Just the way in which a name is said can be an insult.
My Dad, who died in 2021 at the age of 92, called the Japanese “Japs” to the end of his days, despite the fact that he never fought in WW II. He was an adolescent and then a teenager throughout the war years, patriotically watching the newsreels and reading newspaper reports of the war. But he never encountered battle with the Japanese.
Instead, Dad spent most of his adult lifetime working in the industrial fastener industry. Japanese manufacturers were often his industry’s strongest competitors. I suspect that this fact had more bearing on his biased nomenclature than the actual events of WW II.
Later, following the events of 9/11, Dad despised all Muslims with the same loathing he had always bequeathed the Japanese. I’d taken him to the zoo one Father’s Day when he was in his 80s, and, as we were leaving, we saw an American serviceman, in uniform, with his Muslim wife and children. Dad simply glared. “I don’t like seeing that,” he remarked to me, his words clipped and angry. “I just don’t like seeing that.”
Knowing my Dad as I did, I was not surprised, although dismayed. “For the love of heaven, Dad,” I protested, “not all Muslims are terrorists!” But he shook off my words as a dog shakes off water. To him, just as the Japanese would always be “Japs”, so all Muslims were terrorists and fanatics.
Yet despite the fact that his own brother fought during the Korean War, while Dad himself lived through the horror of Vietnam, watching the carnage on the nightly news (always fearful that my older brother would be drafted and seeing the sons of his friends and neighbors go off to fight and die in an undeclared war)–well, despite all of this, Dad never referred to Asian people using the horrendously insulting “gooks”. I’m uncertain why this was. Perhaps he just never encountered that derogatory term.
Dad once forwarded me a video of a meeting in which a Muslim woman in the audience stood to ask the panelists a question about fighting the sick ideology of Muslim terrorists without harming the hundreds of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims worldwide. The panelist who responded did so by making a number of very valid points about the innocent, peaceable people of Germany, Italy, Japan, and a half-dozen other countries, all of whom were led into wars they did not want and would never have begun, by a fanatic minority leadership. The panelist’s points were compelling, but the manner in which she made her remarks was a discourteous rant. Her voice grew more and more strident and agitated until she was nearly shouting. Her fury was quite out of proportion to the reasonable question posed so courteously by the young Muslim woman. When I replied with this perspective on the video, my Dad chose not to respond.
But I find that it’s all too easy to dehumanize an entire group, a full spectrum of humanity, in order to justify evil behavior of our own. All we need to do is label both the good and bad apples with an insulting sobriquet – to call them honkeys or the reviled N-word, or redskins or spics, kikes or Micks, Japs or gooks or Krauts. We don’t really even need to come up with a nasty name; just the very way in which the word is said, spitting it out (“Jews!”) can be enough of an epithet.
So, no matter how much I loved my Dad, I continued gently suggesting the correct nomenclature — yes, even in public — when he spoke of “the Japs”. I mildly reminded him of the hundreds of peaceful and law-abiding Muslims who are not terrorists, and that an entire group of people cannot be defined by an ideologically sick few.
It’s unlikely that my remarks made any difference at all to my father’s worldview. But I always felt better for having spoken.
Despite the way it might sound, I posted this essay to honor my Dad–my contrary, opinionated, self-proclaimed “mean old Wop” Dad–who would, had he lived, have turned 93 just a few weeks ago. And if you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy, “Same Argument, Different Decade”, from January 19.