Last week, while standing in a long and winding line at a local Jersey City supermarket during the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy, I was struck in the ear by a phrase I hadn’t heard in colloquial usage for over 30 years: “Be White About It.”
The “Be White About It” comment came out of the mouth of a White guy a lot older than me and he was speaking to a young, White, teenaged boy a lot younger than me. We were surrounded by a palette of multiple ethnicities in the store, and the older man was telling the younger boy to — “Be White About It” — as the young man approached the customer service area to complain about an already opened jar of pasta sauce they had purchased an hour ago. The vacuum seal on the jar was pre-popped.
Nobody else around us — White, Indian, Hispanic, Black — seemed to take notice of the “Be White About It” phrase, perhaps, because they’d never heard it used in public before or, maybe, because they did understand the intention but didn’t want to make a scene.
As a child of Nebraska, the “Be White About It” phrase was sort of commonly used all around me. That phrase was spoken with a mixture of sarcasm, pride and sardonic Racial superiority all blended together. You knew what the phrase meant by its intention and intonation, but you also inherently learned know what it didn’t mean: “We’re good people.”
The twisted theory behind “Be White About It” is an admonishment to remind the speaker, and the actor, to be calm and clean and understanding — unlike those “non-Whites” — who tend to get loud and angry and emotional when dealing with a social problem in public.
You never need to “Be White About It” in private, because you are always “White” with your own kind, but when you’re in mixed public, being “White About It” is a call to Racial Superiority in the social square that only the allegedly well-mannered, and moral, “Whites” are able to comprehend.
Sure, the theory goes, a Black person could “Be White About It” — and I’ve actually heard that phrase used to a Black person, but the instruction was more threat than friendly reminder. To non-Whites, “Be White About It” is absolutely an immoral, Racial, slur.
After hearing that phrase spoken in public again after 30 years, I wondered how it came into being. I immediately thought it was a Midwestern twistering of the famous “Be British!” reminder during the sinking of the Titanic:
The “unsinkable” ocean liner went down in freezing Atlantic waters during its voyage from Southampton to New York. As it sank, the captain, Edward John Smith, shouted: “Be British, boys, be British,” according to witnesses.
“The American culture was set up to be a more individualist culture and the British culture was more about the gentlemanly behaviour,” Mr Savage says.
I also remembered a couple of other phrases I often heard in Nebraska as a child — that only later, as an adult, I also learned were born in bigotry and racism.
The first phrase was “Jew ’em down” — meaning get a good price. Everyone I knew used that phrase, and it wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast that I discovered how cruel and unsavory that phrase is in intention and delivery. The first time I realized the “Jew” in “Jew ’em down” was actually about Jewish people, I found it hard to breathe for a second.
The other phrase I heard a lot was “Gypped.” I always thought it meant someone ripping you off — and it does in context — but it is also an insult to Gypsies who had a historic reputation for taking things that did not belong to them and reselling the stolen items for a profit. As soon as I realized “Gypped” was short for “Gypsy” — I stopped using the phrase.
I’m certain I also heard both phrases combined more than once, “Jew ’em down, so you don’t get Gypped!”
I still hear “Gypped” on the East Coast quite a bit, but “Jew ’em down” — not so much.
It concerns me that, as a child, using “Be White About It” and “Jew ’em down” and “Gypped” were so common in colloquial use that none of us kids ever questioned their real meaning in provenance and history. We repeated those phrases by acclimation because the adults around us spoke those words.
When I grew up in Nebraska, there were bright pockets of liberal Blue, but now the entire State is 100% rashly red and unforgivingly ultra-conservative with all Federal office holders being only Republicans.
That’s why expanding your world and stretching your universe beyond your ruddy birth are so important. Break from where you were raised and bred and live a new life among differing people. Think apart from your upbringing. Ask questions against things you think you know. Take apart the colloquial by thinking about the meaning of everything you speak and write — and never “Be White” — about anything ever again.