Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wasp, WASP, wasp

The other night at a book event, I wanted to tell my audience a story that a friend had told me. The story is that my friend, as a child growing up in Detroit, heard adults say, "Don't sell [your house] to Jews because they'll sell to blacks." Amazing thing to say. Amazing thing to hear as a child. But who among us, as children, didn't hear adults saying odd things? Anyway, the story loses some context if I don't say that the neighborhood my friend lived in was a "WASP neighborhood." There was a time, I think, when I would use the term WASP without thinking much about it. But I see now that it is a kind of slur (or not "a kind of" but an actual), in the sense that it groups and labels and makes assumptions about homogeneity of character in the same way all the other terms discussed on this blog do. So I decided to turn to Dr. Phil Herbst's famous dictionary to see what he had to say about the term Wasp. Phil? You're on.

From the early 1960s, an acronym for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” applied most frequently on the East Coast and in the Midwest. The acronym was popularized by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell in the 1960s and was initially used primarily in social and sta­tistical studies of ethnic groups in the United States.

WASP is technically a person of English ancestry, although the term has been applied to Scots and Welsh and to others of northern European descent. WASPs are less likely to be identified in terms of race or ethnicity (attributes that tend to carry some stigma) than other groups are.

Irving Lewis Allen (1990, 109) sug­gests that
WASP originated as a code word for "Protestant" (the church affiliation would be mainline Protestant), used when a reference to religion might be consid­ered intolerant or impolite; however, the term has taken on connotations beyond this. In the climate of political correct­ness of the 1980s and 1990s, WASP has been used derogatorily in identifying someone as a part of oppressive, white, Eurocentric society. It suggests people who are influential or patrician and con­notes the privileges, social conformity, standard setting (in practices and lan­guage), smugness, and bigotry perceived by their critics to characterize members of the group. They may be viewed as con­gratulating themselves for being more American than anyone else. "In the United States, they [the Irish] have faced the hostility of Yankees, WASPs, and other so-called Americans" (Leonard W. Doob, in From Paddy to Studs, ed. Timo­thy J. Meagher, 1986). The acronym has been taken up by self-identified WASPs themselves and is often seen in print with­out apology.

Of the various spellings, Brookhiser (1991,20) notes, "'Wasp,' with only the ‘W' upper-cased, has the sanction of Norman Mailer to recommend it. It is less ugly."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What does "ethnic" mean?

This is a postcard of the "Giraffe-Neck Women" as they appeared with Bertram Mills Circus, 1937. I use it as the image for my post on the term "ethnic," which it turns out is almost as slippery as the word race. A word we hear and use commonly but when pressed, cannot precisely put our finger on it. It is a little humorous to do a Google image search on the term and see the array of costumes and looks and dolls that come up. Which is how I found this Bertram Mills Circus photo (and others even more shocking). At any rate, here is part of Phil Herbst's definition of ethnic from The Color of Words.

ethnic. An adjective describing a group of people sharing common cultural ele­ments; also a noun for a member of such a group. It is derived from the Greek ethnos (nation, people, or foreign people). It was also once used in the re­lated sense of “gentile" or "heathen" and expressed chauvinistic dislike of outsid­ers. Usage is sometimes contradictory and elusive.

In its contemporary sense, in the so­cial sciences at least, the term is traced to the 1940s Yankee City sociological studies of W. Lloyd Warner. In Warner's first volume (1941), the noun ethnic
was used in reference to someone who con­sidered him- or herself a member of the group under study (Yankee, Irish, Jew­ish, etc.), or was considered so by oth­ers in the group, and who participated in the activities of the group. The term thus came to denote a group of people defined by a common culture, national­ity, language, or religion and by the sig­nificance attached to their shared back­ground.

Among many white, assimilated Americans, however, ethnic connotes foreigners or outsiders. Even Warner's concept of ethnicity involved an exclusivist meaning: it could refer to the Irish, Jewish, etc., but not to the native Yankees. At some times ethnic also con­notes something relatively uncivilized, as in the phrase ethnic politics, believed to be somehow more backward than mainstream politics. At other times, it suggests a desirable feature of one's identity, something glorified, even exoticized.

Ethnic is also associated with race and may be preferred to that term. Michael Banton describes the important differences between an ethnic group and a race as such: "The former reflects the positive tendencies of identification and inclusion where the latter reflects the negative tendencies of dissociation and exclusion" (in Cashmore 1984,86). Blauner discusses some of the ways black and white people "talk past" one another in using the terms ethnic and race: "When blacks are 'being ethnic: whites see them as being 'racial'" (Pincus and Ehrlich 1994, 25).

The use of ethnic to describe mem­bers of any ethnic group living outside their native country became popular in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and Canada as a way to refer to minor­ity groups with shared origins, culture, or language. "Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, about twenty-four million ethnic Russians have found themselves living in foreign countries, outside the boundaries of their historic homeland" (John Kohan, Time, 19 July 1993, 41). At the same time, used to describe any people who form a minority within a larger society, the term may mean the indigenous people in a society in which others are perceived as foreigners. In Fiji, for example, the native Oceanic people are called ethnic Fijians (Europeans and Fiji Indians came to Fiji later).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The label "shiksa"

This week, I return to my original mission--to post terms from Phil Herbst's dictionary The Color of Words. (See original introductory post here.) The term shikse is one I heard a lot growing up in a Jewish family, as is the case with several other terms I've posted about on this blog. It's yet another one of those words for "the Other" that seem to so preoccupy people in their private conversations, drawing lines and boundaries and suggesting differences of so many kinds: hair, clothes, food, religion, and so on. Here's Phil's definition.

shikse, shiksa, schicksah; shaygets.
Shikse is a sometimes derogatory Jewish usage (the Hebrew root word means "abomination") for a young fe­male gentile or for a Jewish woman who resembles or imitates a gentile. Rosten (1968) notes occasional use among Or­thodox Jews for a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox and not observant of Or­thodox customs.

"If you wait long enough, you'll marry a shikse . . . mixed marriages--the plague of the Jews" (a Jew to a young Jewish man in Paul Mazurksky’s "Enemies, a Love Story," an adaptation of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer). The masculine form is shaygets or shagits.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


In my novel, every chapter has a one-word title except for one, and that chapter is called Riot/Rebellion. The reason? One theme of my book is that perspective determines everything. So, some might see the events that occurred in July 1967 in Detroit as random chaos and thuggery, while others might see those events as having more political content and intentionality. And, of course, many variations lie between those two possible views. I didn't want to be the one to decide what it should be called, though in promotional material and even in my own descriptions of the book, I use the word riot as a kind of shorthand that I know people understand. I have talked about this in an earlier post.

What I want to add here is that I mentioned this question/dilemma in an interesting and vibrant online forum called Detroit Yes. There, one person responded that when you're lying on the floor, hiding behind a dresser, watching bullets fly through your windows, it certainly feels like a riot, and something that people want to forget and put behind them. This, I certainly respect. Another person on the forum called the July '67 events an uprising. What I hadn't expected was what someone told me at a private event for my book--that his Jewish uncle owned a store that was destroyed in the Detroit riot/rebellion, and that this uncle referred to those events not as a riot nor as a rebellion but as a pogrom.

Pogrom (according to Wikipedia, that much-maligned and useful source) comes from a Russian word that means "to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently." In my understanding, the element that most characterizes a pogrom is that it is directed toward a particular group--ethnic, religious, or otherwise. Jews were often the targets of pogroms in Russia, and pogroms were what drove many Jews to run for their lives to America.

That this uncle saw the Detroit events as so intentionally directed toward Jews (I assume this is what he meant by using this word) was startling to me. I've got no conclusions to offer. Just saying . . . perspective is a powerful thing.