other brother

Former slave showing whipping scars

Former slave showing whipping scars

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Racism is America’s original sin.  Americans are not unique in being racist, it’s a pretty universal feeling/action/attitude. At base, it is discomfort with the Other, which easily becomes fear of the other and then hatred. In America this has been more of a problem than many other places because as a nation of immigrants (who slaughtered the natives), there really is no authentic claim to the nation in which we now live. The land by primary right belongs to Native Americans. But the natives cannot claim the initiation of the current forms of government and most of the wealth, so it is a fight of all against all, if we insist on fighting. There is no common origin of the America that now exists.

The first time I went to Scandinavia several decades ago, I was having such a good time in Copenhagen, clean, well-functioning, well-designed Copenhagen. We had friends there, it was summer, the nights soft and cool, the parties flowing with spirits and each day, I grew more and more uneasy, shoulders twitching, looking around. Very uncomfortable and couldn’t say why.

Then it hit me. Where was everybody? Day after day of blonde hair and blue eyes felt like a science fiction creepville scary movie. Obviously, there’s nothing rotten in Denmark; it was me, what I was used to. Where are all the black people? Where is everybody? Scandinavia is changing but they are not nations of immigrants, and neither are most other countries. In Norway, there is a home team. In a nation as rich and developed as Norway, perhaps the security and groundedness of having a sense of common origin makes it easier to extend  hospitality. Yet hysteria still flares. Anders Breivik’s justification for his murder of 69 teenagers was the need for the purification of his country, the return to roots, by which he meant mono-culturalism.

In America, there are no roots, which makes our hatred a mess of self-hatred, shame, projection and confusion. Apparently ‘identity’ is a crucial psychological need and a beginning task in creating it, is defining what is not me. The world is in a paroxysm of identity issues identity politics psychological identity crises right now. All identites are fictions, usually fragile, fundamentally flawed and constructed out of scrap, duct-taped together. The effort that holds it together is often like the effort of pushing against a door. All well and good until someone opens it. Well, someone has opened it, the world is mixing, DNA is like a kid in a candy shop, having every sort of thing to choose from. ‘Race’ in a scientific sense does not exist. So what does exist?

A story. We have a story, we have interlocking stories, we make cultures from these stories and then we have identification with that story, with that culture. This is a basic human structure, a hard-wired structure and it can not be done away with. The story can be changed and expanded, but not the need. Breivik, Hitler, the Tea Party, Al-Qeda, are ascendant whenever they can control the story of who belongs and who doesn’t.

Hannah Arendt described Nazism this way, “For Nazism, all history is the history of race struggle.”  The struggle we engage in to defeat the inner Nazi, is the effort to get over our discomfort, the effort not to let it push us into a whole other set of feelings and then feelings becoming (bullshit) ideas that we don’t need. When you are a white person in an all black club, when you are a Muslim in Norway, when you are a Jew in Germany, it is not the same as being with your family. When you are with your family, you can lay around in your pajamas, eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches, tell bad jokes, and they will know where you are coming from, you will be comfortable. Today, I read this article in the New York Times that started with a tale of a liberal lefty Norwegian, previously a human rights advocate working in Latin America, who moved out of her lovely small town as it became more and more Muslim. She was a bit ashamed, but in the end, she was uncomfortable. The culture she knew was not there in the same way for her children, and so they all  just packed up and moved to a more ‘Norwegian’ part of Oslo. I don’t despise this woman. If we are to make progress, we need to acknowledge what is difficult and why it is difficult, we need compassion, not shame. Shame makes people turn away.

It is a lot of work to befriend the other, and it fails often enough to be discouraging. In the end, it can feel lonely. My husband and I are deeply different people from different cultures and backgrounds, who really need to work sometimes to overcome the daily grinding irritation of how in countless small ways, we want something different from each other. It’s a family joke. If he is cold, I am hot, if he wants to go to the symphony, I want to go to a rave, if he wants pasta, I want rice, every day, every day. Honestly, it’s tiring and it’s irritating and even isolating. But the other side, is that this is a relationship of such richness. It is that estuary where the salt and the fresh meet and where everything is spawned and hatched. Fruitful, full of life – not boring. I want to sit around in my pajamas sometimes, too (my husband NEVER does) and be comfortable, and so I need to take time to do that. But the creative sparks that are igniting all over the world have a lot to do with conking into people different from ourselves. The most vibrant civilizations have been crossroads and hubs of many kinds of people.

I could not be more sympathetic to what is lost when cultures lose their traditions and automatic sympathies – I work with mythology for crissake – but it’s over. The only way to repeal integration is to repeal technology from the jet and boat to the phone, internet, car even. It’s time to move on. Not toss out our cherished wisdoms and rituals, but move over and let something, someone different in.

This idea of origins and thus power and rights is misguided. But effective, no? Did Apaches or Babylonians or Hawaiians sit around worrying about their identity? No. Only marginalized people and transitional adolescent people worry about that. So, apparently, everybody’s feeling a little marginalized and transitional lately. The stories of origin and legitimacy need to change. A good story of birthright might begin with legitimacy originating with possession of a belly-button. But that isn’t enough. A culture and an identity are forged. The stories that lead to a sense of purpose show how challenge and  difficulty lead to purification. Struggle, strange twists of fate, unexpected obstacles and unexpected help, forge the soul of a person or a culture, and that identity belongs to you. The one you earned.

I love the American experiment. Without everybody, I am bored. My home team is a motley crew and my sensibility shaped by the piebald, dappled look of American crowds. A place that is homogeneous doesn’t seem real to me. But I understand this is how I grew up, and that other people have grown up other ways.

When our production company was working in Korea in 1993, one dark African-American in our crew was regularly accosted on the street by people who just put their hands all over him to see what he was like. These were the same Korean kids who had their caps on backwards, no belts and were listening to hip-hop lyrics they had no chance of understanding, but they’d never actually seen a black person. It was pretty weird, but he was cool about it. I’m thinking they were looking for the membership button. Writing the next story.

Polish children being examined by German officers  to see if they qualify as Aryan and allowed to live

Polish children being examined by German officers to see if they qualify as Aryan and allowed to live

hotel owner pouring acid in the water when black people swam in his pool, 1964

Hotel owner pouring acid in the water when black people swam in his pool, 1964

Martin Luther King, Jr removing burnt cross from his yard, 1960Martin Luther King, Jr removing burnt cross from his yard, 1960

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/world/europe/anti-immigrant-party-norway.html?hp

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/why-scandinavian-prisons-are-superior/279949/

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/health/millions-of-poor-are-left-uncovered-by-health-law.html?src=me&ref=general

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