe that immigrants need to learn and speak standard English in the public square. That was job one back in the day. Italian, German, Polish, Gaelic were OK for home, but in public, English was expected. I will offend someone here, but I believe Spanish speakers have been set back by all the accommodations made for them. English would do them much better in the long run, not just in America but in the world, as English is frequently the language of commerce. Being a good speaker of standard American English has not been as valued in ethnic communities of recent immigrants as in the past. The Black person who is looked down on because they sound "White" is an example of how the ability to be skilled in the language of the marketplace is not seen in a positive light. Attitudes towards learning English in Spanish speaking communities have not been as well highlighted--do families and peers look on with pride at the Mexican young person who has strong English?

Deciding to blend in a bit with the majority culture, while at the same time retaining some of the character and traditions of the old country is a tough balance to keep but it is the right one. There have not always been wise choices about the value given to the blending in, and it has proven to be at worse, a handicap that slows progress, and at most, a place where the majority can continue to hold hurtful opinions of a people group, considering them less intelligent or able to make progress in society as a whole.

Isolation, which happens when language presents a barrier, keeps individuals from interacting with each other and becoming comfortable in each others' worlds. We may never blend perfectly in America's melting pot--humans are just more comfortable with people who are similar to them, that they know--but the tool for breaking barriers is being able to talk to and understand each other. It also is our only really strong tool to deal with some of the issues of values and actions that are coming up more and more frequently.

Not to be too dire, but if we can't talk, we might end up fighting.


Anonymous said...

Good insight. I find it amusing the old Italians who have live here over 50 years who have the thick Italian accents! Gotta love it.

Bob G. said...


I find the major difference between the other perjoratives and the *n* word is that those other ethnicities NEVER really "embraced" those slang terms...and they moved on.

As you mention, they just fell out of favor for the most part.

On the other hand, a large contingent of the black community DID embrace the *n* word, and even elevated it to pop-culture "stardom" with all the music lyrics and language...

And we've allowed it in the "name of diversity"...funny, the Italians and Irish, the German, Jews and the Vietnamese didn't see it THAT way with THEIR nationalities.

You're correct that we coddle certain ethnicities WAY too much and all but ignore everyone else in our MELTING POT.

Good people of EVERY race will continue to be labelled by the manner they present themselves to the vast majority, while if we judge them solely "by the content of their character", we might find something different in many of those people unjustly labelled..

And yes, there will always be some who will remain lost "to the winds of change"...or to downright rebellion for rebellion's sake.

Excellent commentary...wonderful insight.

Stay safe out there.

The Observer said...

Folks, as soon as my head hit the pillow last night I realized that whop was misspelled--it should be W-O-P. Will fix.

Would that in times ahead, people would not be able to recall if the n word ended with A-R or E-R...

I know, but a person can dream.

The Observer said...

I love accents, having one myself, even after 20 years in the Midwest. The presence of accented Standard English does not bother me even a little, whether the accent is from a US region or a foreign country. Just part of the stew!

Bob G--
I am not sure why the Black community embraced the n word--it is not a good thing and the n word should be set aside by everyone, including Black folks. To me, it is degrading and de-personalizing.

Thanks for your rich comment and support. We must continue to talk about race, even tho it is painful and not a little scary to talk about race!

The Observer