Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I’m not sure how you feel about racial and ethnic stereotypes, but I’m going to take a deep breath and confess that I mostly don’t mind them. Sometimes I even get a kick out of ’em. In fact, I’m not sure how anyone makes sense of the world without resorting to stereotypes to a certain degree. After all, absent preconceived notions concerning peoples and cultures, who would ever choose to visit, say, Italy? It’d just be another place on the map, albeit an intriguingly boot-shaped one.
Racial and ethnic jokes don’t particular bother me either. When I was a kid we used to tell Polish jokes all the time. I knew some folks of Polish heritage and they weren’t stupid in the least, but that didn’t stop the jokes. I remember asking my father why people made fun of the Polish. He had no idea but he thought the jokes were funny just the same. I used to hear Italian jokes too. That struck me as kind of amusing because I’m part Italian, and though there are certainly a few dim bulbs in our familial chandelier they don’t comprise the majority — you can even find some pretty bright ones if you look hard enough.
The family of an Irish friend of mine was particularly merciless when it came to Italian jokes: when I’d visit his home they’d rib me constantly about being part Italian. Fortunately, I figured out that it’s somewhat easy to make jokes about the Irish, and from that point on we took part in an insult contest of a kind that if it were heard today would get a kid suspended from school if not imprisoned. The fact that I’m part Irish didn’t matter as much as the game of wits and braggadocio we were engaged in. It was very similar to arguing about sports teams. Picking a side was important. So was proving that you could take a shot and come right back with one.
Around this time I noticed that my grandparents were pretty blithe about using out-of-fashion ethnic terms. I’m sure they stereotyped too. When my grandmother needed something taken to the laundromat she’d tell my grandfather to “take it to the chinks.” I only realized that “The Chinks” wasn’t the name of the establishment when my grandfather took me on a laundry run and I noticed that the place was run by Asians (I think we still called them “Orientals” in those benighted times). Chinks or no chinks my grandfather was pretty friendly with the folks who worked there. After chatting with gramps the Asians went back to talking in what to my ears was an incomprehensible chatter. No doubt they were referring to my grandfather using whatever the Chinese word for “dago” is.
I suppose my rough, little-kid conclusion was that making fun of each other was just something people did. Maybe it was even a roundabout way folks had of negotiating their differences. Everyone was laughing at each other. And maybe they were laughing at themselves most of all. Coming to that conclusion seemed like part of . . . becoming a grown-up or something.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I was expecting a package from France, so I popped over to the French postal website in order to obtain the tracking information. I immediately noticed the above banner image, but it took me a second to determine why it struck me as incongruous. What, I came to wonder, is an Asian girl doing as the face of the French post office?
Don’t get me wrong — I love Asian girls. I love how gracile and feminine they are. I even love how their pubes are all downy and straight, like the fuzz on a kitten that’s walked into a field of static electricity. But when I visit a website associated with the French government I expect to see something that coincides with all my treasured stereotypes concerning the French. Where are the berets, the snooty people carrying around baguettes, and the women with charmingly hairy armpits? Or are we no longer supposed to think of France in that manner? If we’re not, is it wrong for me to feel a little sad about it?
- According to Wikipedia, the French population is about 1.5% Asian.
- Paleo Retiree on ATM propaganda.
- Top 10 French stereotypes.
- The NAACP recently called for the end of all profiling — which is another way of saying they want to make it illegal for people to think in terms of stereotypes. The implication is that the end of stereotypes will mean the end of murder and incarceration or at least hurt feelings. How do you think that’ll work?
- This post endorsed by Tanner Boyle:
One sentence definitely caught my attention. You all know what that sentence is.
Oh, poor you, an Italian-Irish mix, so everyone thinks you’re a mobbed up dude who likes to drink and fight a lot. Try being Mexican-Polish then get back to me.
Seriously, though, I’ve been to France three times and I can categorically say the ONLY Asians I saw there were Japanese tourists. That postal graphic is so silly.
I am Italian-Irish-German, with possibly some other things thrown in there as well. I heard lots of Italian, Irish, and Polish jokes as a kid. Not many German or Mexican ones, though. No idea why.
Most of the Italian jokes seemed to revolve around grease, spaghetti, and Anthony Quinn. Oh, and body hair — back hair, women with mustaches, etc. I don’t think Anthony Quinn is even Italian.
Wikipedia says Quinn is Mexican. LOL.
Quinn is Mexican, from the same area as my dad. He claimed once that a woman who used to babysit Quinn babysat him too.
Anthony Quinn: Hollywood’s go-to ethnic guy.
[note from an uncouth reflector in France]
There are families here from the former French Indochina. There’s an Asian kid in Être et Avoir (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Be_and_to_Have) which is pretty amazing given it was filmed in a rural commune in the Auvergne.
Thanks for stopping by. I love that movie. Philibert is quite a talent.
This is just the kind of whining I would expect from a McWop.
I suspect that you — movie buff that you are — were thinking about early Hollywood talkies as you wrote this posting. Am I right? The Before-the-Code movies are often celebrated as uninhibited treasures — entertainment for adults that flourished before the bad ol’ censors cracked down. Most of what the critics have praised in those movies is the frankness of the way they portray sexuality. All very true. But whenever I’ve watched these movies, another thing that has struck me is how rough-and-ready they are so far as race-and-ethnicity go. (Critics aren’t as prone to praise this form of uninhibitedness as they are the sexual freedom. Why not, do you suppose?) The movies are full of stereotypes, as well as language and name-calling that would outrage the PC brigade. It’s all so … offensive, you know? Spics and Micks and Wops and such. Yet nearly all of it is offered up in a good-natured, companionable way, and — miracle of miracles — nobody onscreen is touchy or berserk about any of it. People give it and take it, and then move on with their days. It always seemed to me like a sensible, sweetly earthy way for people inhabiting a melting-pot-that-never-does-quite-melt nation to conduct themselves. Besides: if uninhibitedness where sex goes is a good thing — as we’re often assured that it is — why isn’t uninhibitedness where race-and-ethnicity goes just as good a thing?
I wasn’t consciously thinking of early talkies, but I’ve been going through some lately, so maybe they were a subconscious influence. I definitely agree that critics home in too much on the sexual aspects of those movies to the detriment of all their other interesting qualities — the don’t-give-a-shit-about-racial-handwringing ones included. I like “Baby Face,” for instance, but it seems kind of obvious to me that it’s famous largely because it sends a message that modern academic types approve of.
FWIW, I grew up (in a vanilla, middle-class smalltown/suburb) almost totally ignorant of ethnicities and stereotypes. I had a dim sense that Catholics were a little odd, that Jews liked books and were often smart — my mom revered Jews, more or less on principle — and that blacks were often great at music and sports and could sometimes be a little scary. But that was it. (I remember being shocked once when a funny, eccentric aunt was recalling her high school days and joked that, so far as sex went, “Jewish girls were considered the easiest and Catholic girls the best.” Why was this so? I had no idea.) I honestly feel like my ignorance crippled my ability to function in the world to a significant degree. I just didn’t understand the meaning of “Italian,” or “Irish” … I didn’t know which groups liked and disliked each other, or for what reasons. When I came to NYC, I was baffled by all the ethnic stuff swirling around me, as well as by the tension: the ethnic stuff was fascinating, and everyone knew about it and considered it central to being able to function in the city, but it was also more or less against the law to talk openly about it. So it took me ages to develop a trustworthy picture of the various groups. I often found myself thinking that it’d be a good idea for someone to create a short booklet explaining and illustrating the various ethnic groups that make up NYC — Welcome to NYC, Here’s What You’re Going to be Dealing With. It certainly would have helped me get up to speed.
I grew up closer to NYC, so I think I got hit with more ethnic stuff as a kid. Many of the older folks I grew up around came from Brooklyn and areas like that. They’d grown up in an environment where it was a given that you belonged to a certain group, and that’s just the way they saw things. My friend’s mother compulsively referred to everyone by their ethnicity. She’d say, “Oh, I saw Mr. Soandso, the Jew who lives on the corner today.” I’d think to myself: “Mr. Soandso is Jewish?”
I recall much Irish vs. Italian ribbing, most of it friendly. Weirdly, I don’t recall much anti-Jewish stuff. To me, Jews were like Italians who weren’t catholic. The two groups seemed interchangeable.
I also don’t recall much anti-black stuff or even much talk about blacks in general. My area was virtually devoid of black population, so I’m sure that had something to do with it.
Actually, one black story: My neighbor, a fat Italian guy who was a former cop in the Bronx, went with my father and I to Yankee Stadium. This was when that area (Fort Apache) was a truly scary place. I mean legendarily scary. Being a former cop, and probably a bit on the shady side, our neighbor finagled us some good parking adjacent to the stadium. But we had to walk through a really bad area. He assured my father and I that this would be fine (I was probably seven at the time). As we’re walking, a few black guys walk out of a side street without seeing us. My neighbor suddenly bellows, “Hey, you bunch of dirty n*gg*rs, what are you doing in this neighborhood?” My dad and I nearly fainted. The guys turned around, walked up to my neighbor, and gave him a huge hug. Then laughing and chatting all around. I guess they were friends of his who lived down there, and who knew him from when he was a cop. My father still relishes telling that story.
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Someone’s first-hand experience with pervasive ethnic awareness / stereotypes is a function of how close they grew up near an area with a recent history of heavy immigration. Immigration soared throughout the Gilded Age and peaked in the 1910s. It was already way down by the ’20s, and was virtually zero throughout the ’30s. and ’40s.
But how mixed-up your region is depends not just on how many new immigrants are moving in, but the ones from before — the fraction of all Americans who are foreign-born. That rose from the mid-19th C to a peak in the 1910s, then fell through a trough in the ’70s. The re-emergence of a large foreign-born population is mostly from the late ’80s, after the 1986 amnesty for Mexicans.
So if you grew up in a newly developed suburb of the mid-century, you probably were insulated from the ethnic stew of towns and cities that were already populated before about 1920 or 1930. Even if you grew up in such a suburb during the ’80s, you were still probably insulated from that stuff. Only by the late ’80s, and even then only in southern California and the Southwest, would you start to feel a different mix of people in your generic American suburb. During the ’90s and the 21st century, it’s already game over.
Helpful graphs to keep the big picture of immigration / foreign-born history in perspective:
My mother and her siblings were teenagers during the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s, when the foreign-born population was falling / nearing the bottom. But they’re pretty ethnically aware because they grew up near small towns in Jefferson County, OH, that were heavily settled by immigrants up through the choke point of the ’20s. Yorkville, Tiltonsville, Rayland.
The Celtic barbarians had long spread out through the hills of Appalachia, but lots of those relatively more urban areas in the valleys have lots of recent immigrants — wops, micks, dagos, hunkies, polacks, etc. Not that many niggers, spics, or kikes, though. (The good old days…)
So even though the foreign-born pop was at a historical minimum, growing up near a place with lots of not-too-distant immigrants counteracted the mid-century melting pot ideal.
Whereas the two main suburbs where my brothers and I grew up were populated after 1920 and after, I dunno, probably 1940 or 1950. We had almost no ethnic awareness, and although we told polack jokes, didn’t connect it to a real-life ethnic group. We had a similar level of diversity as my parents’ generation, but the place where we grew up had been founded apart from, and cut off from, the older cauldrons of ethnic tensions. I had no appreciation that Pettibone, Van Horn, Wiseman, Werner, McPhee, Reed, Telles, and Yassenoff were all from different groups.
Er, scratch that — I guess McPhee is Scottish along with Reed. See, I tried picking what I thought was an Irish surname, assuming that Scots tend to have Mac more than Mc. That’s how untuned my intuitive ethnic radar is. I have to rely on explicitly articulated rules-of-thumb rather than “just know” who comes from what group.
Where ethnicities and their characteristics go, I’m like someone who learned a foreign language in his 30s.
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In that French postal banner, the Asian girl is holding a magnifying glass up to one of her eyes, and all I can think is that she’s saying “Look how slanted and chinky my eyes are!”
I suspect this was not the intended result.
I don’t like ethnic stereotypes.