STICKS & STONES
Any more fair?
By Charles Golding
My son who is still at school, spends over two hours a day on the bus. He witnesses lots of interesting things and loud disputes. Here’s one of them.
Yesterday a man got on the bus. He paid the driver, sat down and was typing on his phone. After a few minutes, he pulled his mask under his chin to make a short voice message, which he sent and replaced his mask.
As he was pulling his mask back up, onto his face, a woman shouted at him.
“You don’t wear masks? Put your mask on!”.
The bus was going through a largely Ethiopian section of town. The man in the mask was Ethiopian.
In Hebrew the word you can be singular or plural, ata is singular, atem plural. In English it’s all the same. So what she in fact shouted was “You (people) don’t wear masks?”
An Ethiopian woman called her out on it immediately, asking why she had used you in the plural. “Why didn’t you use the singular?”, she asked.
Everyone who was listening knew why, including the man in the mask, who eventually left the bus. The woman looked around the bus at my 15-year-old son and others, for support and agreement. I’m pleased to say that she did not find it.
I don’t know why it still shocks me when I hear this form of racism, expressed in public. More than 20 years ago, I was asked to be a judge by the UK government’s CRE (Commission for Racial Equality) which had set up a “Race in the Media Awards”. It made me more aware than I had ever been of the casual use of language, designed to make people feel excluded and the other.
Throughout my career I often came across casual English antisemitism. Not the kind of rock-throwing, graveyard-daubing European stuff, but the polite, parlour room variety. In most cases, when I reacted, the perpetrators immediately withdrew their comment, explaining that they meant no offence.
As a Jew - as a human being - I believe people should be called out on that kind of language. Sticks and stones may well break my bones, but the older I get, the more I believe that words can damage by encouraging those sticks and stones.