Entering Trump’s America as Other

Seeing as how later this week is Holocaust Remembrance Day and this past weekend was the Women’s March, now seems an appropriate time for this post.

Trump has been elected and sworn in, and I am living in fear. I’m not alone in this reaction and it isn’t the standard way US citizens have responded in the past to seeing the opposing party enter the White House. This is the fear of knowing that in the upcoming years I will very likely know someone who will be a victim of a hate crime or be a victim myself. It’s the fear of seeing a large percentage of the country either embrace explicit racism or happily stand back and make room for those that do. And it’s the fear of someone who has seen people previously considered friends quickly seize upon this same hate.

I could talk about a dozen things I’m doing to fight back. I could talk about steps I hope everyone will take. I could list all of the things I’ve seen listed elsewhere, that you could read there first and probably have. But I won’t. I’m going to sit down, take all the deep breaths, and explain what I’ve seen already.

The day after it was announced that Trump won the election I began wearing Jewish jewelry again. Since then I’ve consistently worn either a chai or  a star of David. I understand the irony of a Jew voluntarily wearing a Jewish symbol to spite white supremacists and neo-Nazis, but I wanted to no longer be invisible as a minority. Being an Ashkenazi Jew is often being a racial and religious minority that can “pass“. I’ve heard people say things in front of me (and sometimes to me) that are horrific. Anything from a casual use of “jewing someone down” to trying to find a sympathetic ear about those Jew bankers in Europe during the 30s that really only had themselves to blame.

I donned my symbols to stand up to extreme bigots but I have been treated differently on a daily basis by people I never expected. It’s not all hatred but it did strike me how so many of the regulars I deal with at work, along with complete strangers I encounter, have been treating me one way while I’ve been passing and another now that I broadcast that I’m a Jew.

Sometimes it’s as simple as explicitly showing ignorance without any malice. I’ve had people ask if I’m wearing a pi necklace, and what the extra bit means. Yes, really. And while inquiring about religious symbolism isn’t a bad thing on its own, it does go to reinforce otherness. I’d venture that it’s a rare thing indeed for a Christian to be approached by a waiter or stranger in public and asked what their cross means. But for people of other faiths, a chai or star of David, or hamsa is exotic enough to warrant a comment or question.Along those same lines of benign intention and clear ignorance, I’ve had people jump into cultural and religious discussions with me based on their assumptions of what Judaism is. This includes the platitude that my religion and theirs worship the same god1 or any of another thousand points that most branches of Christianity seems to universally teach (incorrectly) about Judaism in order to give the impression of them fitting together in a single historical and spiritual narrative2.

I’m not upset that these gentiles don’t know about my religion. We’re a small percentage of the population and if I’m being honest, most people don’t know a whole lot about their own religion so expecting them to know about others would be a high expectation indeed. What gets to me is the presumption that people have that they do know about things they clearly don’t. That they can extrapolate about my belief system and politics and life experiences based on knowing the single fact that there is something different about me than themselves. It’s hubris and ignorance as a foundation of building their worldview.

The interactions get worse, believe me. Even filtering for outright anger I have found that some people react to learning about my otherness as if it were a challenge. Getting obstinate about Christmas after learning I celebrate Chanukah. Explaining to me what my politics, regarding both the middle east as well as domestically, should be since I’m a Jew. Things like that. Things ranging from micro-aggressions to macro-aggressions. Or, simply aggression, I suppose.

Now this isn’t a boo-hoo, it’s tough to be a Jew piece. This is show what someone who belongs to one of the easiest to hide minorities will go through. I’m not a woman3, I’m not black, I’m not Muslim, gay, or trans. Since I pass I can reap a huge amount of white privilege, and gearing up each morning with a symbol of my otherness literally emblazoned on my chest was a way to show that I am rejecting the in-group and allying myself with the rest of the others. And if this is the shit that I go through every damned day imagine what each of these other groups are enduring.

If you’re a man, imagine what you are saying or doing to women based on the assumptions of daily life being the same as yours. If you’re nominally Christian, and by that I mean raised in a Christian setting regardless of degree of belief and not explicitly joining another religion, then think about how this has framed your daily existence and the assumptions you can make about everyone you meet and how they’re not actually safe assumptions. If you’re white, think about how that is the default in your mind and that it isn’t for black and brown and Asian people4. That if you’re white and you’re asked to a lineup of characters you’re very likely to say “There’s the guy, the girl, and the black guy.” Because the first instance of guy was inherently white. That if you’re straight how a quick kiss  in a kid’s cartoon is completely nonsexual, but a quick kiss between two characters of the same gender becomes loaded and inherently more of an overt sexual act. That if you’re cisgender then going to the bathroom is a simple act that will not put your safety at risk and won’t be focused on by nearby strangers, or friends, or coworkers.

If all of this sounds like an attack then you haven’t learned the lesson here, which is to listen. There is a difference between attacking someone and exercising civil self-defense from them. That’s not asking for extra deference in society but an equal regard. That need to be overly ginger and polite to the in-crowd in order to come across as simply civil, and possibly trying to drop bits of truth that hopefully they will pick up on, is what I call Ambassador Syndrome5, and it is an exhausting way to live.

So I’m going to take a moment to forget about holding up my end of conditional whiteness and drop the ambassador front for a moment. I’m going to say that if you think that offering high-fives and guns to the middle east is supporting Israel then you’re a moron. That if you use the term Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative you should know that the term “social justice” is a core tenet of the branch of Judaism I was raised in and so if you’re nominally Christian then you’re shitting on something that your religion is ostensibly founded on. That if you’re a Christian and you argue that the main three Abrahamic faiths all believe in the same god then you sound ridiculous6 and that and the use of the term “Judeo-Christian” is a giveaway that you know very little about Judaism and Christianity.

I have spent my entire life being othered and I have a hundred more points like the ones above that I could rattle off. So do all the women out there who spent their lives as part of the otherness of being “not male”. The same thing goes for people of color, and doubly so for women of color7. So why exactly am I going on about all of this? Because even from my conditionally white, passing perspective things have become unbearable. And suddenly the circles that are complaining about White People (the capital letters make a difference) have become a lot more crowded. There’s room for all, but for many of us have been living with this fear and anger for a while. A good rule to measure things by right now is this:

If you’re scared and angry now and weren’t all that frightened before then you should focus on listening to people that have been scared and angry for a while.

The polite way to say all this is that now is the time to engage in active listening, and learn something about the people who have been fighting some aspect of this fight all along.

The rude way to say it is now is the time to shut up and listen. And if that’s too complicated, then focus on the former.

And whether polite or rude, if you’ve been relatively happy with the way things have been then realize it’s always been at the expense of other people, and that is why we’re not shutting up now.

Notes   [ + ]

1, 2. They don’t.
3. Okay, so this one isn’t actually a minority, but it is an oppressed demographic
4. Or Jews. I know I get really annoyingly proud when a character in television, comics, or movies turns out to be Jewish.
5. I could swear that I picked this term up from someone else but when I went to search the origins I came up with nothing. So until find an earlier origin of the term than this post I’m going to claim it.
6. You know someone named Steve? I know someone named Steve! Must be the same guy.
7. Did that seem redundant or did your brain tacitly accept “people” as “men”. I won’t say that’s okay, but it is completely normal.
Adam

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who’s sick of the white Christian male being America’s “default” setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access is wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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