In-Group v. Out-Group Use of Slang

Posted on June 1, 2009. Filed under: Jewish culture | Tags: , , , , , , |

My sister-in-law recently straightened my kids hair with a blow dryer. It was a fun way to spend a Saturday morning, and when she had finished, my daughter looked beautiful and my son looked like something from the 1970’s.  I posted pictures of their new dos on my facebook page, and a friend of mine commented, “What happened to the Jewfros?”

I took no offense, because I know he meant none. We are all Jewish, and all know what a Jewfro looks like. I actually take it as a source of ethnic pride.  An African-American neighbor of mine was once talking about my son’s hair and referred to it as an “isfro” which I guess is supposed to mean Israeli fro, even though we are not from Israel. He seemed very careful to try to avoid sounding antisemitic, and as a result sounded overly politically correct and just plain silly.

Would I accept a non-Jew saying my kid had a Jewfro as easily as from another Jewish person? In all honesty, I think unless I knew that person well, it probably would bother me. Is this similar to a Black person calling another Black person nigger?  Or a gay people calling themselves queer?

It is the in-group v. out-group use of slang. If the in-group takes ownership of the expression, they also take control of its power.  The power of language is in the pragmatics–how you use it, in what context, and with what intent. It is not necessarily in the words themselves. That is why the same word or phrase can be empowering or disempowering, depending on the speaker’s intent and the audience’s expectations.

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