American lessons on racism

June 4, 2019

 

 

I was born in California, but when I was three my family moved to Israel, which is where I grew up. I write in English, but I was recently invited to translate two flash fiction stories from Hebrew. So much in flash fiction is about very specific words and the mood that’s evoked on the page; it was very interesting to look at these pieces, think about the mood I was getting and then try to translate it into another language while being true to the original. There was something weirdly magical about it.

 

In a way, I think my life is a process of translation. I’ve never put it into words like that, but this feels very true. I feel like I’ve been trying to translate my experience of growing up in Israel, a country that’s contentious and violent and scary where you could say I should have lost all faith in humanity. At the same time, I’m still trying to make sense of aspects of the American culture and history that weren’t part of my growing up and that I don’t always understand.

 

I grew up during the Second Intifada. There were suicide bombs day after day; there were tensions and violence at the borders where the power dynamic was clear; Palestinians who threw stones kept getting killed. We were scared and our parents were scared, but it was constant so, in a way, it was normal. There was a time when my brother and I would come to the kitchen and see our parents reading the papers and ask, with a total blasé attitude, how many people died yesterday?

 

Although our parents didn’t want us spending time in crowded public places, they never made it about Palestinians being bad people. They taught us that there was a faction of people who were violent; a faction that they saw as  trying to solve a problem in an ineffective and destructive way.

 

From my parents, I learned to have empathy for people who hated me. I can understand on an emotional level the need to protest when you had true and deep injustice done to you or your people. If that hurt is being fuelled every day, it creates a level of fear and anger and frustration that is not a far leap from radicalism.

 

I learned very early on that Jews are persecuted--they teach us this in Israel from kindergarten on. I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “we’re surrounded by enemies”. Over millennia, Jews have been persecuted, but by now, as a group, for all intents and purposes, they are considered white, and while antisemitism is alive and well, it’s also true that Jews don’t face nearly the level of systemic oppression as many other identity groups. Still, this collective consciousness of the history of oppression is there.

 

The Holocaust was something we learned about year after year. I suppose it aims to bring people’s collective trauma to a place where we can help each other understand it, but that’s not what happened, exactly. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it when you’re constantly bombarded with it. It’s similar to what we experience nowadays hearing the statistics of people being blown up in foreign countries; it becomes something that’s terrible in an abstract, commonplace way.

 

Memorialising the Holocaust is incredibly important. The problem is when this memory of common trauma is used as an excuse for current bad behaviour. I don’t know if people who understand this better – historians or political scientists – would agree, but it feels that the way Israel gets away with so many things is by continually pointing to the history of the Jewish people and saying, “we are victims, we can’t be victimisers”.

 

Politically, this attitude has become a strong narrative for why Israel is constantly on the defensive. If feels as if this country, which was supposed to be a safe haven, has become an aggressor twisting other countries into a position where they can’t criticise Israel without being seen as anti-Semitic. It destroys any possibility of dialogue or understanding. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far more complicated than many people tend to see it. It’s easy to decide from the outside what’s going on when you don’t live that reality.

 

In a way, I experienced this first-hand when I moved back to the US and discovered how much general ignorance I had about this country; a lot of things I thought were one way are actually another way. There are all these pop culture references that my peers have grown up with that I have no idea about. My exposure to American TV was limited to the time I spent here visiting; it wasn’t something I was enmeshed in all the time. I didn’t start reading the news until my late teens, so my general awareness didn’t match the awareness of other people.

 

I don’t have a foreign accent, so when people meet me, I tend to tell them as early as possible that I didn’t grow up here. In many ways I am still behind on my knowledge and understanding of the US, which often becomes quite apparent. I learned racism after coming to the US. Racism happens everywhere, but American racism is a very particular kind that is based on this long history that I was only vaguely familiar with. When I started college in the US, I didn’t understand nearly how deep and systemic racism was. In Israel, I was used to a certain sort of xenophobia and a particular kind of ethnic tensions based on where people were from. There was some colorism involved, but it wasn’t the kind of racism that you get in the US.

 

In college, there was this person called Guido. When I first heard his name, I clocked a bunch of people laughing at it. I didn’t know what it was about until someone explained to me that guido was also a denigrating term for someone Italian. It was my first exposure to the fact that whiteness was a concept constantly being reinvented, that racism had never been only an issue of white vs. black.  Coming from Israel, where tensions are concentrated on a very small territory leading to life-and-death situations, I had to “adjust” to the systemic discrimination in a country as vast as the US where it’s easy to be isolated from these issues, where it’s easy not to see if you don’t want to look and understand what’s going on.

 

In a way, I am always trying to translate one reality into another constantly discovering that these are very complex and complicated issues that don’t have easy solutions. We’re in for a very long ride, but it’s not hopeless. We all share a lot of ignorance, but there are great people out there doing tedious work every day to help dismantle oppressive attitudes.

Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American fiction writer, book critic, and essayist. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, Buzzfeed, NPR, Bitch Magazine, and many more. She's the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast that features new, emerging, and established fiction writers.

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