By Jackie Swartz
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
Growing up in suburbia, with hundreds of white privileged kids roaming my high school halls, politics was an issue that most of us did not concern ourselves with. None of us had to worry about the outside world while stuck in a bubble where the week’s biggest crime was someone going ten miles above the speed limit. But, in recent years, it has been a lot harder to not “concern yourself” with politics. Everything has become an issue of politics: wearing a mask, supporting the police, pledging allegiance to the flag. The words “liberal” and “conservative” are marked as two of the most popularly used insults in our society.
After escaping this bubble of privilege and security, I have become much more exposed to politics and the current state of the world. I have begun to develop my own opinions, fears, and
hopes about America which largely stem from my identity and background. The two parts of my identity that deviate from the all-powerful individual of society (a white, straight, Christian male) are my religion and gender. One of these, I can mask (literally), but the other I cannot. They both, however, have greatly affected my position and vulnerability in the world.
Living in a time of the #MeToo movement, I began to grow an immense fear of my increased susceptibility to sexual harassment as a woman. I fear walking home alone at night. I fear wearing clothes that may appear I am asking for it. I fear that the mere utterance of “no” may not be enough. I fear simply existing. In pure daylight, walking the streets of New York City, a group of men strolled past my friend and me. One whistled and another muttered “Damn!” unapologetically. Being catcalled is not flattering but extremely demeaning and belittling. These fears and perspectives are not irrational or uncommon but instead universal among women. My fear of being female greatly increased when the entire nation deemed it okay to elect a sexual predator as President in 2016. The role model and face of America reported to the office with several rape allegations against him. Because he could climb to arguably the most important position in America with this on his resumé, his actions could be deemed acceptable to millions of others.
Religion is the other aspect of my identity that is often vulnerable to hate. At the recent insurrection of the Capitol, rioters were seen wearing sweatshirts with phrases such as “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” or “6 Million Wasn’t Enough,” 6 million being the number of Jews brutally murdered in the Holocaust. These rioters were not condemned but praised by the former President. Nazi groups still prevail in the world today. Expressing this part of my identity to some could be deemed unsafe. Judaism, unlike being a female, is much easier to hide. I only become vulnerable to this identity as I enter a synagogue or install a mezuzah on my door frame.
Those who are willing to express their Jewish identity so openly incite fear in me. On the first night of Hannukah, while walking around Philadelphia, I saw six men, dressed in yarmulkes and tallit, displaying their excitement for the holiday by dancing to the cultural music blasting on one group member’s sizeable speaker. One also proudly carried a bottle of vodka that was fueling their celebration. It reminded me of my childhood when I paraded around with a Star of David plastered on my shirt, oblivious to any judgments I might be receiving from the world. They still carried the innocence I once did. I, however, did not. Now, this intense religious enthusiasm scared me. In my mind full of paranoia and constant anxiety, I worried that anyone could be walking around in such a public setting, possibly one with intense hatred towards Jews. Their clear display of religion could get them hurt or even killed, but that did not stop them from dancing to the music. As much as I wanted them to stop, in order to avoid attracting attention from the wrong crowd, I deeply admired their bravery and commended their will to keep celebrating. They made themselves vulnerable by exposing something that could be so easily hidden. They unapologetically embraced their identity.
I envy, but utterly lack, the bravery that those drunk dancing men carried through the busy streets of Philadelphia. I often conceal this part of my identity. I avoid wearing the Star of David on my chest or distinguishing myself as Jewish in any regard. I do have the nose to show it, but luckily the masks have greatly helped with that aspect of it. Being able to almost completely hide a part of my identity is a luxury.
To show our identity is often a matter of choice. I can hide my religion, LGBTQ+ individuals can hide their sexuality, but Black Americans cannot hide the color of their skin. Their vulnerability to the world and those individuals in it is heightened solely because of their dark skin. Hearing accounts of black men getting eyed in a store or being arrested without cause disgusts me. My immunity to these incidences as a white person is unwarranted. This immense unfairness is what has made me so empathetic to the Black Lives Matter cause. It is sickening to me that anyone could deem another as inferior solely because of a difference in their coloring.
Explaining this unfairness to others is something I often find myself doing. Like most family dinners, there’s mention of politics. At one, my aunt was bold enough to say that “All Lives Matter” with her far-left niece sitting right across from her. In the most patient tone that I could muster up, I bashed this notion until she finally understood that what she was saying was horribly wrong. I told her that skin color alone instills fear in Black Americans, that people see them as lesser based on one small aspect of their identity. She rebutted by asking why Jews, targeted for the most religious hate crimes in America, do not protest the same. I explained to her that we are not forced to plaster the Star of David our chest, heightening our susceptibility to hate. Black Americans cannot hide the color of their skin against those who discriminate against them. I asked her if she would say the same thing if Jews in the Holocaust, forced to wear a yellow “Jude” star on their chest marking their differences, had protested “Jewish Lives Matter.” Appalled, she realized the weakness and ridiculousness of her argument and joined the side of her 18-year-old niece.
The two unique parts of my identity have given way to the open-mindedness and left-leaning nature that I have developed. I realize that my gender and religion are not all that I am. I am vulnerable. I am emotional. I am capable. Our differences should not exempt us from feeling, being, or becoming. Frustration arises when I must explain what I consider obvious to seemingly accepting individuals, often those who follow most closely with the dominant figure of society. Responding to the Instagram stories of ignorant individuals has become one of my favorite pastimes.
Our differences are not something we can simply turn off, yet they are still used as a cause for discrimination. Overwhelming society with our differences is the only way to destigmatize them. There is undoubtedly hope for those deemed less by an overwhelming amount of society. Differences just need to be normalized and, maybe one day, even celebrated. We need to continue leading Feminist movements, protesting for Black Lives Matter, celebrating sexuality in Pride parades, and happily dancing to Hanukkah music, unfazed by the consequences that could ensue.
Jackie Swartz is studying Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. She is from Upper Dublin, Pennsylvania and enjoys spending time with her friends and her dog, Louie, in her free time