americans (and i speak about us because i know us best, not necessarily because we are unique in this respect) have a painfully uneasy time with discussions that should be as natural and easy as scratching an itch.
and as compelling.
after hundreds of years of living together, people from various and sundry backgrounds seems no more comfortable relating to each other on certain topics than new animals in a zoo are when they first get introduced into a new cage together. they circle each other warily, scoping each other out from a safe distance, both posturing cautiously and eying each other suspiciously.
we have problems relating to each other, but that isn’t even the real problem.
the real problem is that we have problems relating, without undue seriousness, to ourselves.
every interaction has to be interwoven with 13,000 levels of caution so as not to offend anyone’s delicate sense of emotional balance. rare is the person who can laugh at himself or appreciate that sometimes there is no innuendo in an innuendo.
stereotypes become stereotypes because certain behaviors are common enough among certain groups of people that other people both observe those behaviors and comment on them. they can be either positive or negative, but they are just observations.
yeah, that can be hard to hear, but if you remove the judgment, that’s just what it is.
it doesn’t mean that a stereotype is true of every person at all times in every circumstance in every way.
and it doesn’t mean that the exception disproves the rule. so just because your second cousin’s sister married a gypsy who didn’t have dark eyebrows or play the violin that doesn’t mean anything. why do people always try to trot out those one or two random examples that they have in their back pockets, and why are they so invested in telling you their one random factoid?
or they simply must tell you about the one friend they have from another racial or ethnic group- the good friend, the best friend- to give them some credibility on how not a racist they are.
you know who is completely not a racist or bigoted in some way? nobody.
you know who’s a little bit of a liar all the time because they are so ashamed and have no safe venue for honest dialogue to clear up the misconceptions? everyone.
and if you feel just the tiniest bit defensive or angry right now, i’m probably talking about you.
i know, it hurts.
and i’m sorry, but that doesn’t make it not true.
and if you can step away from your anger long enough to do an honest appraisal, maybe we can all grow.
i’ll tell you something else that’s true: i’m cheap and i’m a jew.
am i cheap because i’m a jew? is it in my genes? i have no idea. most likely i’m cheap because i was raised by my mother whose parents both grew up during the depression and her childhood was a lesson in frugality. so when she found herself a single mother with 3 little kids she did what she knew best- she clamped down on the budget and economized the heck out of it.
so, yes, i feel guilty if i throw out the toothpaste tube before i am absolutely positively 100% certain that it is completely empty.
now here’s the deal: let’s say someone calls me a cheap jew. let’s say they even throw in some expletives for good measure. i could get upset and call the ADL. i could fall apart and rail against their insensitivity. i could have a breakdown about people who use and perpetuate stereotypes and on and on.
or i could really not care.
because why would i?
as a jew i also have blond hair and green eyes. oh, wait that isn’t typical, right? my ancestors weren’t prayed on by their slave masters to mix my bloodline- but they sure were abused by the cossacks and the local peasants in eastern europe. so an allusion to my coloring may just be a slap in my face. some of my fore-folks may have intermarried. i don’t really know and i don’t really get that wrapped up in it.
i once had a fellow student in university get all up in my face and tell me i couldn’t be a “real jew” because of my coloring.
i could have hit the panic button. i could have called the ombudsman’s office. i could have flaked out that she was all confrontational about my race/religion (depending on your views on judaism) in front of an entire class.
but instead i sort of rolled my eyes and said, “okay, i guess i’m not a real jew then.”
because who really cares?
i’ve taken guff for my height (too short), my weight (too fat), my attitude (that’s obvious), my religion (see above and way more that i won’t bore you with), my race (i was a minority in high school), my beliefs (both as an atheist and as a religious person), my politics (both as a communist and as a republican), oh- and my garden and unlicensed dogs.
i would like to complain about being victimized because i am a woman, but honestly that hasn’t ever happened to me. so i’ll have to limit my victimhood to what it is.
i’ve gotten crazy dirty looks for all kinds of things, but some of the best discussions i’ve ever had have been with people who completely misjudged me.
until i spoke to them.
because if a dialogue stops when someone “insults” me, we are done. but if i can roll with the punch or see what the other person sees, then we can talk.
and when the new york times has 2,948 articles about scummy things people do that don’t mention religion but any time a jew does something that involves someone else’s money we know the details down to the sequence of his DNA… yeah, i get it about the jews/money thing being perpetuated.
but then you also have to cut my grandma some slack when she watches the news every night and then clutches her purse tighter the next day when a black man walks near her.
because understanding cuts every which way.
you know who i think is cool? the guy who inspired the book guns, germs, and steel. . not the author, but the man at the very beginning who wants to know why the white men have all the cargo- all the loot. he’s got an inquiring mind and he hasn’t been intimidated into submission by other people’s discomfort. he has a legitimate question and it led jared diamond on a fairly exhaustive search. while i can’t say i agree with all of diamond’s conclusions, i am certainly impressed that he took up the challenge. (if you haven’t read the book don’t bother. but it’s worthwhile to find out what the book is about because it’s an interesting premise…)
and he was able to do that because he didn’t shy away from a tough and possibly unpleasant question.
the problem is that when you engage your delicacy and emotional fragility, you disengage your critical thinking skills.
when you see things through the lens of an offended victim- especially when you are offended on someone else’s behalf- you sabotage any chance of finishing the chapter.
and frankly, i find that downright offensive.