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Racism is a hot topic right now. What's happening over in the US about it gives me hope, but it's been a long journey. I wanted to write a little about the journey I've been through, from being entirely oblivious to the issue, to making #BLM signs to put up in the windows with my kids. If you know nothing about racism in the US and around the world, start with Chenjerai Kumanyika and Salma El-Wardany, they'll show you the way.
First, a little background. My family is pretty much all white. On my mom's side, we've been farmers for generations, and unfortunately, that includes racist attitudes that stem from genuine ignorance. My maternal grandmother was a hands-down racist. In Israel, Jewish racism is typically aimed towards Palestinians (and generalised to "Arabs"). My sister married a Muslim Palestinian, and my grandmother told him he's alright for an Arab. Tact was never her strong suit. My dad's side is a bit more complicated, so I'll get to that later.
I grew up in Israel, and as such, my perspective has always been a bit skewed. In this post, I talk about how I've come to realise that WWII had two sides. I know, it sounds stupid when I say it like that, and that's on purpose. But after learning for years mostly about the Jewish experience of WWII, this was a big step for me. The first step in my journey was to understand, really understand, that there are always at least two sides to every story.
For a while, I didn't really think about it, except maybe I was more interested in these kinds of stories. I read Twelve Years a Slave in 2017 and thought it was a nicely done historical fiction until I researched the book and realised it was no fiction. In September 2017, I enrolled in a literature course over at CityLit about women's fiction. We read Frankenstein, Wide Sargasso Sea, and Housekeeping. But, more importantly, I met Toby. Toby teaches literature in various formats, and she challenges the way you understand the world through the books she teaches. I went on to read various books with her, from The Odyssey to Toni Morrison's Jazz, and every time she taught me something about my assumptions and the role they play in my perception of the world.
I started actively seeking ways to learn about the world from different perspectives, and something that worked well with the amount of walking and being on buses/trains in London as well as with my lamentable utter inability to read on said buses/trains was podcasts. I used to listen mostly to This American Life, which by the way, is a fantastic show. One day I heard an episode that grabbed me about Native Americans in Minnesota, so when they said that the story was a part of the podcast Scene on Radio, I obviously subscribed and started listening. I think season 1 wasn't available on my podcast app, but I sure did listen to season 2: Seeing White. Really, once you understand the injustice of race as a concept, you can't unsee it. And you start seeing it everywhere.
Over the last year or so, I've been struggling with White Privilege. It's the next logical step, really. Before I start talking about it, here's the incredible Kyla Jenée Lacey explaining what it is. For me, white privilege is complicated. Yes, I'm privileged, no doubt. I'm well-off even for a white cisgender straight woman. I'm privileged because of my grandmother on my dad's side, and here's where I'm getting back to that.
My paternal grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. She survived Poland of WWII by escaping to Russia, being sent to Syberia to lay train tracks, coming back after the war ended to find her entire family gone and her house taken over by the antisemitic neighbour. Along with my grandfather and his 5-year-old son, whom she met on the way back from Russia, she waited for two years in a refugee camp in Germany, where my uncle was born. She came to Israel with a husband and two small children, shortly after Israel became a country. They were put in a small apartment in Jaffa with four other families, saved every possible penny (it was called a grush back then), and were able to afford to buy their own place in Bat-Yam in 1959.
Here's where it becomes complicated. I'm privileged partly because my grandmother saved every possible way; because she and my grandfather both worked their asses off to make a life for themselves; because they survived war and extermination and refugee camps. But also, they had a place to live in Jaffa because they were Jewish. The state of Israel, following the independence war in 1948, had driven all Palestinians out of their homes in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, and hundreds of villages. The story we were told was that it was necessary to ensure the safety of the Jewish people. I can't comment on that, mostly because I don't know enough. What I do know is that my grandparents and uncles lived in Jaffa in a home that probably belonged to a Palestinian family. To this day, I don't know what happened to that family.
To me, this is what it means to be privileged. I didn't even have to consider this Palestinian family. Nobody asked me to. I could have gone on with my comfortable life without ever having to think about them. My grandmother paid most of my university tuition. Generally speaking, I probably had an advantage throughout my life in terms of job and education opportunities, not only because I'm white but also because I'm middle-class and I speak the language. The reason I'm middle-class is that my parents were able to go to university, able to choose an occupation that brought in enough money to live comfortably. Don't even get me started on the farmland they leased from the state in a community that selects its members.
I think it's dreadful that a Palestinian family had to be displaced for my family to exist. Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, but that doesn't make it right. Uncomfortable doesn't begin to describe what it's like to think that I am who I am partly because I was born to the side of the colonisers rather than the colonised in this particular time and place. This is me, leaning into this discomfort. I owe my life the way I live them now—art and all—to my racist grandmother, to my implicitly-displacing grandparents, and to the unknown Palestinian family who was forced to leave their home so that my father could be born. I told you it was complicated.
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