I'm not the expert on racism. Let me just say that first thing. Me, at this particular point in my life, claiming to be Super In The Know On Race in America would be as ridiculous as the Americans who used to come to Israel when I was a child, spend one week touristing their way around the country, and come back to the States waxing eloquent on Israeli-Palestinian politics, genuinely thinking they were in the know because they'd been there. Been to Israel. Saw a few real Palestinians, in the flesh! Talked to some Israelis in a cafe one time! So therefore they knew, they knew, what was really happening with Palestinians and Israelis and what the solution to the conflict was.
So that's not what's happening here, here where I'm going to write a little bit about what it's like to be the white teacher of classes that are 95% or 99% non-white. What I'm doing here, in writing to you my predominantly-white audience, about how much I've realized that white culture is really fucking racist, this is more like someone who goes and lives in Israel for a year and studies at an Israeli university but lives in a Palestinian neighborhood, and therefore really gets to see up close both sides of the conflict....this is like that person coming back to the States and telling her friends that she'd lived in Israel/Palestine for a year, and her friends responding, "Oh my God! How could you stand living around those genocidal assholes?" or "Oh my God! Aren't those people just so backwards? Why can't they figure out how not to kill each other?" or even (gulp) "I'm so glad America supports the Jews since they're God's chosen people."
The American in this hypothetical situation lived in Israel long enough to know that she didn't have any clue what the hell the solution is to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but she knows that her friends back in the States really have no fucking clue at all what they're talking about. That's the kind of clarity she's gained. Not the clarity that thinks it knows, but the clarity that can see just how much people she once thought of as her peers do not know.
That's the basic position in which I find myself.
Well. That is to say. Let me back up and talk about the thing I first set out to use as an example, so that it's clearer, so that I can then spring from that example to here.
I've been in that precise position since I was 14-years-old and returned to the States from Israel. It was very clear to me, upon returning from Israel, that Americans, as a group, are arrogant, ignorant, jingoistic, myopic, and generally stupider than your average bear. No offense to bears. But I also could see that they didn't know what they didn't know. My middle school friends in the States thought it was okay to refer to everyone else in the world as "them." The thought of America as "here" and everywhere else in the entire world as "over there." Church-going adults assumed that Israelis are God's chosen people, and Palestinians as rubble that needed to be disposed of. But they didn't think those things because they'd spoken to a whole bunch of Israelis and Palestinians, read about the history of the Jewish National Fund, the Holocaust, the United Nations' post-war actions, Palestinian land history, Palestinians treatment by the rest of the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, and so on. Nope. They just went to church, and the pastor said, "It says in the Bible that the Jews are God's chosen people. Therefore, anyone who's the enemy of the Jews, like the Arabs, that's God's enemy and should be exterminated."
It was very hard for me, as a 14-year-old, to take these people seriously. Or, frankly, to take Americans seriously in general. Let's keep in mind, I was 14. Plus, I was moving from one of the most multi-cultural cities on Earth--Jerusalem--to a small town in Midwestern America. The odds were not in the favor of America. It would've probably been pretty different if I'd moved straight from Jerusalem to New York City.
Eventually I got older, and started encountering pro-Palestinian Americans who weren't any more informed than the Zionists had been. This did not alleviate my despair.
It's not that I thought, as a 14-year-old, or a 22-year-old, that I knew how to solve the conflict and violence in Israel. Well, maybe sometimes I thought I knew. Divide Israel into two states, maybe, I'd thought. Or maybe have all the Israelis eat in the homes of Palestinians. Then vice versa. But mostly I didn't know then, and I sure as hell don't know now. If there is anything that the current war in Gaza shows me, it's that the situation in Israel/Palestine is terrible. So terrible.
My point is not that I'm so smart and I have all the answers and the rest of the dumb Americans don't know anything about anything. My point, rather, is that I was flabbergasted by how sure my fellow Americans were that they knew stuff. They were so sure! They were so sure that they, who had never set foot in Israel (or maybe had set foot in Israel for a 7-day tour!), whose education on the topic was extremely minimal, who hadn't listened to a multiplicity of perspectives, who hadn't agonized over the subject....they were absolutely positive that they understood and knew the solutions to one of the most complicated and violent and angst-ridden cultural-religious-social-historical clashes in the history of human civilization. They really, really, really did not know what they did not know.
And that, dear friends, is how I am realizing that I feel, as I hang out in white culture these days. That my white friends don't know what they don't know. White culture has no idea just how myopic and privilege-based and blind it really is. All the time people say in my presence things that I know for sure they have no idea are racist. Stuff like....well, let me give some examples.
-I was recently speaking with a white person I know. This person was talking about someone we both know, who is black and very loud and conversationally dominant. We were talking about one person, an individual, and then suddenly the white person said, "Yeah, they're just so annoying. On BART they're always talking on their phone." I was like, "Hunh? Oooohhhh. By 'them' you mean all black people." We'd jumped from talking about this one particular person to talking about an entire race. And the person I was speaking with, without skipping a beat, said, "Yeah."
-I recently spoke with another white person, someone who's lived in the Bay Area for decades, and I was telling this person about my job teaching in a non-white college, and how part of my curriculum is talking about the racism still embedded in white culture, and also about cultural and racial differences in general. And this person said, "Really? Hunh. I haven't really thought about any of that stuff." (Please note. If you are not white and you live in America and you live around white people, I guarantee that you have thought about racial dynamics. The only people who have the luxury of not thinking about race in this country are white people.)
I can't gauge anymore whether these examples will seem like blatant racism to other white people, or not. If I'd tell these stories in my class, I wouldn't even have to explain how racist that kind of behavior is. And yet, so many of the things that white people do, that strike me as bonkers, that everyone in my class knows for sure is bonkers....if I try to tell other white people about those things, they're like, "hunh?" And then I'm like, "hunh hunh?" To say that "they"--all black people!--are "so annoying." That is outright, shameless racism, friends. And not thinking about race, when your whole life is immersed in a whole plethora of races (but hey! you happen to be the dominant race!), that's not just racist but weird. Although it's also normal. Normalized, that is.
My tone's been a little preachy. I know.
So, um, in the spirit of my awesome students, who manage to laugh and make me laugh, here's a video:
Now, for my non-funny conclusion:
The deeply entrenched racial oppression of mainstream American culture has become clearer to me in recent years, and increasingly I can't not take that racism personally. People I love are affected, deeply affected, fucked over by this oppression. But it's bizarre to realize that, as I try to push against my own racial prejudices, as I try to change, that I'm more alone than I thought. Most of the white people I know aren't actively resisting racism. It's simply not something they think about much. It doesn't feel personal to them. It doesn't feel like it affects them. And this is the precisely the root of the problem.