html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Valuable lessons all around.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Valuable lessons all around.

I went to Ukiah with the rest of engineering girl gang, a nice biologist and an older engineer. Don't remember how it came up, but I started telling the story about my sister and my dad and her teddy bear. My sister's favorite bear was George, and one night while we were all at dinner, my dad mentioned that a quarter a day would go a long way toward making sure that nothing bad happened to George while my sister was at school. Accidents happen, he said, but for a quarter a day he would personally check on George when he came home from lunch. My sister held out at first, but after finding George hanging by his neck from the ceiling, or in the oven, or the freezer, she conceded that George was indeed accident prone and started paying the protection money.

Her allowance didn't always last the entire week, but she could always earn some extra quarters by ironing dad's shirts. He paid her a quarter a shirt, which goes to show that he had a system the entire time and wasn't just extorting money from a ten-year-old girl for the fun of it. We were all laughing as Tracy asked how my dad could be so mean, and I answered that, well, he just wanted to teach her a life lesson in paying protection money on time, and how important a quarter could be.

"Why?" said the older engineer. "Is he a Jew?"

All the laughing stopped and I thought the sunlight seemed a little whiter and bleaker for a flash and none of us had anything to say until I answered "Yes. He is Jewish. As am I." The older engineer faltered, and explained that she didn't mean anything by it, its just that you know how important money is to Jews. Well, we were walking somewhere anyway and I didn't care to walk near her anymore, or really have anything to say to her after that. I still don't.

Two things about that comment shocked me. First, we are stateworkers! Are we not trained to be painfully, exasperatingly sensitive and correct? (Although considering that the girl gang spends its working hours in a nearly non-stop exchange of sexist comments and overt sexual harassment, perhaps the training has not taken hold as well as our bosses might hope.) How did "Jews love money" slip through? If it got back to our big boss, which it won't by me, all hell will break loose for her.

Second, I was surprised by how much the comment hurt. How much is not very much in the big scheme of things, but enough to have some sting a couple days later. I almost never identify with my Jewish heritage, and I have been a privileged part of mainstream culture my entire life. I may have to re-think some of my earlier reasoning (like "the etymology of 'call a spade a spade' is about shovels and not racism, so save your ire for real crap, otherwise impressive Councilwoman Hammond" in favor of "our history is so heavily loaded that it hurts either way, so how about we use words that have no opportunity for misinterpretation."). Thinking hurts my pretty little head, and what a pain in the ass to have to do it twice. But it is worth the effort if it saves me from accidentally making someone else feel like that.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Sweet Coalminer said...

In my prior life, I was often overwhelmed by the horrible things said by federal (not state) employees. Sexist, racist things that would never be tolerated at a private company with liability.

I think all the training backfires. Plus, people are stupid.

2:34 PM  
Blogger The Bench Jockey said...

For more proof of the stupidity of people, I direct you to the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. And he gets paid a shitload of money to be that stupid.

Sorry for the pain you were caused, and I have indeed spent much time thinking about the knee jerk comments like your co-workers that I used to mutter or proclaim without any thought.

Being a WASP (which is becoming a pejorative word these days), I've been sheilded from many of the less than stellar uses of labels or offhand comments that were common years ago. I sometimes think people have skin that is too thin, but not in this case that you relate. You were and are justified to take offense and feel hurt. I'd be more worried if the thought process in your "pretty litte head" weren't bothered by this type of behavior.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Volpone said...

Seems to me that the "spade a spade" example would be more analogous if you'd been offended by a reference to the "Jew harp" or something. What you described was a case of unambiguous prejudice.

10:30 PM  

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