(Warning: I am delving into a discussion of diversity, politics, anti-semetism, and more. I do so with only the intent of exploring my complicated feelings on the subject, in light of a lot of activities going on lately in the world. Please take this as a meditation on the subject and no manifesto, a thought in progress with no intent to insult, but instead to create consideration. I try to understand how to speak about diversity and acknowledge that I trip and fall in the holes of my own ignorance more often than I succeed. Let’s see if I can get this out without finding a pit hole again).
These days, everyone is talking about diversity: how it’s important, how it needs to be a part of our world, how it should be handled in our work and what’s the best language to use. I myself have talked about it, written about it, sat on panels about it (when it comes to geekdom and gaming) and more. There are battles going on about social justice both in the real world and especially across the internet. From people speaking out about the harassment of women in the comic book world to discussions about Ru-Paul using the transphobic term ‘she-male’ on the popular Ru-Paul’s Drag Race, we have been having more conversations than ever regarding how to bridge the gaps between what is considered ‘normal’ in our cultures and those who have been struggling with bigotry and intolerance for years. While the internet rages over the appropriation of words and how to best handle online harassment of activists, one particular part of the argument has stuck with me over the last few months.
When discussions of diversity and fighting for equality has come up, one of the popular responses I’ve heard from people is: “Well, I’m not part of the problem, I don’t see race/religion/ethnicity/sexuality/gender. I see people.” The implication here is that by seeing past these things to treat everyone as individuals, as people rather than a collection of identifiers, then the entire issue of bigotry has been sidestepped in favor of a utopian melting pot of empathy. In it’s purest form, I love this idea. I love it so much I can’t tell you. The idea that we can look at one another with empathy and respect and see and accept one another for the person we are rather than a pile of identifiers is amazing.
It’s also dangerous.
The dream of the Melting Pot, where cultures will merge into one another and we will all become one big culture, isn’t entirely a dream anymore. People from across the world are coming together, sharing communities, building creative endeavors, working together, falling in love, making babies, and growing old together. Today we share our cultures, our cuisine, our holidays, our music, our futures and our hopes with people whose ancestors and ours might never have interacted. Or worse, whose ancestors and our ancestors might not have exactly been buddies. Things are changing and the face of our world, especially in the US, is rapidly shifting. So then why is it so dangerous, so worrisome, to say that differences no longer exist?
Because fact of the matter is… they do. And to ignore them is to ignore the reality of those who are different from you, and the way that those differences are treated by the rest of the non-melting pot society.
Fact: People who are different than the ‘norm’ have different life experiences, different needs, different wants. Hell, everyone has different wants and needs in this world, and trying to wash them all into a single group is to deny individuality, the experiences, and the trials and tribulations faced by others. Saying you do not see people by the factors that make them up is denying a part of their heritage and experience in favor of your comfort, in an effort to minimize the issue.
Fact: Bigotry still exists around the world. And just because an individual chooses not to notice differences, doesn’t mean that discrimination isn’t still happening from elsewhere.
It’s this particular part of the problem of white-washing, or ‘normalizing’ all people, that I want to focus on.
I’ll use an example that is close to my heart. Anti-semetism.
Just last week, have saw an instance of a shooting at a Jewish Community Center and then a rest home for the aged in Kansas. (And can I get up on my box for a moment and say A REST HOME?! What in the cowardly HELL?) The 73-year-old shooter was identified as a former leader of the Klu-Klux-Klan in the area, and there were questions for a bit about whether or not the shooting was going to be labeled a hate crime. The shooter was reported to have shouted ‘Heil Hitler!’ when he got into the cop car.
Ahem. Moving on.
Today we have reports that in the town of Donetzk in the Ukraine, Jews exited their synagogue on Passover to men in masks handing out flyers saying that Jews will have to report to the government who they are or face deportment and loss of their assets. The flyers were supposedly from the local government, though now there are indications that they may have been faked in an effort to create destabilization and propaganda against the local government. Who the hell knows what’s going on in the Ukraine right now, and who is doing what, but one thing is for certain. Jews in an Eastern European city came out of their synagogue and were handed flyers that told them they were going to need to register themselves with the government. This of course less than a hundred years after the LAST time a government asked Jews to identify themselves publicly – and we remember how well that went.
(And yes – I went there. I referenced the Holocaust. Because you can’t get away with this issue today without that ghost haunting every headline).
These are two extreme realities of anti-semetism in the world today, one in the US and one in the Ukraine. But every day there are incidents of neo-nazi activity, of anti-semetic behavior, of micro-aggressions. A friend of mine was on the subway recently in New York City when a woman got on and started screaming about killing all the Jews. My friend was sitting next to an Orthodox girl, who started shaking in fear, so my friend grabbed the girl’s hand and assured her that she was safe, she was going to be protected. On the Orthodox girl’s far side another pair of women grabbed her other free hand. The woman ranted, raved, and eventually left the train without incident. This story, while awful in pointing out how in the heart of liberal America (New York) we have instances of anti-semetism right out in the open, also highlights how folks are willing to do something to fight this bigotry. People stand against these things. Outrage is lobbed across the internet when we hear about these things. Anti-fascist activists get out in the street, protest, stand up, even get hurt – as in the case of neo-nazis knifing feminist activists in Malmo, Sweden. But mostly, when these things happen, we hear disbelief. “I can’t believe this is happening, in today’s day and age!”
Why? Why are we surprised? People have always scapegoated and mistreated those that are other. Those of us who consider ourselves liberal, or open-minded, or progressive, or whatever you want to call it believe that this can be cured with time, with evolution of mankind. And I hope that we’re right. But in the meanwhile, we have to also understand and accept that not everyone feels this way. To pretend that they do, to pretend that everyone agrees with this view of a unified mankind into one homogeneous population at peace with one another is to deny not only the beautiful diversity that we’re trying to celebrate, but to woefully underestimate the bigotry that still exists and festers in this world. It is the ugly side to recognizing differences. And the more that we try and pretend that these differences don’t exist, that we strip those differences back to indicate a person is just ‘a human being’, the more we underestimate the hatred born of people who aren’t so interested in accepting the melting pot world. We forget that there are those out there who are still dedicated to a hatred so unfathomable to me as to be monstrous.
There’s a saying I like to employ about the people in my life, when people ask me about how I’m friends with someone who has a problem, or a personality issue that gets on their nerves. “But Shoshana,” they ask, “that person is a dick! They do such annoying things!” And my response is always: “I get that. But I try to embrace my friends with their flaws, not despite them.” While I would never consider the differences between people as flaws, the structure of the idea there is still sound. To state that I embrace a friend without acknowledging their flaws would be wrong: you’ll always be treating that person unfairly, as you are picking and choosing what personality traits of theirs you appreciate and which you’ll ignore until they become a problem for you. In cases of diversity, I would change the saying and say: “I embrace my friends for all that they are, not just for the parts I find acceptable.” Because it is the height of disrespect to a person in my eyes to say that you appreciate them as a person without appreciating the parts of themselves that you might find distasteful, but that remain parts of their identity and life experience.
Differences exist. But we honor them. We respect them. We do not make them the lever upon which we grind our ax. We do not use that difference as a way to push our pain off on others. And we certainly don’t try and pretend those differences don’t exist, because to do so is to deny the fundamental freedom of choice and independent thought that we so celebrate as part of the human condition. We have the right to be different. Let’s not pretend for a minute that we aren’t in a race to be more PC.
C’mon, human race. I believe we’re better than this. We have to be.