I am lucky to have never heard the word nigger used towards me. As a black woman in the United States this is rare, even rarer since I spent the majority of my childhood summers in rural North Carolina with my mother’s family.
I have vivid memories of riding in the back of my uncle’s pickup truck, red dirt kicking up in clouds behind us. I also remember my cousins telling us to get down in areas where the Klan was known to harass black people. Having no real context for what this meant I followed suit and made my body small and flat against on the floor of the truck’s bed. This happened a few times in my summers in the south, but still I had no experience with the word other than in books.
The first time I heard the N-word used in anger was on a New York subway coming out of the mouth of an Asian teenager a few months ago. He and his mother boarded the crowded train at Canal Street just as an older black man pushed his way onto the train and into the seat the mother was about to take. I was equally annoyed that this man rudely took the seat of an elderly passenger. But I quickly noticed by his erratic gestures that he was mentally ill.
Boiling with anger, the teenager called the man a “dog” and a “nigger.” The man became visibly aggravated and began rocking himself as the teen continued to spew racial insults. The train grew silent and all of the fellow passengers — many of us black and a few Jews in kippahs — looked on in disbelief. None of us said a word. It was their problem not ours.
I’m not sure what I could’ve done to calm the angry teenager down on the subway, but I often wonder if he would’ve stopped his insults if I’d said something. It is for this reason of “saying something” that I often write about the intersections of race and racism that I hear, read about and experience within the Jewish community. It is my hope that raising awareness will lead to change.
That’s why I have written about the word “shvartze.
When I first wrote about the so-called Jewish N-word, I got a lot of pushback. In my inbox, on Facebook, and on the Forward’s web site, I was told time and again that shvartze simply meant black person. It means black in German, a language Yiddish is built upon, they said.
I was told that I was too sensitive, that I was trying to paint all Jews as racist. I was told I that I was over-reacting, that equating shvartze with nigger was too big a leap.
I fully admit to not knowing any Yiddish and I have spent zero time in a predominantly Yiddish-speaking world. On the other hand, as a black woman living in the United States, I know a thing or two about racism and racial slurs.
When I read that a Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University warns against reporting suspected sex offenders to authorities because they may wind up sharing a jail cell with a “shvartze,” it’s no secret what he is saying. He means you don’t want to be jailed with a nigger. Any clear-headed person would agree.
There is an incredible amount of power in words. When a man calls a woman a “bitch,” “slut,” or “whore” he takes away a small amount of her power. When a neo-Nazi spits in the face of a man in a black coat with a long beard while snarling the word “Jew,” his words have power.
The power dynamic holds true when a rabbi in a position of power uses the word “shvartze,” especially while giving such a serious warning.
As infuriating as I found the word itself, I was even more shocked by the moral reasoning behind it. Schachter was saying it is so horrifying to put another Jew in jail with a black person, that it would be better to avoid making an allegation of child sex abuse in the first place.
In other words, better to let a suspected child predator go free to abuse more Jewish children rather than risk seeing a Jew share a jail cell with a “shvartze.”
There could not be a worse time in the Jewish calendar to make such a hateful assertion.
As we enter the season of Pesach, many households will make the correlation between the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt and black Americans’ escape from slavery. It is also a time we are reminded to welcome the stranger into our midst because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
We read that a mixed multitude of people left with the ancient Israelites out of bondage and into the promise land. How can we remember these words of our ancestors and act according to our traditions when the words we use continue to hold others in bondage?