A great friend, of powerful intellect and deep heart summed it up nicely by saying, “in-group loyalty and personal identity and family origins and culture and pride trump compassion.” Is that who you are?
The food was delicious, as always. It was at least fifteen years ago and I was surrounded by people I love deeply, and who love me right back. My two young children were playing in the next room, having been excused from the table, and the atmosphere was relaxed and enjoyable, as it always is in this particular multi-generational group gathering around a dinner table. Conversation turned to the hostess’ recent experience of buying a car.
My ears were half-listening, partly trained on the sounds of my kids, should they need something (or break something) and partly trained on the story being told. Eyes were down, making sure the delicious food made its way to my mouth successfully while traveling the shortest route possible.
I thought, “Hm. ‘Chew him down.’ Never heard that – ‘chew him OUT,’ maybe, but not ‘chew him ‘DOWN.’ Guess that can make sense…”
Except in the space of the second or two my synapses took to work that out, I realized I had, indeed, misheard one of the words, but it wasn’t the word “down.”
“…blah blah blah…
…something something car dealer something…
…so I Jewed him down blah blah blah…”
As I noticed the conversation stop, my eyes were still down, and I thought, “People really still SAY that? SHE really just said that?”
And the strangest thing happened.
You see, before and since I’ve experienced plenty of off-hand anti-semitism. Mostly, I handle it by making the person aware (and uncomfortable, when warranted) about what they’ve said and to whom. (“Actually, I’m Jewish. You have a problem with that?”) Nonetheless, the second I hear something anti-semitic (and now, unfortunately, anti-Israel) I automatically do a split-second assessment of whether or not I’m actually in physical and/or emotional danger, complete with the involuntary rush of adrenaline that accompanies it. I always have a physical reaction – at least internally. Usually, though, I’m pretty confident and can do a decent job overcoming the initial fear and anger that comes from hearing such careless speech.
This time was different. For one thing, these people all KNEW I was Jewish. My eyes stayed down, as (for the first time in my life) I felt the blood rush to my face as I flushed. My throat closed up and my eyes became hot with tears and I tried to meet the gaze of someone else at the table, but I failed. I felt humiliated – as if *I* had done something terrible and been caught in the act. It was BIZARRE.
Conversation picked up again, with flustered apologies, if memory serves, but I had the most intensely physical need to get away from that table, so I excused myself. I went downstairs and locked myself in the tiny bathroom under the basement steps and sobbed as quietly as I could manage.
Alternately, I was mystified and pissed at myself for my reaction. “What is your PROBLEM?” I chided myself. “CONTROL yourself, woman!” “You’ve totally handled this before!” “WHY ARE YOU ACTING THIS WAY???” “You KNOW she is not anti-semitic. You KNOW this.” She loved me to death, and I loved her back – none of that ever came into question throughout this entire weird episode.
Didn’t matter. It became clear I needed to leave the house. I wasn’t feeling better, and I surely wasn’t having more dessert, so I went upstairs and ran into my husband. He’d been looking for me, and I asked him if we could please leave now. He said “Of course…” and gathered up the kids, said goodbye for me and met me out in the car.
Predictably, a phone call and a long, beautiful, hand-written apology arrived. Relationship repaired and strong with this gentle soul who was absolutely DISTRAUGHT at the pain her words had caused me.
It is a fact that the Stars and Bars evoke in many people some degree of reaction like the one “Jewed him down” evoked in me.
What’s my point?
Recent racist, horrific and barbaric murders in Charleston, South Carolina have brought louder and more urgent calls on the front pages and across the internet for the Confederate flag to be permanently retired from any official and/or commercial display.
Yes, I recognize hidden racism is as prevalent and insidious (if not more so) than overt racism, and I work to disrupt that, too. No, I don’t think removing the Stars and Bars from government buildings in the South is the sum total of what’s needed to remedy discrimination. Those extremely valid points stipulated, please stick with me about the flag.
South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, has proposed taking it down from the Capitol grounds, and I have a feeling this time it will take. Wal Mart has announced it will no longer sell merchandise with the Confederate flag on it. Long overdue.
The Supreme Court of the United States has even decided that the Sons of Confederate Veterans cannot compel the State of Texas to print the flag on personalized license plates they produce. SCOTUS made it clear that a state’s official display on its grounds, stationery, license plates, etc., is NOT an issue of freedom of speech of an individual, but an issue of compelling a government to echo that speech. Just because a PERSON wants to display the Confederate flag does not mean the GOVERNMENT must comply with those wishes by displaying it on its property, as well. Governmental bodies displaying the Confederate flag in any official capacity represent, at their hearts, support of racist policies that check off every box needed to be defined as terrorism.
In his wonderful essay, Bryan Bibb points out that no matter how benign your devotion to Southern heritage feels – how free from hate you believe you are, your denial belies the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty by dissociating this flag from its origins. He makes it truly impossible to dodge, not only the flag’s meaning – but its uses.
To the fans of the Confederate Flag, I say the following:
In Germany and France, it’s actually against the law to fly the Nazi flag – even for private citizens. It may surprise you to know I don’t agree with that.
I believe private citizens should be allowed to display it on their personal property, and wear it on their personal bodies whenever and wherever they choose. I’m not gonna lie – in my fantasy world, NO stores would sell them simply because no people wanted to buy them. Until that glorious day comes, though, I’d prefer to be able to identify you quickly and easily so that I can avoid you like the plague or know what I’m up against should I choose to engage you.
What is it that I’d be up against, you ask?
I’ll tell you. It is a fact that the Stars and Bars evoke in many people some degree of reaction like the one “Jewed him down” evoked in me. In fact, consider that I am 2 generations and 3500 miles removed from the Nazis, and that one remark triggered a disoriented panic in me. I cannot imagine what much more recent government oppression in one’s own backyard might trigger for a Person of Color.
On some level, you know it triggers a spectrum of negative feelings ranging from disgust to fear to outright panic and terror in Black people (and as time went on, Jewish people.) You KNOW this, and somehow this is acceptable to you.
We’re not talking stifling your precious freedom of speech to avoid giving “offense,” like farting at the dinner table or rooting for the New York Yankees. We’re talking knowingly striking feelings of terror and subjugation knit deep into the souls of people who are STILL struggling for survival and acceptance. Displaying the Confederate flag says on some level, you are cool with that. For you, positive still outweighs that negative. The lack of proportion between the benefit to you versus the pain you inflict on others is irrelevant to you. A great friend, of powerful intellect and deep heart summed it up nicely by saying, “in-group loyalty and personal identity and family origins and culture and pride trump compassion.”
Is that who you are?
After the worst kind of tragedy and crime against humanity last week, South Carolina appears to be on the way to righting this colossal symbolic wrong. I’m not so much in the mood to praise them for doing the right thing, and more in the mood to send them and other Confederate pride hold-outs to their rooms while I scream at them, “Now you THINK about what you’ve done!!! And don’t come out until you can own up to the pain you’ve caused!!!”
I understand feeling intense pride in your heritage. Fascination with history of the South. Deep love of Southern culture. Yet, by also saying, “Much, if not all of that was rooted in the abomination of slavery and the proliferation of Jim Crow, and I am NOT okay with THAT. I refuse to fly the flag out of respect for that reality,” you do nothing to diminish your pride, fascination, or love. Quite the contrary. You’re enhancing and adding depth to it. You’re helping the South grow up and move forward.
Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Purple Clover, and before that, in Catonsville Patch and Kveller. She has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” She has won BlogHer Voice of the Year awards in 2013 and 2015. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.