Today I got to teach a lesson about language and culture in an anthropology class I was covering. It was so interesting, and I got into a good discussion about slang words and phrases with the class. We talked about “slang” that was popular when I was their age (well, I talked and they laughed at how “old” I am) and then they came up with lists of current slang in use with their generation. As they read through their lists, the generational gap became much wider. I know they were reading words, but they made no sense to me. It seems like the language has changed, even just in the two years I’ve been off work.
And then, while they were quietly working on their questions, I heard two kids quietly talking at the back of the room. One of them laughed and said derogatorily to the other, “You’re such a Jew.” They both laughed and moved on.
It caught me off guard to hear that. I didn’t realize that was a new thing, and I actually find it quite offensive. It’s also not the first school I’ve heard it at. A few assignments ago, there were a group of boys sitting around a table talking while they worked. They were being silly and a little off topic, and as I was walking over to redirect them, I heard the phrase again—one boy to another. I let it pass the first time on the off chance I had heard incorrectly, but when they said it again, I asked them to stop. Later in that period I heard one boy get annoyed and say, “Ugh, you’re such a Jew.” The other fired back in response: “Yeah, well you’re an Auschwitz”.
I stopped dead in my tracks. I was floored. It was not a history class, and I knew this group of grade nine boys likely hadn’t been through a proper WWII unit yet, beside a quick overview in elementary school. I knew I couldn’t let it pass without saying something, so I stopped the class then and there and we had a frank discussion.
I looked at the boy who had made the Auschwitz comment and asked him if he knew what it was. He lazily shrugged his shoulders and said he heard it was some place from WWII.
…Some. place. from. World. War. Two.
I kept myself in check and did my best to make this a teachable moment. I nodded and told him in a way he was right. It was a place during World War Two. But that it was not just “some” place. I asked him if he knew what had happened there. When he said no, I looked to the other boys in this group who were also throwing around the phrases “You’re such a Jew” and “That’s so Jewish” earlier in the period. They too shrugged their shoulders.
It was clear that to these boys, these were just phrases they had heard somewhere and thought sounded cool. They had absolutely no idea what they meant.
So, I told them. I explained that using Jew or Jewish as slang in a derogatory way was offensive, much like the now banned phrases “That’s retarded” or “You’re so gay”. One boy scoffed and said, “yeah well no one really says that anymore” and I tried to simply explain that they stopped being popular once people realized how much those words were hurting groups of people and those that loved them. They were using a hurtful stereotype that they didn’t even understand, perpetuating anti-semitism without knowing what that meant. As they were digesting this, I bluntly explained the impact of anti-semitism during WWII. I looked at the boy who had made the Auschwitz comment square in the eye and told him that over a million people had died there during the war. He looked a little incredulous at first, but I gave a brief textbook explanation of the camp and the mass exterminations that had taken place there. As I spoke the whole room quieted, and each of the boys at this table looked like they had been knocked down a peg or two. They quietly asked a few questions about the war, then I gently redirected them back to their original task.
I don’t know if it made a difference–within a few minutes they were lively and chatty again, throwing “shade” back and forth once again.
…but I didn’t hear them use either term again.
In a way, it just made me profoundly sad. As time passes and we move forward, this momentous event that literally changed the world is falling further and further into our past. I’m sure that many students probably don’t even see the relevance of studying the wars anymore–they feel so far removed from what took place. It’s unlikely that this generation coming through will have ever met, known or loved someone who served in or died in WWII.
But I did.
My grandfather served and was forever changed. I’ve met and listened to Holocaust survivors who forever changed me. To hear the phrases “You’re such a Jew” or “You’re such an Auschwitz” thrown around so carelessly and derogatorily was so offensive to me.
I really hope that this isn’t the “new thing” with this generation. But if it is, I won’t stay silent and listen to it.