Old post I wrote I don’t remember when. Waste not want not… so I post it.

… is racist speech?

My wife and I were talking about parents and words and racism. I remember hearing ‘pollock’ jokes as little kid (specifically ‘dumb pollock’) and thinking they were funny – the stupidity of the people described was funny – but not knowing what ‘pollock’ meant. I told one of these jokes to my dad, I think I was 6 or so, and he said “I don’t like ethnic jokes.” I said “what’s ethnic?” He said something like “ethnic jokes are jokes that make fun of people for where they’re from or the color of their skin.” That seemed wrong to me, like something mean, and wasn’t what I’d intended to do. I said something like “why is a pollock joke ethnic?” He said something like “pollock is a mean word for Polish people.” I said “what’s Polish?” He said, exasperated, “People from Poland! Poland is a place!” I didn’t tell any more pollock jokes or think they were funny.

I had a similar experience in the fifth grade. I got into a fight with another kid and called him a lesbian, a term in heavy circulation among fifth grade boys at my school. We got caught for fighting. The kid told the teacher “I hit him cuz he called me a lesbian!” (for the record – can you tell I wasn’t a kid who got in trouble much? – he hit me first, I hit him, he pushed me down, I called him the name then he hit me again I got up and went to hit him then we got caught), the teacher said – hardly a progressive, looking back – “I’d hit you too!” I didn’t answer. She dismissed the other boy (Eddie, I can’t remember his last name anymore) and asked “do you know what that word means?” Embarassed, I mumbled that I didn’t. She lowered her voice and said “it’s when two women make love to each other.” I remember being shocked and sputtering – I didn’t know what that meant but I knew it made me uncomfortable, especially to have a teacher talking about it.

What I find interesting in all this is the use of terms without knowing their charge – the potential gap between the historical content of speech and its meaning in context. Put another way, there’s speaker-meaning and hearer-meaning.