Special note: This posting got more hits than all the others.
There’s a topic that I haven’t always been sure to directly address from this blog that also never ceases to grab headlines, in direct and indirect ways. This topic is, of course, as old as the human species, the topic of people’s prejudices.
As a proud Brooklyn parent, I have the chance to expose my son Ben to much more diversity than I ever saw as a child. I think this is a very good thing. In our Brooklyn neighborhood, Ben encounters kids who are Spanish (or latinos and latinas), African-American, Asian, Polish, Russian, Middle-Eastern and mixed. Of course, at such a young age, they are just kids to each other, and I have observed that most of their differences from the toddler to teen years seem to be about age.
When Ben, who is now just two, encounters kids around five or six years-old, he might, for example, fill in their hole that they are digging in the sand box or want to play with their essential tools. The dialog sometimes goes like “baby, stop!” At their stage, they seem to have forgotten the toddler’s perspective, and they often have little patience for those who are younger and fail to respect the seriousness of their play.
However, these could be kids who are from all different ethnic backgrounds. I haven’t seen them dividing themselves among ethnic groups the way grownups sometimes do. Instead, it’s the older kids versus the younger and vice-versa.
If these kids were growing up in different places, it might turn out differently. However, New York City is different from my childhood suburbs. At my high school, I believe there were fewer than ten African-Americans, out of around 2500 or so students, grades nine through twelve. There were slightly more Asian kids. The good thing is that these kids were forced to mingle with the general student body, and most of us quickly forgot about thinking of these kids as being one of the “black” or “chinese” kids and thought of them instead by their names.
From the suburbs in Northwest Ohio, this sometimes produced funny results. You could sometimes hear kids making comments about the “black people downtown” but then say so and so, from our school, is alright. Stereotypes persisted, but at least we could acknowledge that the kids we knew at our school were people with individual identities, not stereotypes.
When I went to college, the story changed. I had room-mates from diverse backgrounds, one was African-American, actually part Haitian, but born and raised in the suburbs of the U.S., with a long French name. I had another room-mate who was half African-American and half caucasian. Neither of these people were stereotypes.
Of course, there is a thing we all grow up with, called “culture,” that influences us in different ways. We may choose to reject certain things from our culture, but it’s still what we grow up with. For example, few would argue with the claim that the French are raised in an environment of heavy cheese and red wine consumption. Furthermore, and even more generally, they grow up in an environment where people speak “French.” Probably, this generalization is not unfair. Beyond that, we can separate the individual from society, so while we can safely state that people growing up in France speak French, there are probably some people in France who despise red wine and cheese. We can, however, safely state that people growing up in France grow up in an environment where there is a predominance of red wine and cheese consumption. Upon meeting someone from France, it isn’t necessarily required to pull out a bottle of red wine and cheese–we may find some who could even say “Oh, I hate that stuff. My whole life, I could never get away from that.”
Or here’s another way to look at this. All of us, from being human beings, come from some sort of group. We may reject some things and take on other things from our upbringing. But none of us like to be put in a box. We all want to be judged on the basis of our individual actions. As a Jew, I acknowledge that some people are, as the stereotype, cheap. However, I would be strongly offended to be put in such a box–my wife often wishes I followed that stereotype more and controlled my spending better, and often tells me I worry too much about whether I have left enough for a tip. Now I know who I am and what I do, and can’t stand the ignorance when I’ve been told basically Jew = cheap.
For example, I was telling someone a few years ago that I didn’t own a TV (back when I didn’t own a TV), and I would only watch it if I were at someone else’s place. Her response was “That is so Jewish,” apparently implying that my goal was to save money. However, as someone who grew up in the suburbs, I saw the TV as something that becomes addictive, that stops people from talking with each other, that could take over one’s life into utter meaningless after sitting in front of that box, becoming a-social and watching shows about other people doing things in the world. I had a professor, from what had been Czechoslovakia, who put it this way: “Ladies and gentleman, if you spend your life in front of the TV, it’s the same as when you swallow a rubber ball. It passes through and out.” So my point was that at least at someone else’s place I was being social–it wasn’t a “Jewish” compulsion to save money.
However, on another occasion, someone saw me drawing in a bar–this was up in Connecticut. I was known in this neighborhood as the local artist, as I often went to practice by drawing people, after an art teacher told me I should be practicing all the time. This guy said something like “A Jew, drawing?” His girlfriend reprimanded him. But, while there are some well-known Jewish painters, it is a culture that favors the abstract, and imagery has sometimes been shunned. This seems to be passed down among generations. I grew up with a father who was a lawyer and a mother who was a teacher. Neither of them seemed to be passionate about doing things with their hands. In fact, it became a rule that I couldn’t ask for anything that my dad would have to put together, since he seemed to have trouble with these items. Thus, my response to this comment was, “Yes, he’s right. Not many of us do things with our hands. I’m a rebel.”
It can be hard when we are burned by discrimination. I’ve felt it. It’s hard not to be bitter. When I lived in Ohio, I was working at a restaurant where I made a favorable impression on the manager who decided to train me to be a bartender. Then one evening a waitress who had worked there for several years brought her boyfriend there for some drinks. “What’s your ethnicity?!” he asked me, and I told him. The next day the manager told me this waitress worked for him for a long time and, per her request, I was being demoted to bus boy. After that, I ate pickles and olives in front of the customers–we were allowed to eat these items that we also gave to the customers, but just not in front of them. I hit the keys on the piano. And I acted like a general buffoon in an effort to embarrass the restaurant, until the manager finally got rid of me. I’m not sure I’m completely proud of the way I acted back then, but I’m not sure I was completely out of line, when considering the reason for my demotion.
Again, about a year ago, I had a job where one of the persons there spent a lot of time yelling at me, often for no apparent reason. It seemed that everything I did around this person was perceived as a slight. My emails to this person had be exactly a certain way, with the subject a certain way and the body only a certain number of words–otherwise I would get screamed at. I tried hard to ease things–I thought maybe since her job involved a lot of pressure handling money and accounts, that made her a little volatile. I tried to empathize. However, when the company hired someone with a last name that seemed to match this person’s ethnicity, he was called “honey” and when he made a mistake I could never see myself even daring to make, she said very sweetly “Ok, now just to let you guys know, you need to be careful and not…” What was going on? (I’ll never know for sure what went on inside this person’s mind.) Then when they fired me from this company, it seemed like she was almost dancing. She packed my stuff and I thanked her–that was so nice I thought. But then she said “You need to go!” One of the persons who was in charge of firing me said I didn’t “fit in with the culture” there–I guess I should take that as a compliment.
It’s hard not to build up resentments over these events. I was wondering how I was going to provide for myself and my family (suddenly being out of work in today’s economy), and this person was almost dancing. But then, if I resented everyone from this person’s ethnic group, wouldn’t that make me as ignorant as this person? It’s sort of like the vampire movies where different people get bitten by vampires, and then they become vampires too. No, I wouldn’t want to be so ignorant. However, I reserve the right to have issues with ignorant people.
When I was in college, in the community outside the college, as there were many African-Americans and caucasians who seemed to live mostly separate lives, there seemed to be more ‘Balkanization.’ So when I was walking alone one night, I passed a crowd of people who were all African-Americans. Two guys started following me and one said “What’s up?” Then he punched me in the nose and blood exploded from my face. The crowd cheered. The other guy kicked me in the groin. I managed to get away. I saw a doctor in the emergency room, and I had to have another visit. The doctor who heard my story did not like what he heard. Again, it’s hard for resentments not to build up.
However, I didn’t want to hate all African-Americans. I felt like I was going to. Any time I saw someone walking down the street who was African-American, I found myself thinking, is this guy going to start something too?
I knew this was a bad instinct. I had to do something about this. As an aspiring singer, I finally had the opportunity to audition for an African-American church choir. They liked my voice and accepted me. There were people there who taught me singing technique. There was a guy who was very funny and very talented, as an actor and singer. He came from a rich family and he lived in beautiful house that he invited us to for a party–his lover who lived with him was a guy of Italian-American background. Throughout my time with this choir, it involved hard work, but also times where we made each other laugh. There were people of all different ages. One was a mother who was telling a story where her son was beaten up–“and all because he was black!”
The problem was ignorant people on both sides. Although, it seems when people live separate lives, these hatreds build up on both sides. Then it’s sometimes dangerous when people from either side wander off to the other side, since it only takes a few people (or just one person, from either side) to make a problem for the “outsider.”
Here’s another experience. I felt a strong need when I was in my twenties to see get away from my limited world and see the rest of the world. I wanted to study in France and found myself struggling in Paris. This was the eighties, before the internet was released to the general public. I had the wrong information–I had trouble getting papers and someone from France told me to just go on a tourist visa, but then I ran into problems with that when I was there. I was trying to do things under the table and was running out of money. I discovered I could use my college ID to eat at the student restaurants, that were cheaper. I was looking for cheaper living accommodations, and this is when I met Yusef, a student from Algeria.
There we were, room-mates, Arab and Jew. Both struggling in Paris, in a tiny one room apartment. If I were making a movie, the perfect shot was when the two of us were hauling heavy bags and boxes of cheap groceries under the very huge billboard of Jean Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National with the stated goal of kicking out all the Arabs (Of course, this politician didn’t seem to have a love of my people either.) When I was completely broke and had no money to buy food, my room-mate gave me some money to get some bread, to pay back when I had the money–I hadn’t asked him, but he saw what was happening and gave me the money.
Of course, ask him about America, and he had a lot of issues, and he always ended with “et c’est couru par Juifs!” (and its run by Jews!). I brought up that Algeria is run by Muslims, which made him laugh. And I also reminded him of my ethnicity, which he always seemed to conveniently forget. At the same time, he seemed to love America. He said he wanted to go there. He loved the movies, and the commercials with the Levi’s Jeans.
Finally, I decided I wasn’t getting anywhere staying in France with the wrong papers. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t go to school, which I had wanted to do. I decided to go back to the U.S. and I received some money from my parents for a plane ticket back, and they sent me some money to survive until my flight home. Living with my room-mate meant evening prayers during dinner time–I stopped from eating one time, out of respect, and he asked me what I was doing, and told me to just eat. It also meant finding out about certain recipes, especially during Ramadan. One was with a thin bread, with mashed potatoes inside and some mint leaves and deep fried.
I bought the supplies for this dish, but I forgot how to make it. He said he would show me how to make it if I gave him one. I said “OK.” As it turned out, following his instructions exactly, and the measurements exactly, there was more than either of us thought. Apparently, there was enough to make four instead of two. Having just starved in the recent past, I wasn’t willing to give him more than what we had already agreed to. There we sat arguing, passionately about this pastry. Finally, out of frustration, he simply threw the extra one back on my plate, causing everything to fall.
I said every vulgar insult I knew to him. He simply stared at me, sort of smiling sometimes. I walked out of the room. He came and got me and told me to come back. It turned out that the pastry hadn’t been so damaged and everything was salvageable. But he laughed and imitated me “ba, baah, ba-bah.” I had become so angry that I cursed him out in English, but since he didn’t know English (and we spoke to each other in French), he had no idea what I said, which is a good thing.
Now when I think about that episode, it seems to me to be a parable of what is happening in the Middle East. Each side on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels it’s right. Each side is forgetting the humanity of the other. Each side is fighting over a small chunk of land, in this case, so they can survive. It’s too bad there is not enough understanding on each side of the other.
One more story. I once had a job as an in-store detective. I was not very good at catching people, and I stuck out. I think the thieves, who came into this bookstore, were always on to me. They seemed to have diverse backgrounds. There was one group of people who seemed to be up to something, apparently well-organized, apparently some students from Germany. We were trained to watch certain behavior signs (such as lots of bags, not making eye contact with store employees…). One of my bosses, who was African-American, and very much into catching people, told me to watch a guy whose behavior set off some alarms. This person I was to watch happened to be African-American. Being not very good, it seemed he was onto me, and he seemed to resent my watching him. Well, I couldn’t blow my cover, but if I could, I wanted to tell him “hey, it’s your behavior that’s set us off on you, and, anyway, the boss who told me to go watch you–he’s African-American.” This guy I was supposed to watch started talking to me as we were both looking at books, and he was talking about racism that starts with children. I told him I disagreed with his point “as black and white kids grow up with each other more, and more, there will be less racism.”
That can start with me and the raising of my son. I can leave all my baggage behind. I can tell him, yes, there will be some un-fairness toward him and toward others. The point is not to turn this into something where he becomes unfair to others. However, he’s going to the park and playing with all sorts of kids, and they’re playing with all sorts of kids. While headlines continue to scream about resentments that have exploded in violence here, or been the source of wars or ethnic fighting around the world, I can see hope here. It has made me so happy that tears have come to my eyes to see Ben and a young “African-American” toddler with their arms around each other. Ben kicking a soccer ball with a Spanish kid. Ben with his cousin, who’s half-German and half-Polish, while Ben is half Jewish-American and half Polish. But they are all kids, playing, having fun, sometimes crying over things that have always upset kids, like having to go to bed when they still want to play. Admittedly, it’s much easier for him to be normal about this and these kids won’t be a Spanish kid or a German kid or an Arab kid. Instead, they will be Jesus or Emil or Mohammed.
Hopefully, we can be good examples for our children. Hopefully, we might be able to learn something too when we watch our kids.