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."

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