I grew up Jewish in a Catholic neighbourhood. There were ways in which I was marginalized on my block, hanging out with friends who not quite accepted me. My father telling us at the dinner table how walking past the parochial school one warm afternoon he heard the nun telling her students that the Jews killed Christ; and at other times in my life, as a conscientious objector in a time of war, as an atheist in a progressively fundamentalist society. But you don’t see that when I walk down the street, or when I apply for a job, or chat someone up in a bar. I can choose when to let people know the ways in which I have felt less than privileged.
For many years I kept my Jewishness to myself and when people told Jewish jokes or called someone a Hymie, I would laugh along or nod my head.
My grandfather’s name was Hymie.
But as the times and my surroundings changed I'd sometimes use my Jewishness as a badge to show that I was marginalized too. I could hide or flash chameleon-like depending on convenience. Now when people point to my privilege I refrain from whipping out the Jewish card.
In June 1966, slogging down Highway 51 under the blistering Mississippi sun, advocating for voting rights, I was shocked when a black marcher looked me in the eye and said, “We don’t want you here. We don’t want integration. We want separation: Black Power.” What the hell was he talking about? Weren't we all in this together? Wasn't I no different from him? (There were many others on that march who did appreciate my company but it was a time of upheaval within the black community). I didn't want to see that he couldn't hide his heritage as I could mine. I just thought he was an asshole.
Since then I've been married to a black woman, and seen how the marginalization she grew up with contributed to her damage and how she lost her valiant fight for privilege. I've been lovers with a woman who was a boy inside, witnessed the struggle of accepting and then the more painful struggle of declaring the dichotomy. Notice I use the word ‘the’ in the previous sentence rather than ‘her’ or ‘his’ because not even our language has a word to describe my friend’s gender. Those and other experiences left me knowing that I can only witness and never fully experience the struggles of others.
I was at a meeting recently in which a group of us were exploring gender diversity and identification of sexuality. I heard a lot of people say some of their best friends were diverse, that they have no trouble accepting folks who are different, as if that absolved them of responsibility. I identified with them, remembering how at one time I led myself to believe that I understood being marginalized.
But I don’t. I cannot step out of my shoes of privilege. I am not Tiresias who became a seer by living seven years as a woman. I see so much of the world through the blinders of privilege. It’s not enough just to say some of my best friends are queer as if that were an excuse for inaction, as if that exonerated me from being part of the problem. If I want to be less of the problem, I need to be diligent in seeking ways in which I stereotype, ways in which I judge and I need to speak out, to act, because it is we, the privileged who hold the power for change.
There is a conundrum for me. I believe with all my heart what Stan Dale first told me and HAI reinforces every workshop, that the deeper I look in your eyes the more I see myself, that I know you, you are just like me. I live by the mantra that all there is is love or a cry for love. And yet I must not kid myself into believing that I know where you came from, that I know your struggle.
We are all identical at our human core, but humanity has a lot of digging to do before all of that core can fully shine in the light.
Thanks and love,