Which Side Are You On?

Which Side Are You On?

Most stereotypes have some truth to them -but it’s how those shreds of truth are twisted that leads to the kind of dehumanization that is seen in this ad. My father, who was Jewish, didn’t love money so much as he hated to spend it. We got our winter coats in May (when they were practically giving them away) and the happiest I think I ever saw my father was when Harris Teeter had to pay him $2.50 when he got a turkey after thanksgiving thanks to double coupons and ridiculous discounts. When he saw a stack of Daily Tar Heels with Subway coupons that offered buy-one, get-one free sandwiches WITH NO EXPIRATION DATE- he took them all. My friends in high school loved that we were able to eat half-price all year- but they also called my brother Adam and me the Coupon Kings- which without a doubt had some unconscious jew-shaming undertones. (I actually still had some of those coupons years later and used them on a Sleepyhead tour….).

Again, my father’s coupon habit surely had less to do with a love of money than with a childhood growing up poor. Deprivation encodes fear into our genes. He had a hard time finding balance, finding a way to let go of money because he had experienced the difficulty of not having enough. Even though he earned a good salary and invested his money wisely, I doubt that he ever bought himself an item of clothing that wasn’t on sale (like really, really on sale). These behaviors and attitudes become learned behaviors and I have to work hard to try to find balance for myself -I’m not that good at it yet, but I’m getting better. I have gotten wise enough to not always choose the cheapest option- because I had repeatedly learned the hard way that the cheapest option is often the most problematic one. Still, the impulse is always there. I know that on some level this is partly because I don’t feel like I deserve the better option- whatever that means. Finding balance between selfishness and selflessness can be a tightrope walk, but one that’s worth working on, because finding balance leads to stability

In addition to riffing about my father, and how I have been affected by his genes and behaviors, this post is about how unconscious bias creates a space for unacceptable behavior (like the outright anti-semitism as seen in this ad) to be normalized. If this isn’t de-humanization, I don’t know what is. I don’t know that I ever experienced overt anti-Semitism growing up- but there was certainly semi-benign ribbing from friends (coupon king – jokes about being cheap)- and less benign cultural tropes about greedy, narcissistic, whiny jews which probably had more influence on me than I realize. Seinfeld can be funny because it’s kind of true, while also perpetuating stereotypes right?

As I wrote the other day (like this post the piece I refer to was a Facebook post that I later folded into this linked post), I was not brought up with any real rituals of religion, but my parents did not try to assimilate in a way that denied their cultural heritage. We may not have gone to synagogue, but we were definitely Jewish, in ways that only fully revealed themselves to me later in life (i.e. walking down the street in New York after about 3 months of college it finally struck me that even though I grew up in the South, a large part of my cultural roots were in the North East).

Last night I went to a service for the murdered Tree of Life congregants at a synagogue in Chapel Hill and it was moving and uplifting. My friend Sally was kind enough to let me know about it and drive me there. On the way in, she asked me if I ever thought about how difficult this time period might have been for my father if he had lived. I immediately recalled my father’s rage at Reagan’s tax cuts because he saw them for what they were- an attack on the poor that would drive an ever increasing wealth gap. He saw this all coming 40 years ago, and it enraged him then- I can only imagine how painful this would have been to him now.

My father worked his way out of poverty by getting a scholarship to Duke, working in a dining hall (and scavenging for change in the couches in an era of big pockets that leaked change like a sieve), and becoming a professor in a time when professors were paid a decent wage. Yes, he could be cheap, but he was incredibly generous of spirit – and he didn’t like waste. When I began working, I mostly loathed it, and equated the money earned with hours of my life wasted. For me, spending money meant hours I would have to spend working, so I spent as little as possible. When I graduated from college, all I wanted to do was make art- so I worked crappy jobs to make just enough to make rent- and since my rent was so low, I didn’t have to work all that much and I made a lot of art- ate rice and beans and 2 dollar breakfast and devoted myself to being creative. I probably could have afforded and omelet now and then but balance was not something I was good at.

The hard work of my parents, and their efforts to be supportive (even when they feared I was on the wrong path) has made it possible for me to focus on the work that I do. I am proud of my Jewish heritage. It’s not just in our blood, it’s in our genes. Centuries of depraviation and conflict affect our sense of our selves. We are part of a continuum.

Ads like this are deeply de-humanizing. Last night’s service was deeply humanizing. Which side are you on my people, which side are you on?

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