So our son is on break from school. We decided to spend it visiting my family in my hometown. I’m from a relatively small-ish southern college town. While we’re here, I arranged to visit my best friend since childhood (33 years of friendship!). We’re very close despite living in different states for our entire adult lives. We stay in regular phone contact. But she and I only get to see each other about 1x a year. We’ve each been married to our respective husbands about 5 years. So they have met only a handful of times ever. But the times they have met have always gone well despite them being very different people from polar opposite backgrounds.
Now I and my friend grew up privileged, travelled, and know people of all walks of life. My husband is from a much larger city up north and grew up in an even more diverse environment. My friend’s husband, on the other hand, grew up out in the country in a tiny town. He’s a really nice guy. I’ve always thought he was smart and sincere. He’s never been unkind. But he’s not ‘worldly’ in terms of knowing people of diverse background. I’m quite certain we’re the only Jewish people he has ever spent time with. He–you can tell it’s earnest–tries. He really does. But at the heart of it, he’s a guy who grew up in an overwhelmingly white evangelical area where ‘diversity’ was being Presbyterian. Everyone looked and believed and talked the same. They spent the weekend hunting and fishing and going to church on Sunday. You can just tell that he really doesn’t know what stereotypes he was fed growing up out there… that he just doesn’t even realize they’re stereotypes it’s so ingrained in him.
While we’re at their place for dinner, my friend’s husband made a remark. It was along the lines of ‘well Jews do so well. They control a lot of businesses. That’s amazing you all do so well!” The tone and the context around the statement made it clear he didn’t understand this was a harmful stereotype. And he seemed to be trying to compliment Jewish people. Upward economic mobility means a lot to this guy. I know that from my friend. So he seemed in the larger context to be speaking in admiration for what he perceives as Jews doing well economically. But it was cringey. It was bad.
I tried in the moment to address it gently. I basically said ‘well Jews don’t really control industries. There are a few industries that Jews are statistically overrepresented in which is all stemming from very specific emphases in the religion itself (think doctor… save a life or lawyer…emphasis on interpreting complex language and parsing rules) or from outside forces that were actually meant to hem Jews in (restricted to garment industries …many Jews then ended up making garments for film which then put Jews in prime position to work in movies as the screen developed)’. I talked about it being a religion that requires literacy even at a time most were illiterate and a deep critical thinking; both of which crossed over as learned skills into excelling in general secular education. I tried to give him better information instead of a dressing down. He was very receptive to all that. He listened avidly, and we chatted on it with a few follow up questions. And then the moment passed.
We went about our dinner and drinks.
A few hours later at the end of the evening (midnight), we say we’ll need to go as it’s late. We all stand up from our seats. As we do, my husband blurts out. “Well thanks for having us. I did just want to say something about what you said earlier. Jews don’t control anything. It can be a really negative stereotype we do. You shouldn’t say that to anyone.” We all just froze. Like it was just out of nowhere at that point. It was hours later. It was just as we were literally walking out the door. That was his parting line. It was a very awkward and tense exit.
I was silent as we walked to the car. And livid. The guy obviously didn’t mean it that way. I thought I did a pretty good job in the moment. My husband had the option to say something more direct in the moment. He waited until we were leaving and just dropped a bomb. My husband insists that it was a reasonable thing to say and reasonable time to say it. He’s really digging in his heels on it. ‘Anti-semitism is getting worse and it’s important to point it out’ he tells me. I was up texting half the night with my friend. She and her husband were beside themselves apologizing for ‘being anti-Semitic’… ‘he had no idea it was the wrong thing to say’ and ‘he’s so sad that he offended us’ and ‘he’s trying to do better and learn.’
I feel oddly terrible. Like terrible for how we treated my friend’s husband. Which is weird since yes my friend’s husband did say something problematic. But I feel like my husband is in the wrong with the way he handled it… the time he handled it. I feel like he sucker punched the guy…then walked out. But my husband is making me feel like I’m somehow excusing anti semitism by saying it was the wrong time to say something and the wrong way to say it. I guess I am wondering if I’m being unreasonable or if he is.
So I suppose I’m asking the internet.