Saturday, August 16, 2014

Our Tolerance of Intolerance

I'm a white woman and thus unqualified to speak about the plight of Michael Brown or Ezell Ford or Jonathan Ferrell or Eric Garner. I was teargassed and chased by police in my day, but it was because of what I was doing and saying, not because of how I looked. But now that Ithaca has joined the ranks of places where white policemen and African-American boys and men collide, it's hard not to think about it constantly.

Although anyone who's been through middle school knows that a gaggle of white girls is the biggest force for evil on the planet, had my daughter and some of her friends been riding around near the site of the Ithaca arsons, she never would have been followed and stopped by a cop. It simply would not have happened. My kid sees guns in hunting season and on TV. The thought of her seeing a strange man pull a handgun around her, even if it was in fact "pointed in a safe direction"—well, it doesn't bear thinking about. As a parent, I can imagine the parents' fear and horror, but all I can do is imagine it, because it won't ever happen to us.

I'm always aware of white privilege, although as someone whose relatives died in the gas chambers of eastern Europe, I honestly don't often translate it into white guilt. My daughter identifies as Jewish, which led throughout her school career to some ignorant shaming by teachers and classmates. She came home once to report that a teacher had made her teach the class about Judaism when they came to that part of the Religions chapter in history. The joke was on the teacher, because my kid (to my shame) knows as little about Judaism as most of her classmates did, although she has a good imagination and is always willing to make stuff up. But although she thought it was funny, I thought it was horrible. Would the teacher have had an Asian-American student teach the lesson about the Han Dynasty?

It is hard for me to see the same people who cannot differentiate "Hamas" from "all Gazans" call on us all to be tolerant of looters in Ferguson, pointing out that it's just a small group of bad-actors and should not reflect on the population of protestors as a whole. That's true, for sure, but it's curious how our tolerance of intolerance is a direct reflection of ourselves, our upbringings, our experiences. For me, looters = Hamas, and other protestors = other Gazans. But of course, I'm not a real Jew; I'm Jewish on my father's side, and we were never religious. Where my father had to run away from gangs of Italians and Irish, I was instead belittled by people who denied half my heritage. So maybe my intolerance of people's intolerance toward Gaza is a reflection of my non-Jewishness—or my anger at those Jews who pointed it out incessantly.

I belong to a very multicultural extended family—white, Christian, Jewish, Latino, Asian, African-American. Somewhere on my mother's side is an Inuit great-great aunt. You would think that I'd be pretty tolerant and unbiased. But as my daughter can tell you, my biases are political, and they are fierce. So I don't pretend to be better than anyone else when it comes to this stuff.

I don't plan to prejudge the police officer who was involved in the Ithaca incident. Anyone who has ever felt threatened, rightly or wrongly, knows that adrenaline can lead you to do stupid things. A lot of people are concerned about the militarization of our police forces, and I am too, but I don't think it can be solved until we demilitarize bad-actors. But gun control is probably a topic for another day. Right now, I'm just thinking about those teenagers and their parents and the police and fear and race and expectations and beliefs and ignorance. We like to think of our little corner of the world as a pretty open and tolerant place. Yet when my brother's former girlfriend moved to Ithaca with him for a year back in the 1980s, she found it the least tolerant place she'd ever lived—and she had lived in half a dozen countries and many large cities. People threw things at her from their cars as she walked to work, and as a mixed couple, they were often verbally harrassed. She was thrilled to move back to the big city.

My daughter will never know what that is like, to be abused for the color of one's skin. On the other hand, she knows what it's like to be called a "Jew Whore" (by an African-American classmate, as it happens) and to be humiliated by teachers and students when she suggested that selling Easter candy (complete with crosses!) was an inappropriate school fundraising activity.

We're none of us immune, but some of us are more likely to die due to other's intolerance. Right now, being a brown-skinned male means having a target on your back. And that should be intolerable to anyone with a conscience.

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