In a post on Tumblr accruing more than 40,000 interactions in just four days, user “gendest” confronted Jewish cultural appropriation. They argued non-Jewish people should avoid using the word “Jew” entirely, since some Jewish people are uncomfortable with its usage and appropriation by gentiles. When I compare this against other cases of alleged cultural appropriation, however, it doesn’t hold up. The question becomes, where do we draw the line between what is and isn’t culturally appropriate?
The word “Jew” has a history of being used pejoratively. Comedian Louis C.K. has remarked, “Jew is a funny word because it’s the only word that is the polite thing to call a group of people and the slur for the same group.” But by telling people not to use the word at all, we give more power to the slur. The intonation is what differentiates the insult from the description, but that’s already how language works; you can make anything sound like an insult if you say it in a rude tone.
Deciding what words mean and don’t mean is tricky, as the very definition of words like “racism” are hotly contested among scholars. The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
Authors and academics like Pat Bidol, member of the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, challenge those definitions, arguing the very words we use to have these conversations have been defined by groups of mostly white, upper-class men. The definition she uses is: “racism equals prejudice plus power,” which implicitly argues it is impossible for non-white people to be racist, since they lack the political and social power to exert that prejudice on anyone. It concedes that anyone can have prejudice, but for that prejudice to mean anything substantial, a framework of oppression must also be present.
A famous example of blatant cultural appropriation comes from the Washington Redskins, an NFL franchise that extensively uses Native American symbolism. Supporters defend the term “redskin” as a term of honor and respect. However, Redskins fans wearing warbonnets and other cultural artifacts to games twists and mocks a culture that has been demonized for centuries.
Warbonnets are used in certain Native American tribes to show great respect to those who exhibit courage and dedication to the tribe. A rough analogue to these decorations are medals and awards given to members of the military, and when we look at how zealously some Americans hunt down and shame people wearing false uniforms (commonly referred to as “stolen valor”), one can’t help but sense a bit of hypocrisy.
The usage of these two words, “redskin” and “Jew,” shows where to draw the line. Calling a Jewish person a Jew should be as simple as calling a Christian person a Christian, or an Islamic person a Muslim. True, Jewish culture has been historically attacked and appropriated by mainstream culture, and as the grandson of a Jewish-Austrian Holocaust survivor, I am acutely aware of this fact. But the word “Jew” is not a slur. It’s as basic a descriptor as one can have.
If the word simply describes with no connotations, it is appropriate. If the word describes by mocking or exaggerating certain features, even under the guise of respect, it’s a sign of appropriation.
My take: Cultural appropriation is real, but with how important an issue it is, we need to be careful where we make our accusations.
Reach contributing writer Alex Bruell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BruellAlex