Race, Class, and Comments

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by Ayelet Waldman

I hadn't checked in on the comments section for a while, so I feared I was doomed to end my brief tenure on this blog without once being called a racist. But thankfully some furious Sephardic Israelis rose to the occasion. Rest assured, friends, that I know as much about the demographics of the State of Israel—up until the late '80s, that is—as the next sporadic resident. That is to say, a little.

While I absolutely cannot speak to conditions in contemporary Israel (I haven't been back in 15 years), I can tell you that the Israel I lived in in the 1980s was segregated. Certainly with the exception of a very few neighborhoods in a very few cities, the Jews and Arabs did not live in the same communities. In fact, on one occasion, when an Arab friend drove me home, I received a warning from my neighbors not to bring people "like that" into the building ever again.

More to the point, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews often lived in segregated communities. My family is about as Ashkenazic as they come (bouncing from Minsk to Kiev and back again for, what, a thousand years?). I lived on a kibbutz that was founded by German Jews and was still overwhelmingly populated by Jews of European origin, with the exception of the families of a small group who'd come from Syria as young teenagers, after 1948.

This segregation meant that if you were an Ashkenazic Jew living in Israel in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, your world was very white. Not nearly as white as your world is if you live in a state like Maine where upwards of 93 percent of the people define themselves as "white," but pretty damn white. With all the privilege that implies.

As to why I consider it a "dubious privilege" to be the whitest state in the Union—well, folks, I live in California though I didn't grow up there. And one of the reasons I choose to live in California and not somewhere else is because I believe that the diversity of the community adds to my life, and to the lives of my kids. It is sure as hell not perfect. My immediate neighborhood is affluent—it's comprised primarily of sizeable single family homes—and the diversity we experience sometimes feels like just a whole lot of rich people of a bunch of different colors. But that's why we do our best to inhabit as much of the East Bay as we can, to participate in as much of the life of our whole city as we can, so we don't end up living in a metaphorical gated community.

I Iove Maine (and oh, yes, I know that as a summer visitor my love is a transient and suspect thing), but the relative racial homogeneity of the state is not one of the things I love about it. Though I know, too, that that homogeneity is changing here, as it is in the rest of the country. There are parts of Maine with growing communities of immigrants from Asia and Africa.

Maine does, of course, possess significant economic diversity. I just published a novel that is in part about how class and money play out in this particular part of Downeast Maine. Here's a challenge to you grumpy Mainers who feel I don't "get" it. Check my novel Red Hook Road out from the library (Maine has some of the best community libraries I've ever been in). If, after reading it, you think I have the class dynamic all wrong, send me an email. I'll send you a book you'll like better. One that gets it right. You'll have to forgive me for feeling cocky enough to make that bet. I'm flying on the praise of my friend Brian's great aunt, who comes from stock with roots so deep in this part of the country that only the Passamaquoddy or the Mi'kmaq can lay a greater claim. She told her grandnephew to tell me that she's lived her whole life between the worlds of "from-aways" and Mainers, summer visitors and locals, and mine was the first novel she'd read to get it right. That makes me confident enough to feel my odds are good on this bet. Though who knows? Maybe I'll end up sending copies of The Beans of Egypt Maine to PO Boxes from Skowhegan to Caribou. It's a great book. I won't mind buying it a few more times for a few more people.

You know what, though? In all honesty, and this defensive post notwithstanding, of course I'm a racist. Or, okay, maybe I shouldn't be such a drama queen. Let's put it this way: I struggle with a myriad of racial prejudices and biases, and I surely suffer from many more that I'm too blind even to notice. (That was kind of the whole point of the "white-lady-rushing-up-to-smile-crazy-huge-smiles-at-the-black-guy-just-trying-to-buy-his-groceries-in-peace" part of my first post.) That's what happens to you when you grow up in rich, white neighborhoods in rich, mostly-white towns and go to rich, mostly-white schools. My parents are good liberals, and they raised me to believe that Martin Luther King was a hero, that Sojourner Truth was as close to a saint as their atheism would allow, that my job in life was to work on behalf of social justice (and to always, ALWAYS vote Democrat), but they didn't have any African-American friends. They didn't worry about the diversity of their community. And because of this, because my world was white, I grew up stunted in a certain kind of way.

So go on, call me on it. It's good for me.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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