anti-Semitism, racism

You People Use So Much Garlic!

Coexist bumper sticker.

I invited an acquaintance over for supper, and as she walked through the door, she wrinkled her nose and remarked, “You people use so much garlic.”

I was at a loss as to how I should respond, so I said nothing. However, the recent massacre of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh sharply brought my friend’s words back to me. I now believe that these not-so-subtle disdainful comments that separate people should not go unanswered. But what should I have said?

“You people,” divides us. Remember when Ross Perot unsuccessfully used those words during his bid for president in 1992?

Anti-Semitic bumper sticker on a car owned and driven by Paul Schmieder of Queens, NY.

As a Jew or member of any minority, we must not let divisive words be used without consequence. On November 4, 2018, the online version of The Forward revealed that the State of New York invalidated an anti-Semitic vanity license plate with the initials GTKRWN.

I had no idea what that acronym stood for, and it horrified me when I found out: Gas The Kikes, Race War Now. Thanks to Jay Firestone, who infiltrated an alt-right community and wrote about it in Commune magazine, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic of Queens contacted the Motor Vehicles Commissioner, Theresa Egan, and requested that the plate be cancelled. The words were a form of hate speech that incites violence, and the agency took appropriate action.

In the past, I have tried to be pro-active when my family felt the sting of anti-Semitic actions or words. I regret that I made no moves when a neighbor boy once told my son that he should have been burned in the ovens, too. I knew the boy’s family was openly anti-Semitic, and I felt inadequate to the task of confronting them. I felt so guilty that later, when a minister’s son accused my daughter of killing Christ, I took action.

I called upon the family and told the father what had happened and how this had upset my child. Sternly, the minister called in his son. “Stevie, didn’t I always tell you that we killed him, too?”

Even though the results were underwhelming, at least I tried. Then when my younger daughter’s two fourth grade classmates opined, “We wish Hitler had killed you. You should have burned in the gas chamber,” I reported the incident to the teacher who subsequently contacted the parents. What happened after that escapes my memory. Nonetheless, in this situation, I knew that I personally could do nothing other than turn to a higher school authority, and in retrospect, that was a good move.

No one should make back-handed criticisms of another’s ethnicity. I’m more convinced of this than ever before, so back to my original question: What should I have said to the acquaintance who said that my people used so much garlic?

I welcome your suggestions.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who is on heightened alert to not ignore racial, religious, or ethnic slurs against anyone.

Coexist bumper sticker.

Visit my website, The Gallery of Folklore and Popular Culture:

14 thoughts on “You People Use So Much Garlic!”

  1. I’m a good cook and I cook with spices and garlic. It’s not about religion. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.

    1. I don’t quite agree with you. Criticizing other people’s foods can be a way to not-so-subtly criticize the people themselves. Here in New Mexico, folks who say they don’t like Mexican food because it’s too spicy are often denigrating the people themselves. I have dozens of examples from other places, too: Pakistanis in Britain; Sikhs in my L.A. neighborhood; Armenians in Glendale, CA.

  2. I am not offended by the garlic portion of the comment being of Italian descent. The problem for me is the ” you people” portion. Terms like this destroy individuality and group people into catagories. Doing this allows us to assume ” you people” are all the same and denegrates the group as a whole. If we hold a low view of “them” we broaden it to all of them. This is dangerous and has caused genocide to many groups across the planet for centuries.
    Speaking without empathy of any group will not end until we see all groups and their struggle as a universal struggle.

    1. Absolutely. Statistically, hate crimes have increased over the past few years, according to the FBI and ADL. If only we had leadership that promoted unity rather than divisiveness, I believe the numbers would change. But it’s not about numbers. It is about respect for people who are unlike ourselves.

  3. I am of Italian descent and , I too, have heard the garlic comment. If the person had said that the garlic taste/smell was too strong, that is simply a comment about someone’s personal taste. However, using the qualifying words “you people” is referencing an entire group, race, class of people and depending on the context used is racist, anti-Semitic, agist, etc.
    When a person says something like that to me, I try to address it so that the person is aware of how he/she sounds. While it may not be an intentional comment of bias, on its face it is!
    Thanks for the discussion.

    1. I agree with you. It’s the “you people” comment that divides us. And it gives a glimpse into how the speaker perceives the world — us and them. Currently, the divisiveness in this country is scary and depressing. Thanks for your input.

  4. This kind of casual thoughtlessness widens a chasm between people and allows those who make such slurs feel as if they are better than the folks they insult. That’s the basis of the white supremacy movement, yet when we see them in mugshots or carrying Tiki torches it’s clear they’re lacking in so many ways. Speaking out in a safe and reasonable way is the only way to hold a mirror to their actions and hope that they’ll rise to become better citizens of our world. We have so little time on this planet — isn’t it better to be kind? Thanks for writing this, Norine.

    1. Of course, it’s better to be kind. But what sort of “Kind” role model do we have leading this government? It’s non-existent. At times, I think maybe we have to wait until the older generation (to which I also belong) dies and perhaps the younger generations will be less prejudiced. However, I also see depressing signs of young people just parroting their bigoted parents and religious leaders. I fear that in this country the them/us relationship will be long lived.

  5. My flippant answer would be “Yeah! It keeps the vampires away!” Or I imagine a nastier response like “Oh right, you people eat such bland food!” ….
    But more seriously, as you and others here have pointed out, it’s the “you people” that is the issue, and the assumption that something in *your* cultural expressions is a problem, rather than that differences can be interesting, unfamiliar, exciting, or just different …
    I am so impressed by the ways you handled those other anti-Semitic incidents. How awful to experience them, and how awful to have to figure out how to respond — and to know that even then, the anti-Semitism might not really be changed at all. And how awful that many more people must go through this in our country today …

    1. As I mentioned in a previous comment, hate crimes including anti-Semitism have increased over the past two years. Especially, when children are the targets it can be devastating. I grew up during WWII and it seems like we’re back to Square One when recently, students in a group photo gave the Nazi Salute that brought laughter. Well, I’m not laughing.

  6. Hi, Norine–
    I teach ESL literacy to a group of Chinese women from Hong Kong, all of whom have been in the US for at least 40 years. One of them told me things she has “learned” about Jews because there are lot of Jews living in her neighborhood:

    1 “Jews are not friendly.” Her evidence:The man in one neighbor couple won’t talk to her or even look at her.

    2. “Jews are rich.” Evidence: They “all” lilve in big houses.

    3. “Jews don’t like Chinese people.” Evidence: No one in their neighborhood came to their house trick-or-treating after their first year living there.

    After she reported #1 to me, I explained some basics about Orthodox Jews. I also explained that I’m a Jew too, though not Orthodox. Despite that, she didn’t hesitate to tell me numbers 2 and 3 a couple of months later. That time I was so shocked and offended, I couldn’t even respond.

    Today I went to my local state resource center for ESL teachers and checked out your excellent book Our Own Journeys with the intention of planning a lesson or two on this kind of chazerei.

    1. Great that you will use my book to attempt to reach your students. Good luck. Especially, when your students tell you negative beliefs to your face, this must be rather shocking. I admire that you will try and “re-educate them” but prejudices are hard to erase. Let me know how it goes.

  7. Norine, that woman would never think that she is racist. People who make those types of comments never do. So how about just confronting her with “Gee that comment sounds so racist. You probably didn’t mean it that way.” Then, when she says she isn’t you could point out how “you people” separates people into classes. Just a thought!

    1. Your thoughts are valid but unfortunately, that speaker is now deceased. Throughout our friendship, she continued to make racist statements, not out of malice (I like to believe), but out of ignorance. That aside she was a kind, compassionate, intelligent person and she believed that she was quite fair in her approach to people who came from different religions and ethnicities. But her choice of words always betrayed her true feelings. Thanks, Marie.

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