Monday, May 28, 2007

Thoughts on Blackness

Warning: this has been rolling around in my head for the past few days, gaining steam with each new, self-parodying opinion piece and mindless letter to the editor on racism at Harvard that The Crimson has published, so what you are about to read will quickly devolve into incoherent, angry rambling. My apologies in advance for the rant! With that out of the way, time to speak some truth to power.

So this is how I see it. The defining element of black identity, as taught to young blacks by their elders, is the experience of racism – slavery in specific, discrimination in general. It is hammered into each new generation from the earliest age that to be black means above all to be a victim of racism. The obvious problem that arises here is that, in the absence of racism, there is an absence of black identity. The only way the younger generation can share in this identity is to convince themselves that they are indeed living in a society as racist as that of their elders. So these spoiled Harvard brats, who wouldn’t know real racism if it burned a cross on their lawn, actually want to be discriminated against, they long to be victims, because it is only by savoring this sense of racial injustice that they can feel truly black. It is not enough for them to learn about the bad old days and then get on with their lives in the comparatively Edenic present of Harvard Yard; no, they feel that they must experience racism first-hand as an initiation into the black fraternity (an incredibly un-secret society), and so they will look for racism anywhere they can find it.

Compare that cultural approach to the Jewish one. I don’t want to make this into a suffering contest, but when it comes to hardship, blacks ain’t got nothing on us. Yet Jewish identity, as preached by our elders, is not about being a victim – it’s about refusing to be a victim, no matter what the odds. It’s about keeping your head high, working twice as hard, being a survivor, and, perhaps above all, joking about your troubles instead of dwelling upon them.

Believe me, I know all my family’s stories, I’m fully aware of everything that happened and of the possibility that it may happen again. But that doesn’t mean I go around trying to get German tourists to put their cigarettes out on my palm in some feeble, pathetic attempt at getting in touch with my roots. I’m reminded of the old Jackie Mason joke, about the excuse used by any Jew who can’t afford a Mercedes: “What? Me buy a German car?!? Phooey!” Yes, we Jews might crack a German joke now and then, but we’re not serious about it. We got over it. Maybe that’s something the rest of y’all should look into. So, dear students writing op-eds on Harvard’s racism: 1) Get a sense of humor, 2) a sense of perspective wouldn’t be too bad, either, and 3) excuse my misogynistic expression, but please grow a pair.

You know, I take that back - perhaps the complaining students do have a sense of humor, because it’s absolutely laughable that they are claiming that this is an issue of racial pride, of racial humiliation. These students don’t know a thing about pride or humiliation. When my dad escaped to Vienna after the war, he had nothing. He had faced hardships and horrors that these Harvard kids couldn’t even begin to understand, and he had nothing. Every day for an entire year, on his way to scrounge up whatever work he could find, he walked past a Red Cross station handing out food and supplies to a long line of fellow refugees. Not once, not one single time, did he stand in that line. He had nothing, yet not once that year, or in his entire life, did he accept anybody’s charity. That is pride. He has lots of incredible stories of escape from Nazis and Communists, but you have to pry them out of him – the only thing he willingly told me about, that he taught me, was that feeling of pride, of refusing to rely on anyone but yourself. The way he saw it, as long as you’re of able body and able mind, you should never accept charity. Obviously, I was never in a similar situation; I was blessed, thanks to his hard work, with an upbringing in which I never had to make those kinds of choices. But I do know this: if I ever suspected that I was accepted into Harvard not for my grades or my record, but on the basis of my family’s past hardships, I would be humiliated. And I would tell whoever had the gall to think he could offer me charity that he could take that diploma and shove it. I sure as hell wouldn’t accept the offer and then presume to tell anyone else about the meaning of pride and humiliation.

Anybody who calls for public apologies, public protests, public forums, public anything, by definition does not have any pride. Pride is not a possession you proclaim in public, it is a contempt for the public – a reliance upon the self, and nothing else. Pride means that even if you are living in an openly and violently racist society, you don’t complain about it, you definitely don’t write letters to the editor about it, you hold your head high and fight to survive. You cannot allot yourself pride in public, you must earn it in private. All you can achieve in public is humiliation. And, true enough, these protesting students and their faculty enablers, who I know do not represent all black students at Harvard, and who talk so freely of racial humiliation, have succeeded only in humiliating themselves.

1 comment:

fife2020 said...

I thought your post probably deserved some kind of comment. Somewhat shocking statements, but certainly not entirely untrue.