Most of the time, our family life is typical. But every so often, without warning, a Monty Python sketch breaks loose.
Connor (13) asked the other day why there are bad names for black people but not for others. At first I didn't understand what he meant. Then I realized he meant exactly what he had asked.
It's not the first time I've been made aware that he is growing up in a very different day-to-day environment than I did. I once asked him if middle school kids still told jokes about people who were different from them.
"Different how?" he asked. I assumed he was just torturing his liberal dad.
"You know...different races. Different nationalities. Different gender. Handicap. Sexual orientation. Hair color." I was momentarily aghast at the number of categories that leapt to mind, not to mention the number of verbatim jokes I could instantly recall. And they kept coming. "Weight, intelligence. Religion." I lowered my head. "Birth defects."
"You told jokes about people with birth defects?" he asked incredulously.
"No! Not me," I lied.
In fact, I was always the comedian in school. Dale needs to learn when it is time to be funny and when it is time to pay attention was a common report card comment -- right next to the 'A', thank you very much. I protested that the official "time to be funny" never seemed to arrive. Having chosen comedy, I engaged all the genres of my tasteless time. Fat jokes. Quadriplegic jokes. Black hitchhikers and Polish lightbulb changers and Chinese shlimp flied lice. And yes, any and all birth defects.
This question was different but clearly related. "There are rude names for others," I said, "not just blacks."
"What about for white people?"
"Honkey," I said. "Cracker. Peckerwood."
He laughed. "What about the Chinese?"
"Chink, slant, gook. You're telling me you've never heard those?"
He was shaking his head in disbelief. "Never. I've heard Grandma talk about A-rabs," he said, leaning on the 'A' -- "and you can tell what she means."
"Well, it gets a lot worse than that."
"Is...is this for a social studies report or something?"
"I just never heard these. It's crazy. What else? I'm just curious."
I looked at him sideways, finally deciding he was not pulling my leg. My teenage son was hearing his first genuine ethnic slurs not in the school corridors but from his dad. I thought about pretending we'd exhausted the list, then decided he could handle it -- that hiding hateful stuff from him is less productive than looking them in the eye, giving him a chance to flex his own moral judgment.
"Well, some others for people from the Middle East are towelhead, raghead, camel-jockey." I paused. "Sand nigger."
"I'm sorry, jeez, you asked! Did you only want the pretty slurs?"
He shook his head again, slowly. "What about countries? Like Germany."
"You mean krauts?"
"What, like from sauerkraut?"
"Wop, dago, goombah..."
"You're making these up!"
"Frogs. Or cheese-eating surrender-monkeys."
He laughed so hard he turned red. "Why?" he asked at last.
"Well, some people think they caved in too fast to the Germans in the Second..."
"No, I mean...okay, I can see why somebody would make up rude words for people who are really different from you. Still rude, but I can see it. But the French?"
I thought about it for a minute. "Well, I guess it depends on whether you've been in conflict with someone, one way or another. We don't have a name for Greenlanders, as far as I know, because our interests and actions don't overlap. If they did, I guarantee we'd come up with a slur in a heartbeat. Some people resented France for costing American lives in the Second World War, and some get mad when they don't support U.S. policy."
"So we probably don't have anything for Mexicans."
"Oh wait. Okay...yeah, I know some of those."
There's a large and growing Mexican-American population in Atlanta, which means an increasing perception of conflicting interests -- most often groundless -- and resentments stoked in part by angry talk radio.
"What about Brazil?" Connor asked.
I thought about it. Brazil. "Hmm. No...I don't think we've ever had enough to do with Brazil to call them anything."
Ahh, but the century is young. If that shoot-first devotee of Teddy Roosevelt makes it to the Oval Office, can a name for the Brazilians -- and the Belgians, and just about everyone else -- be all that far behind?