Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the label "schwarze"

Because I posted last week about honky, a term used to describe whites, I thought this week I'd focus on schwarze, a Yiddish term used to label blacks. This word comes up in my novel several times. It's right there on the second page. In its most basic sense, schwarze is the German word for black.

Phil Herbst doesn't have an entry for schwarze in his encyclopedia of ethnic bias, so I've turned to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish. Rosten uses a different spelling than I did: shvartz (adjective), shvartzer (masculine noun and adjective), and shvartzeh (feminine noun and adjective).

As Rosten says, these "became 'inside' words for Jews--cryptonyms for Negro servants or employees." Also, according to Rosten, the usage of these words declined with the civil rights era. I admit that I heard these words with frequency as I grew up, and I also believe that Rosten is right about the decline in usage. The term was dehumanizing on several levels--lumping an entire people into a subservient class and attempting to find a way to talk about them without their knowing (the way one might spell out words when one doesn't want the children to know what's being said). Along these same lines, I've heard that some families used the word Canadians when they wanted to disguise a comment about a black person. Canadians?

When I try to think about the label schwarze in the most compassionate way, I imagine my grandmother--arriving in this country from some little town in Poland, knowing no English, completely disoriented by the entire experience of departure, travel, arrival, and adaptation--and then seeing an African American person for the first time in her life. Perhaps she would turn to her husband, who had been here for many years before she arrived, and say, "Schwarze?" Or perhaps one of the young daughters who had made the difficult journey with her would turn to her with this same question.

This is not to excuse the continued use of the term in a dehumanizing way. But still, seen in its most benign light, the source of such language is likely discomfort with difference, and a cluelessness about what, if anything, that difference means.

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