Words, Want, Matter

9.27.20

About a year ago, my younger sister embarked on a mission to misuse the phrase “per se” at every possible opportunity. “I’m probably going to go to bed a little early tonight, per se.” “Do you think it’s, per se, going to rain tomorrow?” “I’m getting strong whiffs of”–long pause–“turmeric, per se?” After a few months of this, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to use “per se” properly. Even now, I leave it out of my writing because my memory of the term is so muddled.

This is what has happened with the terms “racist” and “white supremacy.” Being called a racist used to be bad. Like, really bad. And white supremacy was worse. White supremacy conjured images of the KKK, lynching, the Charleston church shooting, genuine evils. The phrase “white supremacy” chilled me. Knots roiled in the pit of my stomach. The word Auschwitz rattled in my mind. Every muscle in my body stiffened.

Now, when I hear “white supremacy,” I don’t feel any such fear or moral disgust. My reflexive response is apathy, even exasperation. Why? Because the term that was once reserved for truly vile, despicable behavior is now being thrown around to describe absolutely everything. Perfectionism, defensiveness, “worship of the written word,” individualism, and objectivity are all forms of white supremacy. White supremacy caused the climate crisis. Robin DiAngelo refuses to stop saying white supremacy, which I suppose is a good move, because this term is a staple of her intellectually flimsy theory. It’s a free country, and she can say whatever she wants, but I’d like to point out that the more we hear about white supremacy, the less the term actually means.

It’s the same thing with racism. For the record, I’m not a racist. I judge people by their character and actions. I don’t consider any race to be superior or inferior to another. I would love to live in a world where we’ve moved beyond race completely. According to popular theories, however, I am a racist by virtue of the color of my skin. At best, I’m a racist who admits it, and at worst, I’m a “good white,” which is not actually a good thing. In fact, you might have thought that the KKK and white nationalists and everyone marching on Charlottesville were the greatest threats to racial inequality, in which case you would be wrong, because “white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color” – according to Robin DiAngelo, that is. It’s quite the Kafka trap she’s got going. At least it’s making her rich.

I learned most of this from James Lindsay’s Translations from the Wokish, an online encyclopedia that explains terms like “internalized dominance” and “racial humility” to those of us who haven’t yet been inducted into the church of social justice. (Yes, I think anti-racism is taking on distinctly religious forms; no, I’m not exaggerating; no, I’m not the only one who thinks this.) I’ve spent enough time scrolling through these definitions to understand that much of this jargon is the Newspeak of our time. As Lindsay likes to put it, the actual contents of critical social justice theory don’t match what’s on the box. Working towards tolerance sounds great until you realize that when many people use the term, they’re talking about tolerating only that which they deem tolerable. Some might call this “intolerance.” I myself have found, particularly during my time at Stanford, that some of the people who consider themselves champions of open-mindedness, diversity, and freedom of expression are intensely hostile to any and all opposing viewpoints. (I’m currently engaged in a small power struggle disagreement with the editors of the Stanford Daily over the meaning of the phrase “diversity of opinions.” Stay tuned for more.)

I’d like to live in the world where we don’t need Translations from the Wokish, where people say these words and really mean them. I want tolerance to involve genuine listening without preconceived judgments, with the goal of developing mutual respect, or at least shared understanding. I want inclusion to be extended to everyone, not just those whose perspectives are deemed politically acceptable or aligned with the hashtags du jour. I want diversity to go beyond skin tone and ethnic background, encompassing thoughts, beliefs, and values, so that we can cultivate the heterodoxy that makes for rich intellectual discourse and lively cocktail parties. This isn’t the world in which we find ourselves today, and it will take courage and concerted effort to live out these values fully. In the meantime, I’m content to keep the Encyclopedia nearby at all times and continue pushing myself to –

9.28.20

Yesterday, I left that sentence unfinished. Today, I think I have an answer. Yom Kippur just ended – the blue pillow on the chair outside is indistinguishible from the white one, which is how I know for sure. It’s a humbling holiday, and a demanding one. I’ve spent about 12 hours in services since yesterday afternoon. I don’t understand Catholicism well enough to comment on its approach towards sin and confession, but the Jewish take on atonement seems starkly different. There are no weekly booths or one-on-one meetings. Rather, once a year, we gather to reflect on our actions, make amends, pray, eat, fast, study, and return to fundamental Jewish values, which I consider to be fundamental human values, too. When we’ve sinned, we are obliged to repair the relationship, apologize sincerely, and make up for our wrongdoing in whatever way we can. Key operating term: obliged. In Judaism, good deeds are not acts of charity or nobility; they’re requirements. We return to these basics at the end of each year because we’re human and we make mistakes – that’s to be expected. But the High Holy Days are not a time to wallow in regret and self-loathing. We use those mistakes to inspire further, better actions, so that we can live out our values more fully in the year to come.

During those 12-ish hours of services, I didn’t think much about Translations from The Wokish or Robin DiAngelo. Instead, I thought about myself, and about my tendency toward rigid thinking and extremes. Going full-blown social justice warrior culminated in undeserved self-righteousness and a disgusting amount of navel-gazing. That’s not the way forward. I like to think that I’m becoming more moderate each day, more aware of and humbled by what I don’t know. Today offered an opportunity for this in the form of a diversity, equity, and inclusion session between morning and afternoon services.

I entered the Zoom room with trepidation, for reasons described above. I’m unsettled by the way these objectives are being used as justification for anarchy, intolerance, censorship, and unkindness. During this session, however, I witnessed no such thing. The proceedings were simple: various members of our community shared their experiences as Jews of color. They discussed microaggressions like being mistaken for one another, told they “didn’t look like you belong here,” scrutinized for their ethnicity, and regarded as “less Jewish.” They also described moments where they felt welcome, their gratitude for various members of the clergy, and how important our synagogue has been and continues to be for them.

It was an important, simple, and long-overdue conversation. It wasn’t about blame or casting judgment. It was about listening to perspectives that, all too often, have been brushed to the side. This is what diversity, inclusion, tolerance, and all those other words should (and still do) mean.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in college campus chaos and student activism and Tumblr fallouts and the 2.5 group chats I check every so often. I have to remind myself that not everyone belongs to this intersectionalist minority that the Social Justice Encyclopedia seeks to describe. In today’s conversation, diversity meant diversity, tolerance meant tolerance, and equality meant equality. The microaggressions described were genuine incidents of prejudice, and whatever the offending parties’ intentions may have been, the impact was harmful, and it’d be great for that not to happen in our community. The session ended with a palpable sense of compassion, concern, and collective resolve to do better in the future.

There’s always a bigger picture. I’m stressing out about concept creep while someone else is just realizing that the definition of “racism” with which they grew up isn’t wide enough to encapsulate present-day issues. I’m singing the Debbie Friedman arrangement of Mi Chamocha when it’s supposed to be the High Holy Days melody. I’m opening the door and tasting smoke on the air while the forecast predicts winds from the Pacific that will sweep the pollution away and leave us with a beautiful, cloudless weekend. Sometimes, when people use words, they really do mean them. Not always. But not never, either. So I resolve to say what I mean and mean what I say and hope that others do the same, because it’s like the siddur says: If people fall, can they not also rise? I think we can rise, especially if we help one another see the opportunities for rising. Entrances to holiness are everywhere. I have faith in humanity, a healthy amount, and I’m keeping a tab with the Encyclopedia open, too. Just in case.



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