Not long after my “Being a Duck on Easter” post, I got a message from a friend who’s studying abroad in
And here is my response:
What do you mean by "understand"?
I asked a young trans person I know if people have to experience anti-trans oppression in order to understand, or if they have to experience body dysphoria in order to understand. He seems to think they do. I have often asked a low-income friend of mine if people have to experience poverty before they understand. He is undecided. People I love have come near to dying of poverty, several times that I was aware of. I want people to understand. But I don't want them to have to go through what we went through.
Do you have to experience suffering in order to understand it? Do you have to be a prisoner in order to understand the magnitude of the crime [of imprisoning someone]? In which case, would you not be useless as an activist?
You have decided to experience this - you decided to visit
I did not decide to go to
Part of that work is knowing that "good enough" never is. Sustainable communities are ones that are constantly self-critical, constantly developing. Putting up with small injustices does not do honor to great injustices - in fact, it fosters them.
What do I know from antisemitism? I know enough not to want to "understand" its extremes, if understanding means experiencing first hand. I know that historically, antisemitism has always been cyclical, and that my future is no more secure now than my grandparents' were in the U.S. in the 1930s, when they all thought (in various combinations) that they were going to live happily ever after, that their relatives would all immigrate soon, that they would become a doctor, get a job, join a union, and ride the revolution. I know better than to stop working for justice, even for a moment.
And what do you know, D? What do you know, now that you have cried about our
P.S. In case you forgot to bring your copy, here is this page from a Smith student haggadah [the prayer book of the Passover seder]:
"This is the way to experience bitterness: take a big chunk of raw horseradish, let the burning turn your face all red.
This is the way to experience bitterness: dig back to a time of raw wounds, remember how it felt before the healing began, years or months or days ago.
How big a piece of maror must we eat to reexperience this bitterness? To what extent are we obligated to re-live suffering and pain?
And what if I've known enough pain this year already? And what if exclusion and exile are not just memories for me?
And what if I eat the whole root and my tongue catches fire and my ears burn? Then will I know slavery?
And if I truly know slavery, then will I be devoured by freedom?”
What is lovely about these letters is that they represented the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. D and I share a culture in which brutal honesty and unapologetic disagreement are signs of engaged dialogue, and in the best case, tools for making meaning together. As evidence that the conversation went well: D gave me happy permission to post this here.