Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Suffering

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Princeton student Tal Fortgang got an article last week into Time magazine titled “Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege.” Before I read it I expected the article to be part and parcel of that libertarian conceit that societal prejudices don’t exist and we’re all islands. Funny how it’s mostly white men who think that. Instead, Tal made a rather sarcastic argument in that he won’t apologize for the suffering his people have lived and died through: As the child of Holocaust victims and anti-Semitism in the States, he felt that the resentment as to his status was unfounded, and as such he had no need to apologize.

His article garnered a lot of strong replies, as any controversial article would, from folks who thought he was playing the “my suffering was worse than your suffering” game and folks who thought he was learning the wrong lesson about the Holocaust. Point of fact, he was effectively using it as a shield against actual insight: I can do no wrong because this is what happened to my grandparents. He became defensive, which highlights just how he failed to think when he was asked to.

Funny enough, it reminds me most of my students when I was working in a public school in Brooklyn: It was filled with mostly Black students who came from the projects in Crown Heights. They were not privileged, but they were prejudiced: Racism, according to them, was what white people did to Black people, and their endless fist-fights and insults levied at east Asian students were not viewed in that context. That white teachers had to teach them that “ching-chong” jokes were not acceptable much in the same way that “nigger” and “spic” aren’t acceptable was an awkward situation at best, if for nothing else than how it illustrated how the teachers conflated epithets with institutional discrimination, but I digress.

The students had a similarly hard time in World History, when an Irish teacher attempted to explain about the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence: Their framework on the Irish involved cops, unionists and city officials, and those were not victims but rather victimizers. (Would that the teacher was as interested in teaching how the transition from one to the other was effected but, sadly, even if he wanted to our core curriculum compartmentalizes such learning.) They viewed themselves as victims. In a very real way they were and are, but to extend that notion was difficult. Tal Fortgang views himself as a victim as well, but as his article shows, there-in lies a blindness.

Either way, the message is clear: “What I suffer,” they surmised, “is special and in no way comparable to your plight.” That this child of Holocaust victims failed to recognize that other people suffer too, and that he may actually be complicit in their suffering, is a sadness, just as watching Black teenagers gay-bash is a sadness. Your suffering is not a cloak to ward against criticism, nor is it a license to cause suffering in others.

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