You’re a good person. You rail against neo-Nazis and Mitch McConnell. It’s actually not hard to complain about racist cops and sexist fathers-in-laws. What’s hard is changing your own behavior. Because if you let the truth seep in that you may be doing or saying something racist, sexist or homophobic, you might perceive that as an affront to your goodness. So I get it. White people get defensive about any implication that they may be racist. That might be a good sign — it means that you know the difference between right and wrong. It means you’re not Mitch McConnell.
I am writing this because I am a coward. I am afraid to confront people I’m close to with direct criticism. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that nonviolence was a way of life for courageous people. I dabble in courage, but putting my relationships on the line to stand up for what I believe is scary for me. So I’m doing the next best thing, which is far less of a best thing, writing this piece on unintentional but potentially harmful bias. I am asking you not to read this and agree, thinking that I’m writing about other people. I ask you to look inward and assume I am writing about you.
What’s wrong with saying “gyp,” to mean cheat?
Do you tell people that you were “jewed down” by someone driving a hard bargain? I heard this expression when I was growing up in Indiana. People casually used this expression while talking to me, and I’m jewish. To me, whatever they were saying ceased to have any meaning. It all stopped when I heard them use the name of my religion as a derogatory term. To me, it meant that on some level, this person I assumed was my friend thought that I was greedy and wanted to cheat people. It meant they believed every stereotype about Jews.
You may not be a perfect person, but I’m guessing that you don’t use “jew” as a slur. You probably steer away from all racial slurs to your knowledge. That doesn’t mean you haven’t picked up some racist stereotypical thinking, after all, you grew up in a racist country. But you try to correct that thinking, bury it, deny it. And on the surface it does not rear its ugly head in language.
But for many people, “gyp” is the last to go. Of course, “gyp” stands for “Gypsy,” which is a term, widely seen as derogatory, for the Roma people. The meaning of “gyp” goes to the heart of stereotypes that the Roma have lived with for centuries. Would you consider excising that vestige of racist language? Here’s a method: When it slips out of your mouth, just follow it up with the correction, until the right word comes out naturally:
“They gypped me — er, sorry, ripped me off at the store” will soon come out smoothly as “They ripped me off at the store.” You get to say the same thing without carrying on a tradition of dehumanizing hostility. Please practice a few times out loud right now. Say, “I was ripped off. The bartender cheated me!”
By the way, if you add that word “sorry,” when correcting yourself, it has the added bonus of nonconfrontationally educating your listener.
There’s a lot of disagreement about words like “bitch” and “chick” which for a period were widely considered to be sexist but some women have reclaimed. If you’re not one of those women, you don’t have to use those words. Please don’t be like the hip White guy who thinks it’s cool for him to use the n-word.
Do you use “gay” to mean bad or stupid? I can’t tell gay people not to do that, but if you’re not gay I can tell you. Please don’t. Just like when my acquaintances used “jew” as a negative expression, you may be unintentionally hurting somebody.
Of course, the list goes on and on, and for the most part, people are not consciously aware of the effects of their derogatory word usage. But it still stings. So please, if you hated this article, just say, “This post was a rip-off.”