Disowning the Lie of Whiteness

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The most vivid memory I have of my great-grandfather is the tattoo on his arm.

 

It wasn’t an anchor or a sweetheart’s name or even the old faithful, “Mom.”

 

It was just a series of digits scrawled across his withered tan flesh like someone had written a note they didn’t want to forget.

 

Beneath the copious salt and pepper hairs was a stark number, the darkest stain on his skin.

 

Gramps is a kindly figure in my mind.

 

He died before I was even 10-years-old. All I really remember about him are wisps of impressions – his constant smile, a whiff of mothballs, how he always seemed to have butterscotch candies.

 

And that tattoo.

 

I think it was my father who told me what it meant.

 

When he was just a young man, Gramps escaped from Auschwitz. A guard took pity on him and smuggled him out.

 

His big European family didn’t make it.

 

My scattered relatives in the United States are all that are left of us.

 

Those are the only details that have come down to me. And Gramps isn’t here to add anything further.

 

But his tattoo has never left me.

 

It’s become a pillar of my subconscious.

 

The fact that someone could look at my kindly Gramps and still see fit to tattoo a numeric signifier on him as if he were an animal.

 

A little reminder that he wasn’t human, that he shouldn’t be treated like a person, that he was marked for erasure.

 

If I look at my own arm, there is no tell-tale integer peeking through the skin. But I am keenly aware of its presence.

 

I know that it’s there in a very real sense.

 

It is only the American dream that hides it.

 

Coming to this country, my family has made a deal, something of a Faustian bargain, but it’s one that most of us have accepted as the price of admission.

 

It’s called whiteness.

 

I am white.

 

Or I get to be white. So long as I suppress any differences to the contrary.

 

I agree to homogenize myself as much as possible and define myself purely by that signifier.

 

White. American. No hyphen necessary.

 

Anything else is secondary. I don’t have to deny it, but I have to keep it hidden until the right context comes to bring it out.

 

During Octoberfest I have license to be German. When at international village I can root for Poland. And on Saturdays I can wear a Kippah and be Jewish.

 

But in the normal flow of life, don’t draw attention to my differences. Don’t show everyone the number on my arm.

 

Because America is a great place, but people here – as in many other places – are drawn to those sorts of symbols and will do what they can to stamp them out.

 

I learned that in school when I was younger.

 

There weren’t a lot of Jewish kids where I grew up. I remember lots of cracks about “Jewing” people down, fighting against a common assumption that I would be greedy, etc. I remember one girl I had a crush on actually asked to see my horns.

 

And of course there were the kids who chased me home from the bus stop. The scratched graffiti on my locker: “Yid.”

 

The message was clear – “You’re different. We’ll put up with you, but don’t ever forget you are NOT one of us.”

 

There were a lot more black kids. They didn’t get it any easier but at least they could join together.

 

It seemed I had one choice – assimilate or face it alone.

 

So I did. I became white.

 

I played up my similarities, never talked about my differences except to close friends.

 

And America worked her magic.

 

 

So I’ve always been aware that whiteness is the biggest delusion in the world.

 

It’s not a result of the color wheel. Look at your skin. You’re not white. You’re peach or pink or salmon or rose or coral or olive or any of a million other shades.

 

Whiteness has as much to do with color as Red has to do with Communism or Green has to do with environmental protection.

 

It is the way a lose confederacy of nationalities and ethnicities have banded together to form a fake majority and lord power over all those they’ve excluded.

 

It’s social protection for wealth – a kind of firewall against the underclass built, manned and protected by those who are also being exploited.

 

It’s like a circle around the wealthy protecting them from everyone outside its borders. Yet if everyone banded together against the few rich and powerful, we could all have a more equitable share.

 

But in America, social class has been weaponized and racialized.

 

You’ll see some media outlets talking about demographics as if white people were in danger of losing their numerical majority in this country in the next few decades. But there’s no way it’s ever going to happen.

 

Today’s xenophobia is a direct response to this challenge. Some are trying to deport, displace and murder as many black and brown people as possible to preserve the status quo.

 

But even if that doesn’t work, whiteness will not become a minority. It will do what it has always done – incorporate some of those whom it had previously excluded to keep its position.

 

Certain groups of Hispanics and Latinos probably will find themselves allowed to identify as white, thereby solidifying the majority.

 

Because the only thing that matters is that there are some people who are “white” and the rest who are not.

 

Long ago, my family experienced this.

 

Before I was born, we got our provisional white card. And if I want, I can use it to hide behind.

 

I’ve been doing it most of my life.

 

Every white person does it.

 

It’s almost impossible not to do it.

 

How do you deny being white?

 

At this point, I could throw back my head and shout to the heavens, “I’M NOT WHITE!” and it wouldn’t matter.

 

Only in a closed environment like a school or a job or in a social media circle can you retain the stigma of appearing pale but still being other.

 

In everyday life, it doesn’t matter what you say, only how you appear.

 

I can’t shout my difference all the time. Every moment I’m quiet, I’ll still be seen as white.

 

It’s not personal. It’s social. It’s not something that happens among individuals. It’s a way of being seen.

 

The best I can do is try to use my whiteness as a tool. I can speak out against the illusion. I can stand up when people of color are being victimized. I can vote for leaders who will do something to dismantle white supremacy.

 

Not because I am some kind of savior, but because I know that my own freedom is tied to the freedom of those being oppressed by a system that provides me certain privileges.

 

But let me be clear: doing so is not the safe way to go.

 

In defending others you make yourself a target.

 

I get threats all the time from racists and Nazis of all sorts. They say they can tell just by looking at me that I’m not white at all.

 

The worst part is I’m not sure what I am anymore.

 

I don’t go to synagogue. I don’t even believe in God. But I’m Jewish enough to have been rounded up like Gramps was, so I won’t deny that identity. It’s just that I’m more than one thing.

 

That’s what whiteness tries to reduce you to – one thing.

 

I don’t want it anymore.

 

I’m not saying I don’t like the protection, the ability to be anonymous, the easy out.

 

But it’s not worth it if it has to come with the creation of an other.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where people of color are considered less than me and mine.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where they can be treated unfairly, beaten and brutalized so that I can get some special advantage.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where human beings are tattooed and numbered and sent to their deaths.

 

Because the Holocaust is not over.

 

American slavery is not over.

 

Neither is Jim Crow or lynching or a thousand other marks of hatred and bigotry.

 

Nazis march unmasked in our streets. Our prisons are the new plantation. And too many of our police use murder and atrocity to ensure the social order.

 

As long as we allow ourselves to be white, there will be no justice for both ourselves and others.

 

So consider this my renunciation of whiteness – and I make it here in public.

 

I know that no matter what I say, I will still be seen as part of the problem. And I will still reap the rewards.

 

But I will use what power is given me to tear it down.

 

I’m burning my white card.

 

I know it’s a symbolic gesture. But I invite my white brothers and sisters to add theirs to the flames.

 

Let us make a conflagration, a pillar of fire into the sky.

 

Let whiteness evaporate as the smoke it is.

 

Let us revel in the natural hues of our faces as we watch it burn.

 


 

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With Education Such a Low Priority in America, It’s No Wonder The Holocaust is Fading From Memory

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The Holocaust has never been more relevant than it is today.

 

Racism and prejudice are on the rise. Hate crimes are becoming more common. Anti-immigrant sentiment is becoming more widespread.

 

And anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

 

Yet just last week, a comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness was released concluding that Americans are forgetting this vital chapter of our history.

 

After more than 1,350 interviews, Schoen Consulting found that 11 percent of U.S. adults and more than one-fifth of millennials either haven’t heard of the European Holocaust or aren’t sure what it is.

 

From 1933-1945, approximately 12 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – were systematically put to death by Nazi forces.

 

However, even many of those who admitted to having some knowledge of these events were unsure about the specifics. For instance, one third of respondents – and 41% of millennials – said that only 2 million people were killed.

 

This is unacceptable.

 

But not unexpected.

 

Not in a country that has made education such a low priority for decades.

 

Only a handful of states mandate Holocaust curriculum in schools – Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island – and each one does so to varying degrees of detail.

 

Other states like Pennsylvania have laws strongly encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust but not requiring it outright.

 

Wasn’t this why 42 states adopted Common Core – to make sure all students were learning the same things?

 

Well, first of all those standards were only adopted in English and Math. Social studies standards were far too controversial to make it over the partisan divide.

 

Moreover, Common Core has actually been an impediment to Holocaust studies, not a help.

 

A principal in Delaware refused to let a concentration camp survivor speak to students because he didn’t think it was rigorous enough under Common Core.

 

Another district tried to encourage critical thinking by asking students if the Holocaust was true or if it had been exaggerated – as if proven facts were up for debate.

 

Additionally, the reading standards push for texts to be taught as if they were standardized test items without proper context for a robust understanding. Combine that with an emphasis on texts that are exceedingly complex and it’s no wonder that young people’s understanding of this important part of history is fuzzy.

 

And I write this as an educator who taught the Holocaust in middle school for more than a decade.

 

The first thing I did was throw those corporate-written standards in the trash.

 

My 8th graders and I watched various award-winning documentaries such as “Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died.” We read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but supplemented it with various interviews and autobiographical articles from concentration camp survivors and even a presentation from community members who had first-hand experience of these events until their age and health made that impossible.

 

The whole unit culminated in a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

 

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the norm.

 

Though America students make up one third of the 1.7 million visitors to the National Holocaust Museum, 80 percent of Americans say they have never visited any Holocaust museum.

 

I get it. Teaching about this is hard.

 

It’s ugly and scary and repulsive – but it’s meant to be.

 

The DC National Holocaust Memorial  recommends the following guidelines for teaching about the European Holocaust:

 

“Be sensitive to appropriate written and audiovisual content. One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all . . . Some students may be so appalled by the images of brutality and mass murder that they are discouraged from studying the subject further. Others may become fascinated in a more voyeuristic fashion, subordinating further critical analysis of the history to the superficial titillation of looking at images of starvation, disfigurement, and death . . . There is also a tendency among students to glorify power, even when it is used to kill innocent people. Many teachers indicated that their students are intrigued and, in some cases, intellectually seduced by the symbols of power that pervaded Nazi propaganda (e.g., the swastika and/or Nazi flags, regalia, slogans, rituals, and music). Rather than highlight the trappings of Nazi power, you should ask your students to evaluate how such elements are used by governments (including our own) to build, protect, and mobilize a society. Students should also be encouraged to contemplate how such elements can be abused and manipulated by governments to implement and legitimize acts of terror and even genocide.”

 

That’s what I tried to do.

 

This is the first year that I’m not explicitly teaching the Holocaust – and the only reason is because I’m not teaching 8th grade, I’m teaching 7th.

 

It’s not in my curriculum.

 

However, I know my students will get it when they advance to the next grade.

 

I wish that were true everywhere.

 

Unfortunately, a deep knowledge of history does not come from a society obsessed with standardization and privatization.

 

In fact, our policy of high stakes testing is an artifact of the eugenicist movement that inspired the Nazis. Our privatization movement is a holdover from the white flight reactionaries trying to circumvent the integration of Brown vs. Board.

 

We don’t do a comprehensive job teaching the Holocaust because we haven’t, as a society, learned its lessons.

 

We don’t teach the consequences of the European Holocaust because we haven’t come to terms with the consequences of our own American varieties. We haven’t acknowledged the effects of Europeans conquest and genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, Jim Crow, Japanese internment or the prison industrial complex.

 

To teach the Holocaust we must take a step toward understanding where we, as a nation, have engaged in similar practices.

 

These are lessons vital to our survival and progress.

 

And that is exactly why it hasn’t been made a priority. It is exactly why we don’t have equitable education for all children in America.

 

Doing so would upset the status quo.

 

Doing so would be troublesome to the powers that be who use a racial and economic caste system to keep us all in line.

 

Understanding the Holocaust prevents us from reliving it.

 

And the people in power want to keep that door unequivocally open.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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