Is this an offensive slur?

QOTD: Is it OK for a young Jewish woman to call another young Jewish woman a JAP, or is it an offensive slur?

Here’s the three-part context behind that question:

  • A friend (Jewish and female) replied to my post about Karen; she opined that those who call someone a Karen

are probably just generally uncareful in their language, the same as people who use a term like “J.A.P.” though of course that is sexist and antisemitic in the latter case.

I replied in turn that some of my Jewish and female students told me that there was nothing wrong with saying JAP, which then made us wonder whether adults would have a more mature attitude than these teens. Hence the second part of the context…

  • I sent out an email a bit over a week ago to a well-identified subset of friends and relatives (all adults, but with quite a range of ages):

Quick poll of some of my Jewish or Jew-adjacent female friends: Is it OK for a young Jewish woman to call another young Jewish woman a JAP, or is it an offensive slur? What about if the speaker is not Jewish? Or not female?

(The “Jew-adjacent” ones all have Jewish spouses.)

  • The third part of the context was a fascinating video of interviews by Tablet Magazine, which produces the great podcast Unorthodox (not that TV show with the same name!). You may want to read their article about it and watch the accompanying video before continuing with the results of my survey:

So I got about 20 replies — not enough for meaningful statistics, but enough for some patterns and some anecdotal reactions. Most of the replies were short, but a couple were quite long and contained lots of interesting and informative information. Here are some excerpts (all quoted verbatim, but condensed and anonymized as needed):

  • I think it’s pretty offensive in any case, unless it’s a joke among old friends!
  • I consider it an offensive slur.
  • I would not use the term in public, though I might very well use it with friends who knew me well. My high school Jewish female friends used it a lot to talk about their peers, which is where I first encountered it. I think it is always at least somewhat derogatory, but not necessarily offensive depending on the context. To me it implies privilege and a certain unthinking “raised in a bubble” kind of dependency.  As in the classic joke “how many JAPs does it take to change a lightbulb?”  “Two, one to open the Diet Pepsi and one to call her father.”  It does not necessarily imply stupidity but maybe shallowness.I had a female Jewish colleague married to a gentile who said her husband made fun of her desire for jewelry — “He says it’s the Jew in me,” she used to say.  That always made me uncomfortable, even though she was saying it sort of about herself.  (She’s now married to someone else.)  Not JAP in this case, but I wonder — if it had been, would I have felt better about it?
  • Like a lot of words, I think it depends on the context. Personally, I would never use it myself. And I haven’t heard it used by anyone in [husband]’s family. But, compare it to the N-word. Used frequently within the black community, but considered racist when used by others. Maybe this is similar?

    On a related note, [husband]’s sisters have occasionally used the word “goy” when speaking of others and it makes me uncomfortable.
  • It’s completely NOT okay unless both people are both Jewish and female. And it’s still not great even if they are because it supports an offensive stereotype.
  • Definitely used derogatorily, just like other ethnic jokes, e.g. “What’s a JAP’s favorite wine?” “I wanna go to Miami!” Heard these a lot aimed at the Jewish girls from Long Island when I was at [college].
  • If I say it at all, I tend to say it out as Jewish American Princess rather than the acronym… To call someone a Jewish American Princess if the speaker is not Jewish is, while not a slur per se, to me a pretty obnoxious and stereotyped thing to say; I think it’s only ok when we say it, and maybe we shouldn’t either. Its meaning to me is somewhere between uncritical sexism, and some actual intention to sincerely criticize someone else for acting entitled. But since there are plenty of young Jewish men who are just as entitled, if not more, and there’s no equivalent male term… I think I’ve just convinced myself that it’s sexist and Jews (regardless of gender) shouldn’t say it about other Jews either. If we mean someone is self centered or entitled, we should just say that.
  • In my (very limited) experience, calling a young Jewish woman a JAP was intended as a put down, not a slur. That is, it’s describing someone as a member of a particular subset of Jews, as opposed to “this is what Jews are like”…

    In writing this, I think I was thinking of a young Jewish woman saying it, in large part because they know what JAP stands for. Also, I imagine it being said by someone who is not a JAP herself.

    The problem with JAP used by someone non-Jewish is that it falls into the stereotypical depiction of Jews. Also, said person is probably not aware of the particulars. So while it may be being used as just a put down, how is one to distinguish whether it’s a put down or a slur?

    So, to sum things up, the only time that it can (pretty much) definitively be described as a non-slur is if another young Jewish woman’s says it, and therefore has to be at least tentatively assumed to be a slur from a different group.

  • In a word, my answer is no, not a slur. Offensive, probably, but that’s more complex.I don’t think this is a slur, but a stereotype denoting unearned entitlement and a disconnect from a history of oppression and poverty. Rather than a name-calling, I would consider this a calling-out, especially in our current environment of racial reconning (I say especially now because people are thinking about these things rather than just reacting. I don’t think the meaning has changed).Is it offensive? Well, certainly people will be offended to be called this. No one wants to have their attitude or position thrown in their face. Is it offensive to call it like you see it? Maybe, because we live in a polite society where we don’t say things people don’t want to hear. But if you want to call someone out on this, there isn’t a polite term to use or a happy way to do it.Using stereotypes and general non-slur name-calling is often deemed offensive, partly because it brands people without taking into consideration the individual. Partly because of the attitude of the speaker. Think about the difference between being called Jewish vs. being called a Jew. There is definitely a tone difference there. Stereotypes can be based in fact, however, and unlike a slur, can have some accurate denotations along with negative connotations and inaccurate assumptions. Hence, dealing in stereotypes is usually bad.I don’t have a ton of history with JAP, but I would think, like many stereotypes, labels and even slurs, it can be used as a friendly jab among the right set or pair of female friends, in which case it may not matter if both are Jewish. It’s not a term I would use with any of my peers, though, because I think it’s loaded.

    The gender issue is a bigger I think. Any time a person uses a label on someone that can’t be turned back on them, it inherently creates a power imbalance in the interaction, which can only have negative consequences. Traditionally, JAP only applies to women, but in theory, I don’t see why the P can’t just as easily be prince as princess. (You can argue that being called a princess is an honor and, in this case, is a way for fathers and husbands to put their women on a pedestal, but I think that gender dynamic is flawed and really just strips women of strength and power.)

    …I think the intersection of Judaism, privilege, whiteness, and freedom is embedded here, which is an interesting, but perhaps tangential, discussion. I’m thinking workman’s circle vs. wealthy suburban Jewish communities. And believe me, I think a lot about my place in all this!

    Also, you can parse it this way: Which is the worst word? Jewish, American, or princess? Right now it feels like princess is the dirtiest, but we know historically that Jewish can be a scary thing to be. And now – I feel like American isn’t exactly our brightest descriptor either. Put those things together and now we’re really off and running with some cultural contexts.

  • I think location is key also, if you are on Long Island it is not a slur! Other parts of the country it might be.
  • In my opinion, there are definitely layers to this. None of the words in the acronym are offensive, and we as an American Jewish community generally have a particularly relevant issue with identifying our own privilege. Is it a nice thing to say? No. Could it offend some women? Yes. But is it a “slur?” Not in my opinion.I grew up around some privileged, spoiled Jewish women. Women who were not attached to either the religious aspects of their Judaism or our cultural values of community service. Even non-religious Jews celebrate Passover, which is not only one of our most religiously significant holidays, but a passionate celebration of Jews violently freeing themselves from slavery and systemic oppression. We tell the story every single year, and yet there remains a disconnect from our people’s history of protest and our role in using our Judaism to empower our participation in seeking justice for our communities. There’s absolutely a cognitive dissonance between a lot of wealthy Jews, women or otherwise, from the core values of our people and how that empowers us to speak out against injustice. Using terms like “Jewish American Princess” speaks to the frustration that many of us (Jewish people) have for Jews who only claim their Jewish roots for the privilege it provides them, rather than the values of service it binds us to. I think the term is a valid response, even if slightly petty, response to identify a point of conflict in our community. Like, I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings, but how are you using your privilege as a white Jew of means?
  • I actually wasn’t super attuned to that as a slur at all until I streamed a TV series that has a silly gimmick in which they break out into song periodically and centers around a NYC-raised young Jewish female lawyer. At one point in it, there’s a song that is a “JAP battle” between her and another female nemesis who grew up in the same social circle. It’s obviously poking fun at many aspects of the implications of JAP, but honestly was one of the first times I really confronted it. I don’t really have enough personal experience with it as a term to feel totally comfortable weighing in, but my sense is that it isn’t inherently offensive, although perhaps depends a bit on how much it’s being used in a way that’s grounded in reality of one’s family situation (in terms of finances, expectations, and the way one presents oneself).
  • My read is it’s offensive in pretty much any configuration of speakers.. although I guess some other questions are whether either or both people are rich, and how you feel about punching-up vs down. (I feel ambivalent about the whole concept, also neither not-Jewish nor not-female are clearly defined social statuses relative to Jewish and female). Other things that could make it ok are if both people have an understanding of it making some kind of enlightening critical point and/or being funny, ideally both. I do think it’s better if both people share as many relevant identities as possible so there’s an element of mutual self-deprecation.
  • I think it’s an apt description of some women, but definitely an offensive one. I don’t think I’d ever call someone a JAP to her face. To me it means an entitled, social-climbing, self-centered Jewish woman (usually young and clueless).
  • I would not call an acquaintance a JAP, but I have been known to refer to close friends that way.

I also asked one of the younger respondents a follow-up question:

in the last two weeks I’ve been hearing a lot of people being called “Basic,” which seems to be the non-Jewish equivalent of JAP as far as I can tell. Same views on that?

Response was:

Basic definitely isn’t new, but I would say it has some themes in common – a word used to describe a (usually white) woman who the speaker finds entitled and overly invested in appearance, pop culture, and/or fads like the pumpkin spice latte. It’s not a slur, but I do think it’s sexist, since again, there’s no male equivalent, and the thing it criticizes women for being is essentially what the rules of patriarchy are telling us to be in the first place. (And I say this as someone who is heavily uninvested in my appearance and has a love hate relationship with pop culture… though I do enjoy a good pumpkin spice latte. Iced.)


Categories: Life, Linguistics