Saturday, April 08, 2006

An Empathic Approximating Experience of My Own

Rachel Sullivan has a great post up (here/here) about lynching and White empathy for the victims. One of the more interesting things she mentions is how Whites might learn how to empathize with Blacks on the subject of racism. She quotes a book by Hernan Vera, Joe Feagin, and Pinar Batur, White Racism: The Basics (themselves quoting Tiffany Hogan and Julie Netzer) on what they call "approximating experiences." They identify three ways this can happen:
(1) "Borrowed approximations," relying on stories that blacks tell to make sense of black experience; (2) "global approximations," relying on general humanism and values of fairness to relate to black oppression; and (3) "overlapping approximations," relying on aspects of their own oppression to make sense of similar black experience. (232)

I think this makes excellent sense, and is a crucial tactic we should utilize more often. Rachel continues, arguing that:
Rather than focusing on our own views and experiences, we need to step outside of our perspectives and try to develop the approximating experiences that challenge the apathy indifference that racism creates.

I left a comment contesting that this was precisely what Feagin, Vera, and Batur had in mind:
I think it's really important to look at the story's of other people, especially minorities, but I think that "develop[ing] the approximating experiences" is something that occurs inside our perspectives, not by stepping outside of them. Feagin and Vera seem to agree; their three methods of developing these experiences are "relying on stories that people of color tell about their experiences, relying on general humanistic values, and relying on aspects of their own oppression." The first one requires the stepping outside, but the second and third both require deeper engagement with one's own self and personal perspective. So I'd argue that if approximating experiences are what we want, then we need to encourage more storytelling by Whites qua Whites, not only so we can learn from them, but so they can learn from themselves and create these commonalities that link their own experience to that of their fellow human beings.

But irregardless, I found the post fascinating, and the Vera/Feagin/Batur formulation interesting, so I decided to go check out the book.

Here's where things got fun. I was browsing through the stacks for the book, and my eye catches on a slim, brown volume nestled between two examinations of White racism. It's called "The Jewish Onslaught." Disturbed, I force my eyes away, and keep looking for the book I want--which I soon find only a few steps away. I pluck it off the shelves, and set it down. Then, I scan for other potentially helpful books in the same area (I've rapidly discovered that this is a great way for finding useful materials I'd otherwise never have seen). But I'm drawn inexorably back to "The Jewish Onslaught." It's at the very top of the shelf--I reach up to grab it, but my hand slips, and as I fumble it falls to the ground with a loud clatter. Embarassed, I pick it up and open it. The author is one Tony Martin, a Professor in African-American studies at Wellesley College (no fringe figure, then). The book was published in 1993, apparently as a defense to a furious Jewish response to a prior book, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. I started reading. Allow me to share some of the rhetoric found in just the first chapter.

The title of the screed, "the Jewish onslaught" (it gives me chills everytime I read it) is repeated throughout. He slurs Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as "African America's most notorious Judaeophile" (3). He refers to "the last three decades of Jewish assaults on Black progress" (4). And again: "Hillel chapters have become the campus-based shock troops in the ongoing Jewish onslaught against Black progress (5). When Jewish organizations criticized him "in the midst of one of their highest holy celebrations" (I'm guessing this was between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it's left unclear), he mockingly notes this "matter was of such extreme urgency and to override their religious scruples" (9), as if Jewish law prohibits responding to threats when there is praying to do (it doesn't). He derisively refers to the "hackneyed allegation of 'anti-Semitism'" (9). He argues that the relative lack of non-Jewish protest against him proves that this is just the "Jewish ability to make a lot of 'noise' and fill the media with their lies" (10). The inevitable comparison of Jews to Nazis first shows up on page 11. He refers to "organized Jewry's campaigns against those the would wish to destroy" (12). "[A]ll the dirty Jewish tricks" he writes constitute a "textbook case study of organized Jewish intimidation (12)."

The purpose of mentioning this book is not to launch into some claim about how Black leftists are anti-Semitic (for the very simple reason that this would be a moronic claim to make). Rather, I just appreciate the irony of finding my own "empathic approximating experience" in the process of researching "empathic approximating experiences." I'm nearly positive I've read stories about Black professors who, searching through the stacks for some research (perhaps looking for a historical document on American race relations) spots upon a book with a title like Are Blacks Human? or something of the like. It's a constant reminder of subordinate status, a weight that can be ignored but never completely lifted. I've seen books like Professor Martin's before, but my finding it sitting along side all the other books in the "anti-racism" section of the library, while searching for a book to aid in my fight against racism, made this one hit more powerfully than any of its predecessors.

In the next edition of The Lens, you should find my article "Reforging the Sword That Was Broken: The Revival of the Jewish/Black Relationship." And if you look inside your local library, you should be able to find a copy of Jews and Blacks: Let The Healing Begin by Cornel West and Michael Lerner. The efforts of soul-crushers like Martin cannot stop us from rebuilding the alliance between Jews and Blacks. My Jewish identity is not something I need to overcome to participate in anti-racism practice, it is a crucial part of what motivates me to join the struggle. Now, more than ever, Jews and Blacks need to join together in the fight for mutual human dignity. And the best way I can spit in Dr. Martin's eye is to prove that combining Jewish values and Black values will create a human whirlwind that will permanently banish haters like him to the fringes of the public sphere, where he belongs.

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