Last year a friend related to me how people in an activist group he’s in wanted to deal with hate. Big order. Hate comes from fear and the people who really hate seldom have power to effect harmful policies; they are too disabled educationally, financially and politically. The people who inflict voter suppression on citizens are full of fear. Last night, Feb. 26, I heard Pankaj Mishra speak on Global Citizenship and Anger. A question I asked had to do with the fact that old borders and the enmities they create persist despite movements in India like Buddhism and Islam which were supposed to dispose of caste and The Civil Rights Movements here which was supposed to dissolve the caste bounaries of White and Black. He said my question, just how do we dissolve such boundaries, went to the core of what he is talking about. (take a quick bow)
A dinner conversation afterwards went awry when an immigrant person and my wife got into discussing what happens to African-Americans. There were some missteps in terms of the notes struck, although in the long run, everyone parted amicably. What I see is each person claiming their turf – the immigrant telling of experiences under dictatorship and war, the American recounting tales of discrimination. Each is trying to make the other understand how painful this is but what sometimes gets transmitted is a kind of contest over whose hurt is worse. What seems to trigger that is each person coming in with their part of the story before the other person feels assured they understand. There’s a hilarious paragraph in Elif Batuman’s The Possessed where the Jewish-American writer is explaining to her how only Jews know the alienation found in the great novels and she replies sarcastically, “Oh, yeah. A six foot Turkish girl from New Jersey doesn’t know about alienation” and he replies, “So you see what I mean.” [not exact quotes]
The members of the group I mentioned at the opening kept returning to this theme over some years and it finally came out that they just wanted an admission of guilt on the part of White people. And that was the outcome of the conversation last night, that victims want the victimizer to acknowledge their act, the Truth and Reconciliation approach of Desmond Tutu in South Africa. The fact is we have an entire industry on the political, media, entertainment levels devoted to telling White people they are off the hook. That drives African-Americans crazy and to add insult to injury, immigrants come here and basically tell them they don’t know how good they have “it”. The “it” is the crucial factor – the dignity of full citizenship whereas immigrants, esp refugees, just want a chance to thrive and they often come from countries and cultures where social hierarchies are the norm. Recently I talked with a long-time friend I have known since his teens when he voiced dramatic hierarchies of acceptability based on religion and race. He had taken a job in Saudi Arabia and told me on the phone that he’s left after a short time b/c it wasn’t multicultural enough! Thus can people change.
Both of the people I’ve cited, both immigrants, are engineers and work in an environment that may not be ideal but does differ considerably from a child in a tough school who struggles to survive socially and academically. And yet they have all sorts of hurts and indignities. Does their immigrant status give them a certain armor? An armor that Blacks lack b/c they see themselves so differently from the way many Whites and others see them? When a person can achieve the Presidency and still tell of incidents of being followed around in stores (obviously not while President), we can see the special status.