You feel it in your gut—that uncomfortable feeling of being stereotyped. A prejudicial belief that people with a particular characteristic—race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, etc.—are all the same means we don’t have to recognize others as individuals. It’s the ultimate guilt by association.
I was about 12 when it first happened to me. I used to pick up the evening newspaper for my dad every day at the guard shack at the old MGM Studios in Culver City. The guard and I had gotten friendly and exchanged pleasantries each day. One day, when my Culver City High School was slated to play a football game that evening against our arch rivals, Beverly Hills, the guard asked me if I was going to the game.
“I can’t go this time, but I hope our team wins,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “one can only hope you beat the kikes.”
I’m Jewish, but I had never before heard that term, nor had I experienced overt anti-Semitism. I lived in an area where many of my friends were Jewish, but just as many were not. I didn’t know how to respond to the guard—but I could feel in my gut that what he’d said was offensive, and that it somehow included me.
The word “kike” apparently comes from the time in U.S. history when there were lots of Jewish immigrants coming through Ellis Island. Many of them couldn’t complete the entry forms using the common English alphabet, and they didn’t want to sign with an “X,” because it seemed to represent a cross, so they signed with an “O.” The Yiddish word for “circle” is kikel, so the immigration inspectors came to call anyone who signed with an “O” a “kike.” However it began, use of that term to derogatively refer to Jews exists to this day.
Being blonde, and therefore not fitting the stereotype of what Jewish women are supposed to look like, I have often heard negative stereotypes about Jews casually thrown into conversation—things that clearly wouldn’t have been said in front of me if the speakers had known my identity, as if that should make a difference.
We’ve all had that experience, when a friend or family member drops some negative stereotypical term into conversation—“beaner,” “rag head,” “jungle bunny,” “Uncle Tom,” “chink”—usually without even knowing where the term originated. We can feel it in our gut.
All of this came to mind during the flap caused when the Trump campaign re-tweeted a post that had originated on an anti-Semitic website, depicting Hilary Clinton with a six-pointed Star of David against a background of money. It was subsequently explained and justified as “merely a star, like a sheriff’s badge.” There was no recognition by Trump nor his campaign that using an image representing an anti-Semitic image of Jews and money was, at the very least, worthy of recognition and apology.
If you don’t understand the history of how this image came to be associated as a negative stereotype of Jews, it’s easy to accept Trump’s explanation that “it was just a star.” In the Middle Ages, when the Church dominated European societies, people interpreted the Bible as prohibiting Christians from loaning money. Jews, however, were allowed to loan money, with interest. Many Jews at that time were prohibited from owning property or engaging in most means of making a living, so some of them became money-lenders. The stereotype was typified by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice in his character, Shylock, a term now associated with loan-sharking. As banking took off in Europe, Jews were able to finance everything from wars to exploration. However, when the time to repay arrived, some governments passed laws that non-Jews did not have to repay, or, as in England under King Edward I in 1290, the entire national population of Jews was expelled (and incidentally not allowed back as a community for more than 300 years).
This negative stereotype associating Jews with money has, obviously, survived. For anyone not to recognize the negative connotation of such a stereotype is just ignorant. For anyone implicated by such images, it’s hurtful. You feel it in your gut.
Concerns about Black Lives Matter and attacks on police officers have highlighted yet other stereotypes: police power as synonymous with the abuse of authority, and race as synonymous with criminality. We are born into a national culture that has, from its inception, valued some lives more than others, yet we react as if this isn’t a truth that needs to be addressed.
If asked to identify the ethnicity of one who is extremely good at math, you’re likely to say Asian. If asked about athletic prowess on the basketball court, you’re likely to say African American. If I mention a national identity associated with drunkenness, you might immediately respond “Irish.”
Organized crime translates to Italian. Blondes are dumb. Muslims are potential terrorists. Native Americans drink and gamble. Black men are well-endowed and barely evolved from animals—hence depictions of our president as a monkey. Hispanics are illegals.
Asians are secretive, easily depicted as devious or spies. Germans, despite more than 70 years since their involvement in World War II and the Holocaust, are as militaristic. Latinos are lazy—think of the pictorial image of the sombrero siesta, or depictions of Latinos as unwilling to learn English and assimilate, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Gays do not generally mince around with limp wrists, but when that stereotype is portrayed, they feel the negative characterization in their gut.
When leaders or public figures use discriminatory stereotypes to characterize political opponents or members of the general public, they are either indicating their ignorance of the historically negative implications—or they know and just don’t care.
Either way, we can feel it in our gut.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.