Growing Up in the 50’s: Thinking in Ethnic Slurs

I often wonder what idiotic backward thinking might still be lodged in the recesses of my brain based upon what I was exposed to growing up.

My father ranked high among the most prejudiced men on the face of the earth. Virtually everyone was referred to by him as “that _____,” usually with a preceding adjective like stupid or greasy or lazy. The blank was always a derogatory ethnic slur. Who did he envision being outside the safe haven of our home and the home of our relatives? There were chinks and kikes, spics and micks, polacks, frogs and krauts. There were worse slurs but some were so obnoxious my fingers refuse to key them in.

Fortunately there was virtually no diversity in our neighborhood so he didn’t have to add slang terms for Indians or Arabs or non-Chinese Asians into our everyday vocabulary. And since neither Yugoslavia nor the Soviet Union had broken up yet, dad didn’t have to come up with another dozen or so derogatory monikers to cover all of those ethnic groups that he didn’t know existed.

017ac6835e46a4ea31241bd69e13251550f0689627I don’t believe he was worldly enough to realize that not every person who spoke Spanish as a first language came from Puerto Rico. And I suspect that he didn’t believe gays existed outside of maybe Hollywood. Liberace was the archetype in his mind. In fact about the only times he encountered people of substantially different origins was in watching TV.

The town we lived in, if it had a population of 5,000 included at least 4,000 Italian-Americans. So one ethnic slur wasn’t enough for my father, there were guineas, wops and dagos. I doubt that there was any difference in meaning between them and have no idea what bizarre factors prompted dad to use one or the other.

These derogatory missiles not only explained other peoples’ appearances but also provided a stereotypical guide to their behavior. If a business of any type was destroyed by fire, my father’s account would be about “Jewish lightning.” Once, while we were all driving home from a trampoline demonstration at the YMCA that I participated in I remember by father’s observation on the show. “Those colored boys sure can jump.” This was in reference to a black kid who got more air off the trampoline than I did, not because he was four inches taller, 30 pounds heavier and a few years older, but apparently because of the color of his skin.

Sometimes I want to excuse his attitude as being a result of time and place and his isolation. But I know that isn’t a very good excuse and that smart people overcame that. My mother was the same age and lived in the same town but I don’t ever remember her using an ethnic slur.

Fortunately this Neanderthal view of the peoples of the world never seemed to impact my father’s face to face communication with anyone. Faced with an individual whose race or ethnicity suggested a group my father held a dozen negative stereotypical views about, he would instead decide that this person was an exception and act like a decent human being.

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4 Responses to Growing Up in the 50’s: Thinking in Ethnic Slurs

  1. Carol Ryle says:

    Boy if that’s not the truth. But I really don’t think their slurs were filled with hatred. It’s learned behavior, I’m hoping! Good read Ken.


  2. Pingback: Growing Up in the 50’s: Christmas Time in Paterson | off the leash

  3. Pingback: Growing Up in the 50’s: The Automat | off the leash

  4. Pingback: Growing Up in the 50’s: Nedick’s | off the leash

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