Once again I need to pass on your wise words to one of my children. My 15-year-old shocked me last night when, after recounting how I had come up with a non-conventional (but not prohibited) method for building a card tower, and leading my teammates to win a “competition” ( done for fun at back-to-school night), my son said, ” You’re not going to like this, but at school they would call that, ‘a Jew move.’” He said this in earshot of a friend, who agreed.
I was shocked. First, I asked him, ” Are you ‘dissing’ your heritage?” To which he said, “Umm, yes.” Then I asked him, “Or are you using a colloquial ‘diss’ that is actually a compliment, since it means you were smart enough to figure out a solution to the problem before anyone else?” His answer “Yes, that too.” I was still so upset, I told him I felt it was disrespectful to his heritage, and it bothered me so much I was leaving him to eat his dinner alone. And I left the room.
How could I have handled this better? What should I have added? (I left the room before I told him that when another parent said, ” She’s folding the cards!” the teacher said, “Yes, you may need to fold the cards a bit.”)
Dear Mrs. M.,
Even if some time has passed since this event, it is still not too late to have a discussion about it. Actually, your emotional reaction had its own impact and there is value in that, but a calm and rational conversation is also necessary.
We think you should start by explaining how each of us is sensitive on certain topics based on our personal experiences. These can include our race, religion, gender, economic status, physical health and stature, history of mental issues, place of birth and an endless number of other factors. Just as poking a physical sore spot on our body elicits a stronger reaction than poking a healthy area of skin, we react more fiercely when someone pokes at an area where we are emotionally vulnerable. Your son ‘poked’ a sensitive area of yours.
We all have some area of vulnerability. Immature people react to this weak spot by lashing out at other people’s weak spots; a form of bullying. Mature people learn not to cause pain to others by extrapolating from their own feelings to others’ sensitivities. Assure your son that you know he didn’t mean any harm or offense. You know he and his friends might even have intended to be complimentary. Your reaction can teach him a lesson of how language can be hurtful even when not intended to be. In general, statements that use words which categorize and define people or actions in a stereotyped and limited way are best to avoid.
We want to add a caveat. The ‘Politically Correct Police’ today have gone too far in the other direction. There are real cultural differences among groups and nationalities and it is puerile to pretend otherwise. Pulling every twelfth person out of an airport security line for extra screening while ignoring the nervous young man with the Middle Eastern passport who is number eight is ridiculous. He might very well be nervous about flying or about proposing to his girlfriend but the slogan, “If you see something, say something,” is meaningless if we have to pretend that crime and terrorism are randomly distributed. If you’re interested in more truth on this topic, you might look at some of the great Thomas Sowell’s work, such as his essay, Cultural Diversity. However, we can be careful about gratuitous use of stereotyping while still living in reality. Like so much else in life, there is a delicate balance.
Finally, you could engage in a serious discussion with your son on the very real question of whether indeed, Jews are disproportionately successful or whether that is an anti-Semitic canard. Furthermore, if they are really more successful (as they in fact are!) is this due to skullduggery or genes or rather to reasons that are replicable by people of all backgrounds. For an in-depth and truthful analysis of this, we would be remiss if we didn’t recommend our book Thou Shall Prosper.
Wishing you much joy from your children,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin