Inclusion of strangers

by tamarjacobson

Talking with Bob when I was in Buffalo recently, has been on my mind. Especially when he suggested how I was a stranger in my family. It helped me understand some of the things that have been difficult for me to process lately. For example, the concept of loyalty, or in the re-frame as rubbishing. During my first couple of years in America at the start of the Gulf War, I was invited to participate on a panel with an Egyptian, Palestinian, as well as an Israeli Rabbi at one of the area colleges. We were discussing the Middle East and prospects for peace. I shared my opinion about the pain of human tragedy on all sides affecting the prospect for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It was a lively debate that involved students from the audience. At the conclusion, the Palestinian participant approached me and shook my hand, looking directly in my eyes and thanking me sincerely for what I had said. He asked to keep in touch with me for future dialog and, perhaps, friendship. The Israeli Rabbi came up to me and told me that I was disloyal to our homeland. That the things I had said were all well and good to be said "back home," but "out here in the Diaspora" I should be careful not to blacken Israel’s name. I was dismayed and ashamed.

Years later I attended a keynote speech of a well-known early childhood expert, Valora Washington, a person I admire greatly. At one point I raised my hand and talked about white privilege as being one of the obstacles in eradicating racism. I explained a couple of points that were pertinent in the context of her speech. Washington asked me to come up to the podium and share what I had said in more detail. Some of what I said then relates directly to these two pieces from Chapter Two of my book Confronting Our Discomfort:

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will … whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us” (McIntosh, 1988, page 1)

Assumed superiority for whites is very much a part of one’s identity in a society of white privilege. How could it not be? My high school friend, Jan, wrote to me after attending the Non Governmental Organization Forum conference parallel to the United Nation World Conference against Racism in Durban. South Africa:

We white westerners are not racists because we wish ill towards people different from us but because we have benefited from a racist system which has advantaged us on the plunder and profits made by the West over the last centuries, that we continue to make and regard as rightfully ours. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I as a white child had sums spent on my education 14 times greater than the sum spent on a black child. That is one way to quantify my debt, and now I can work out how to use my wealth, education and privilege to promote basic human rights for everyone, especially the right to self-determination. Every act of solidarity with the oppressed is a step forward (Jan Delacourt’s “e-mail” to me, 2001).

At the end of my words, Valora Washington came up to me and shook my hand, thanking me for talking about white privilege. She said that if she, as an African American woman, spoke about it, white people would think she had a "chip on her shoulder" and not take her seriously. Whereas, when I, as a white woman, spoke about it, others might identify with me and understand the need to confront the issue. A number of people came up to congratulate me on my courage. A couple of white women approached me with indignation. They termed me "disloyal" and told me I had no right to speak for them. They were clearly outraged. I apologized for offending them and reinforced that it was my opinion based on my life experiences and education and that I was not acting as a spokesperson for them. I was dismayed and ashamed.

In both those instances I felt dismay and shame instead of frustration at being misunderstood. For my intentions were the exact opposite of those ascribed me by the Israeli Rabbi and enraged white women. In the first instance, it was precisely because of my love of Israel that I felt the need for negotiations with Palestinians. More than that, I expected a country I loved to do the right thing. In the second, it was precisely because of my love of all humankind that I want us to confront what I believe to be some of the fundamental obstacles that prevent us from eradicating racism.

It was not my fault that in my earliest childhood years I was branded a stranger by being named derogatorily: Sephardi. But since I became one, it seems that at times I was able to step outside the box and see it differently from others. Indeed, it was always difficult for me to accept a "party line" without questioning. For it is my very love of The "party," family, organizations, country, that makes me question, hold us up to the greatest scrutiny and expect the most from ourselves. Which brings me right back to me. I had not quite thought of it this way before but I realize that I do, in fact, care about and love myself. For I hold me up to the greatest scrutiny of all – hence the dismay and shame at being misunderstood. For it is my very love and loyalty that makes me ask the toughest questions of us all.

My good friend, Marion, made a speech before presenting me with an award last month. One of the things she said made me weep:

She [Tamar] became a strong advocate for change. That wasn’t always popular or comfortable for people. She, however, never asked more of us than she asked of herself.

Bob made me weep too – with relief. For he gently explained to me, that being a stranger is not at all a bad thing. There is no shame for me if others misunderstand my motives or expression of loyalty. Frustration would be more fitting perhaps. Even better is realizing that everyone understands loyalty differently. To me, airing the laundry seems so much healthier, than hiding it in the basement! I always adore how my mother responded to one of the people in her village after my step-father had died. My mother and step-father had a stormy relationship where, at the end, they were estranged for many years. When the acquaintance asked my mother how she was doing, my mother exclaimed in words that went something like, "Wonderfully! Thank God he’s dead. I am free at last!"

I was ecstatic when I received an e-mail this morning:

The ‘who’ that you have shared in the time (perhaps a year or more) that I have been reading has meant quite a lot to me. I want you to know that. Particularly (but not only) your whole approach to children (and hence, humans in general, since we are all children, after all). There have been dozens of times I wanted to say something, but did not. There have been many times you have moved me to tears. There have been times, perhaps because of my own history of abandonment, foster care and abuse in my adoptive family, that your words have been a true healing salve.

It is my personal opinion that you have a gift in how you value children – the child in me feels it in her heart, so I know others must as well. I don’t know quite how you do that – reach into an adult and soothe the injured child.

Naturally, my heart was uplifted for being understood and appreciated. Yes, yes! And this made me even more grateful – for this is what I’m talking about – right here:

Please don’t think that means I expect you to be anything other than gloriously human and fallible. The best part of reading what individuals write is always, at least for me, when they share their real and imperfect process of becoming human themselves. And when they share their gifts.