I read an article on BuzzFeed yesterday that really upset me. According to the article, emails from the University of Chicago’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a historically Jewish fraternity, had been released and revealed a culture of racism and Islamaphobia within the chapter. The N-word was used prolifically, Muslims were called “terrorists” or “towel heads”, a vacant lot next to the fraternity’s house was called “Palestine”, and some of the brothers turned MLK Day into “Marathon Luther King Day”, celebrating with drinking and eating at a fried chicken place.

Over the past couple of years, stories about fraternities and some of the disgusting things going on within their walls have been coming out. Every time I’m absolutely disgusted, but this one hit me in a number of ways. For one thing, I have friends who are part of the Ohio State chapter of AEPi. They are good people, upstanding young men connected to their heritage and active in the broader community. To think they are in any way associated with this scandal just horrifies me.

Alpha Epsilon Pi’s University of Chicago branch is in deep trouble for the emails that have been uncovered.

But that’s only one level that this hit me on. Because this story also brought back memories from when I was young:

I went to a Jewish overnight camp from fifth grade to tenth grade. During my last year or two there, I noticed a disturbing trend among the boys in my year. Swearing was a regular part of camp culture–even the counselors swore on occasion–so saying “shit” or the F-bomb didn’t make me bat an eye. In fact, I reveled in it. We were being adult, we were being naughty. It was great.

But then I heard my friends calling each other “n***er”, and occasionally “faggot” or “fag”.

Understand, there were no black kids or staff on the camp, at least not as far as I know. This was also well before I realized I was bisexual. And my friends assured me their black friends were cool with it.

Even if I believed them, I still told them that I wasn’t comfortable with it, that they shouldn’t say it, or at least not around me.

Maybe it’s because I was bullied a lot back in the third grade (most of it verbal) and it left a big impact on me, but I’m sensitive to when people use words to hurt others. Especially those words. As much as words only have meaning if we give them meaning, these words do carry a meaning bred in deep history, and the meanings are not easily separated from the words. Every time a white person uses the N-word, they’re saying that African-Americans are lesser beings, second-class citizens and do not have the same rights as people with light skin. Every time someone calls a Jew a kike (like when, after a soccer match between my all-Jewish high school and a school of mostly African-American Christians, the opposing team began using the word after they lost the game and things nearly came to blows), that someone is calling the Jewish people a strange people, a parasite that takes money and power and killed the Christian God. Every time someone calls someone else a fag, they’re saying that there’s something inhuman or strange or obscene about being LGBT. And every time someone–not just a fraternity brother–calls a Muslim or a Palestinian a terrorist, they’re saying that entire religion is incapable of being peaceful, that their whole goal is destruction. That’s all completely wrong, and there’s not excuse to use those words.

Even if I had been as eloquent then as I am now, I doubt that would’ve swayed my friends, because they continued saying those words without any care to my feelings. Even when the head counselor of our year had a discussion with us one evening about how disgusting we were being. Even after, while on a field trip to the city, my friend said the N-word and it was almost overheard by a passing black man. They just went on saying all those nasty words and by doing so, they were saying it was okay to say words charged with prejudice and not care whom it might hurt.

For the first time today I wondered if any of my camp friends ended up at University of Chicago, and then at the school’s chapter of AEPi. Those camps have the effect of bringing Jewish teens closer to their heritage. Maybe some of my friends went there and brought some of their bad habits with them.

Believe it or not, this is some of the nicer things this sort of uncaring attitude can lead to.

The only time I approve of those words are when they’re used in mediums like literature or film to illustrate a particular time period or mindset, like in Huckleberry Finn or even in my own Reborn City. The rest of the time, there’s no good reason to say that trash. Not only is it hurtful to the people those words denote, they are harmful to the people saying those words, desensitizing them to the effects of these words. At best, that leads to dumb crap from fraternities and doddering old men in front of cameras or near cell phones. At worst, that leads to hate groups, violence, and lynchings or shootings in churches.

My hope that in the wake of this scandal, people–especially students and teenagers–realize that you can’t be blase about saying the N-word or calling people terrorists because of where they’re from or what their beliefs are. They’re hurtful. They’re damaging. And I hope that maybe the backlash these students will get will teach them and others what happens when you’re not cognizant of the feelings of others.

And I hope my friends from those long ago days aren’t members of that fraternity, and that they learned long before this what your words can do to themselves and to others.

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Comments
  1. There are slurs I hate (by the way, I had never heard of the K one you mentioned in here. Had I heard someone use it I would not have known what it meant/that it was a slur.) The N word is one. I can;t even bring myself to use it in period fiction. I have a story (Kateesha, actually) – she is a black woman right after the Civil War sent to discipline a group of ex-confederate vampires… You can see where this is going, and though they used the word (because they would have) what I ended up doing was putting “N-” and she cuts him off before he finishes it. I agree with you, there are places in period settings where they are appropriate – not appropriate because it was right for the people of the time to use it but rather to create dialog about why their using it was wrong or to illustrate the trials of a character, but past that I’d be happy to see most of those words go for good.

    • The K one I got from a Stephen King novel, but I’ve heard it in other places since then.
      Yeah, I know how you feel about even writing the N-word for a period piece. Once in high school I had to read a passage from Huckleberry Finn aloud to the class, and the N-word showed up twice in the passage I was reading. I swear, I choked on the word each time before I got it out. I felt so horrible saying it afterwards, I was sure someone would turn around and call me a racist.
      Yeah, it would be nice if these words just went away. Too bad reality’s a little harsh that way, isn’t it?

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