As I sat listening to someone speak eloquently against an injustice he had never directly experienced—you know the kind of thing, a man condemning the oppression of women or a non-Jewish German speaking passionately against the Nazis—an evil little thought arose in my mind. I overheard myself smugly dismissing the speaker as a hitchhiker: What’s it to you, I silently asked, how is this your issue? Your right to speak out?
I shocked myself. Don’t I want a world in which there is no such thing as a “women’s issue” or a “Jewish issue,” but merely human issues and a collective, universal desire to help heal them? I should be jumping for joy at any evidence this intention is shared—shouldn’t I?
I began to pick my errant thoughts apart, the way in a scout in the woods dissects the scat of an animal being tracked.
First layer, distinctly unsavory: when people experience injustice, it can become their distinguishing characteristic and badge of honor, an ennobling indicator of their specialness and bravery. When as a girl I was chased home by Catholic kids coming out of their pre-Vatican II catechism classes, I felt frightened and unhappy at being singled out for ill treatment, but also distinctly proud at having demonstrated loyalty under fire to my Jewish identity. When someone who has not shared such experiences stands in the role of guardian, to that little girl in my head, it feels like cheating. Like unearned honor.
Ick! This speck of childish pique lodged in a turning of my mind makes me want to give my brain a good scrubbing. The man whose eloquence triggered my undigested feelings was sincere, I am certain, speaking out of genuine commitment and principle. Why should anyone have to “earn” the right to oppose injustice?
Second layer, a bit of sugar-coating: I’ve been in his position myself, many times, exhibiting exactly the same behavior that evoked my evil thought. A dozen years ago, Don Adams and I published “Race and Redemption: Notes for a National Conversation,” a much-reprinted essay based on our prior years of working with the culture of racism in the deep South. That work taught us many things that had not been as easily evident in the relatively liberal North, lessons we keenly wanted to share with others who might also benefit. For years, every time we were invited speak, our topic turned on the culture of racism and the price it exacted from everyone involved. We gladly took on roles as impolite guests, laying uncomfortable truths on our hosts’ tables.
In the final section of “Race and Redemption,” detailing our sense of how to address the problem, we wrote about a moment in which the same discomfort I described at the beginning of this essay was brought home to us:
[W]e can stop treating “race” and racism as things for people of color to talk about. At the end of his life, the great scholar and thinker W.E.B. DuBois said that his lasting regret was that he had so much to contribute to the society, yet was only asked to comment when the topic was “the Negro question.” On the other side of the same coin, well-intentioned white people often hang back from speaking out for justice because they fear that they will be seen as overstepping their bounds. We once delivered a talk about the culture of racism at a conference. After the session, a young African-American man approached us.
“That’s a great gimmick you guys have there,” he said.
“Gimmick?” we asked.
“You know,” he explained, “being white and talking about racism.”
A sad funny story. Racial justice is neither a white person’s problem nor a person of color’s problem: in our societies, it is a universal problem that demands and deserves a full airing, a deep examination, a vigorous effort from every citizen.
Third layer, gritty and hard to swallow: A dozen years later, I don’t disagree with a word we wrote, but I have to admit there’s more to it. One of the things that made me uncomfortable in the moment that seeded this essay was the gleam of righteous self-satisfaction in the eye of the outspoken man. He was pleased at being the one to disturb complacency on that particular occasion by challenging injustice with more force and fervor than those who had been directly affected by it. That gave me a slightly queasy feeling. But why?
Because I looked at him and saw myself. My own sense of self-satisfied virtue is buffed to a shine by the thrill of going against expectation, of standing up in defense of others when to do so is purely a matter of choice. I don’t like to admit this. It feels a little unseemly, like walking an infirm person across the street merely as a way to earn one’s merit badge. It seems to reduce the luster of my honorable motives.
Fourth layer, universal solvent: The thing is, we complicated humans never do anything “merely” for one reason. Our motives are always mixed. Whether we are speaking on behalf of ourselves or others, we speak out against injustice because it is right to do so, because we share the hope of helping to heal it, and also because doing it makes us feel good about ourselves. So everything I felt—every layer I uncovered in the scat of this incident—coexists with every other aspect, none canceling or trumping the others.
Fifth layer, heart of the matter: My complicated feelings might be all too human, but they were grounded in a category error, one that seems at last to be coming more and more to light: the mistaken idea of unitary identity and the entitlements attaching to it. For decades, I’ve been writing about the cultural reality of multiple participation, multiple belonging. None of us is only or chiefly one thing: a woman, a Jew, an Arab, an engineer, a father, a passionate pool player, a Republican. All of us participate simultaneously in multiple identities. When allowed to peacefully coexist, they enrich our experience, enabling a multiplicity of meeting-points. Once we insist that one must dominate, characterize and own us, it is only a short distance to bloodshed.
(I have not read Amartya Sen’s new book on this subject, but from what I have read about it, I am glad that this brilliant thinker has seen fit to take this idea up, a harbinger that its time is coming.)
The same categorical assumptions that unsettled me upon hearing a man speak out against an injustice he had not suffered can cloud perceptions in other situations. In the circles I travel, there is a default assumption that people of color are entitled to make unchallenged observations about race and ethnicity, as women are about gender. I frequently notice myself letting nasty comments pass, aware that had they been spoken by a white person or man, I’d challenge them without a second thought. My reticence is grounded in another lump of undigested feeling: that the targets of racism and sexism have earned through suffering the right to be prejudiced. I’ve seen this tacit categorical assumption extended even to people in positions of power, even to people who share a gender or skin color but have otherwise been insulated by privilege from the experience of oppression. How crazy is that?
Back in that 1994 essay, we told a story:
We recently heard an African-American poet recite a beautiful poem about the buried history of Africans, as reflected in the glorious achievements of Egypt, obscured by the racialist claim that the ancient Egyptians were white. Cutting stone to build the pyramids was offered as one of those achievements and a source of pride. To Jews in the audience, each of those stones marked the oppression of an ancestor held by the Egyptians in slavery. Both stories are true, coexisting in history just as they did in the time of the Pharaohs. Both need to be acknowledged—not necessarily in every utterance, but as part of every extended conversation about who we are and where we are going.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge that as humans, our motives, identities and perceptions are utterly mixed-up? Whatever it is in me that needs to see myself as wholly virtuous, as entitled by my suffering to my prejudices, whatever needs to see others as having to earn their right to speak, has long outlived its usefulness—if it ever had constructive use at all.