He just came home after opening his first bank account; it was the day of his first paycheck. He supposed to be happy and excited. We came to the USA as refugees from the former Soviet Union on December 20, 1984, so it took him only 4 months to find a job, and not just a job, he got a job of his dreams. Starting May 1, 1985 he was working as research scientist at New York University.
What could be wrong? And he told me the story at the bank.
I have to mention here that we are white. I am Russian and my husband was a Jew. In the USSR that was always a nationality not a religion, so I, probably, had to say not practicing Jew, but he did visit a Synagogue on Yom Kippur and he always knew he was a Jew.
He came to the Chase Bank on Fifth Avenue, the branch located next to the arch on Washington Square, with his first check to open his first account. Within a few minutes the account was open and my husband could go home. However, he noticed at the next cubicle another bank officer was serving a black man. The man was already there when my husband came in. The man was dressed very professionally, in a suit with a leather attaché. The officer kept asking the man to produce some kind of verifications for this and for that and the man very obediently kept showing more and more paperwork. This was a moment when my husband realized that the man was trying to open an account in the same bank. My husband left and the man stayed, we don’t know how much longer it took him to open a bank account. We do know that his English was perfect, he had great manners, and his attire was sharp.
Yes, something was wrong, but it took me many more years to realize that it was the first time we used our white privilege and observed the institutional racism.
It is even more difficult for me to recognize any kind of privilege because, first, I was a Russian in Russia and then I became a white in the United States. When you always belong to majority, it’s not enough to say you can’t imagine how the others live, you just never think about them, the “minorities”. You assume, automatically, they are exactly like you and leave that thought over there. I did know that some people were Jews and some were Georgians, Uzbeks, Kalmyks, or something like that, the name and the appearance were the only differences in my childish view.
As a child at school I noticed, of course, some kids teasing others by name calling, one of those names was “Jew”. So it did stick in my head, that it was a “bad” word. You can’t imagine my awe when I first saw this word written in one of my friend passport. The thought was: “She will have this “bad” word written in her passport forever”. How is it possible? How will she live on with that written in her passport? How do we allow such an unfair thing to happen to a girl on her 16th birthday? This was my first lesson on privilege and chauvinism.
Very soon I met my future husband and was introduced into the life of jewish minorities which was not much different from my own, with one exception: if we had never talked about nationalities in my family, now it became a topic which was brought to the conversations all the time, almost into every other topic. I did learn that it is important to people to be recognized not just as individuals, but also by the group they were born into. This is much harder to keep your identity surrounded by a different majority whose traditions you are being forced to adapt. This “force” is not visible, but suddenly a jewish boy takes the last name of his russian wife during marriage so “it’s easier for the kids” or Samuil suddenly becomes Semen to sound more russian. Who knows at what moment you completely lose you national identity and become a jew only in the passport? I learned all of that. I understood the pride of my husband and his family to carry the title of being Jews.
This is why my husband was so sensitive and recognized prejudice right away. When people are really proud of who they are they can respect others.
I am trying to pass this understanding on to my black students.
Last year one of the girls asked me about Malcolm X. The teacher in her History class told them that Malcolm X was for segregation and she couldn’t understand why anyone would be against such a great thing. This was the moment when all these things that my mother in law used to say about jews in Russia came to me and I used those ideas to explain to a black girl in America why one of the black leaders would teach his people about segregation. Here is what I told her: “I have never read books by Malcolm X, but I am sure he didn’t want his people to learn the traditions and history of white people before they learn the traditions and history of their own. First, you have to learn who you are and be proud of that, only then you’ll be ready to learn the story of other people.“ I think the girl got it.