Although my Jewish friend Bob, Ron’s cousin, progressed in the same grades as I did, I don’t have as many memories of him from our grade and high school days as I do Ron. Instead, I primarily remember him from a college summer when I worked with him and some other college kids for the town’s Parks Department. We mostly cut grass with one of the fulltime guys supervising. The four or six of us assembled in the morning at the tool shed, got our assignment, and headed for a truck. We got in the back along with our Toro reel mowers (we all knew by now that a reel mower cut grass better than a rotary one) and headed to a spot where the gang mowers could not cut, such as the central median on some streets or steep hillsides. At twelve we stopped for lunch, which we had all brought. At the end of the day, we went back to the tool shed and some of us walked together going home. All this gave plenty of opportunity for us to talk, and we all got along. I had known all but one of them from high school. The previously unknown one had gone to the high school on the other end of town. He was a music major and taught me a lot. By the end of the summer, I sort of knew what a fugue was.
We played harmless jokes on each other such as disconnecting the Toro’s spark plug by pulling a wire off and seeing how many starting pulls a colleague would attempt before recognizing the problem. High humor it was not but it was good for a laugh. We also became protective of each other. If someone was sick and did not come to work, that person would not get paid. Therefore, if someone who was not feeling well struggled in, the rest of us would pick up the slack to cover for him.
It was common for us to use the restrooms in the parks where we cut the grass around and in between trees. All of us were in one of the restrooms using the urinals, when the supervisor for the day told a joke about a rabbi who could not hit a urinal because of a bad circumcision. Bob was there, and silence fell upon us college kids. After we got outside, somebody took the supervisor aside and told him that Bob was Jewish. Our boss looked deeply embarrassed and said that he had no idea. He did not tell any more Jewish jokes with us.
The “newspaper” spewing hate about Ron’s father and President Kennedy was written by people who readily acknowledged their hatred of Jewish people and those who promote them. I had already decided that any attempt to “correct” those hateful ideas was unlikely to have any affect. Our boss at the Parks Department, however, in all likelihood, would have denied being prejudiced, and his joke was not filled with hatred, just misguided humor. AND…our comments to him had changed his behavior. We had made him uncomfortable, and that discomfort perhaps made him think about prejudice. At the very least, it prevented future overt expressions of antisemitic prejudice.
I recognized that discomfort from my own behavior when my speech was chastised. My friends and I knew not to use the N word, but in fact we used it quite a lot. We boys in playing leaped on each other so that four or five might be lying atop one another. We called this a (N word) pile. I have no idea why. When we did eenie, meenie, miny, mo, we followed it with “Catch a (N word) by the toe.” Once again, I don’t know why. We used these expressions until my aunt reproved us for using these expressions. Only then did I realize what we were saying. They were just nonsense words. Right? To us, they were just harmless sounds without any meaning, but were they, in fact, harmless? Did those casual uses of racial slurs affect us? Did they tend to make us see the world through prejudiced eyes? They certainly would have been hurtful to any Black person within earshot. Only when Aunt Beulah reprimanded us for the use of the word in our childish activities, did I truly recognize what we had been saying. I was embarrassed and uncomfortable both because I was less self-aware than I had assumed and because I was using a racist expression. I did not say eenie, meenie, mo in the same way ever again. My discomfort led to a change in behavior and maybe even to a better understanding of a deep-seated prejudice implicit in our supposedly playful doggerel. In contradiction to the snowflake trend by many today, I learned that it was good thing to be made uncomfortable if it opened my eyes to my own behavior.
I would like to think that I am more aware of the consequences on others of what I do and say than I was back in my youth, but on occasion someone suggests what I have said or done reveals a prejudice. My immediate reaction is either wonder—there’s nothing wrong with what I said—or discomfort at my unthinking mistake. But almost always I reflect on the situation to see if I should alter my behavior, and that is a good thing.
I have also learned that the discomfort in such situations is not confined to the speaker. Bystanders, too, often feel uncomfortable, perhaps because they use such expressions or because they know they should have spoken up or because they thought they would sound like a prig by reacting. The bystander’s instinct is to blame not the casual prejudice but the one who points it out. One day Gary, a nice guy, used the expression, “Jew me down.” Another friend, Jim, said that he would prefer it if Gary would not use that phrase. Other people who were part of the conversation were made uncomfortable at least as much by Jim’s comment as they were by Gary’s, but I think Jim was right to say what he did.
It is right to call out the casual prejudice, but it is not always easy. I was happy that we talked to the Parks Department guy about his joke. Bob R. was our friend, and the supervisor told no further jokes about Jews. Instead, he shifted into Rastus jokes. No one said a word to him about them. We knew no Blacks. We spoke up when a friend was affected by casual prejudice Good. But at the time our sense of justice did not extend to the exposure of prejudice that did not so immediately affect us.