This post is introspective and reflects on an aspect of my identity or a personal issue

Responding to the death of Michael Brown, what a sincere white person can do

On Thursday, I joined the National Moment of Silence in Washington, DC for Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of six-year veteran officer Darren Wilson. Scanning the crowd, I saw adorable children holding up signs reading “Don’t Shoot” as they sat on the shoulders of their parents, and among the signs demanding justice and decrying the horror of Michael Brown’s death, one stayed in my mind, perfectly capturing the cyclical nightmare of where we stood. On a white poster board was written lyrics from  2pac’s song Changes:

Cops give a damn about a negro?  Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero

Even though time has disproved the lyric we ain’t ready to see a black President, so much in the world 2pac described stands, well, unchanged. That night in Malcolm X Park surrounded by so many, I felt momentarily buoyed by the crowd’s active energy as we chanted “Brown lives matter. Black lives matter.”

Image Source: Alternet. August 17, 2014. "Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies 'Respectability Politics.'"

Image Source: Alternet. August 17, 2014. “Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies ‘Respectability Politics.'”

Less than a year ago, I wrote a reflection about Trayvon Martin’s death on this blog, and shared a quote from Malcolm X’s autobiography regarding his perspective on the role of white allies in the anti-racism movement. I had posed this quote as a rhetorical question, “what can a sincere white person do?”  Now less than a year later, I need to answer this question once again with Malcolm’ X’s own words.

“Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”

In an editorial in Saint Louis Today titled “Let’s Talk About Race,” Associate Law Professor at Washington University in St. Louis Dr. John D. Inazu, succinctly states “So let me implore my white friends and colleagues not to let this be a ‘black thing.'” Yesterday, I discovered a podcast called “Hyphenated,” and in Friday’s episode, the speakers advised would-be white allies to “show up, listen, don’t talk over black people, come in with open heart and open mind, and combat racism in your community.” Enacting this advice begins with informing oneself, and a post on Everyday Feminism has beaten me to an annotated resource list that includes Colorlines’ excellent Daily Newsroundups from Ferguson and link to Saint Louis based organization On The Black Struggle, which is on the ground in Ferguson demanding justice now.

Last night, I attended another vigil, one supporting children fleeing violence in Central America. The organizer addressed the crowd saying, “we stand in solidarity not just for our children and families at the border, but also with our brothers and sisters in Ferguson.” It is all to easy to connect the dots to the painful histories of militarized police violence pushing families to flee Central America and what taking place in Ferguson today. I held up a sign with a message that speaks to both tragedies and our need to start making some changes.” We demand compassion and justice for all children.”


Lately reflecting on Trayvon Martin & What can a sincere white person do?

This post has been brewing in my mind since July, but I delayed writing and publishing these past three months–partly because I have been busy but also because I felt nervous about expressing myself on these issues. I learned today that my friend recently met one of my heroes, anti-racism educator Tim Wise, this past weekend. Thinking about all that this sincere white person does to undo racism has helped me find the will to share my thoughts.

Although I spent three months deliberating over publishing my reflection on Trayvon Martin’s death and the verdict of George Zimmerman’s trial for killing him, time has not remained as static as this page in my drafts folder.  George Zimmerman is back in the news for altercations between him and his ex-wife, and the ways in which privileged white women such as myself can dominate social justice movements, unintentionally overshadowing the voices of people of color, came into focus thanks to #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

But this post begins began back in July. Soon after George Zimmerman verdict was announced,  I read Ta-Nehisi’s Coate’s article “Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice,” which really spoke to what the verdict says about America, while also providing a great grounding of the laws surrounding the verdictCoates is so articulate in weaving together legal analysis and social insight, that instead of quoting or paraphrasing I will just provide the link and thanks to my friends who shared it with me: Coates, Ta-Nehisi.  The Atlantic. “Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice.” July 15, 2013.

NPR’s Tell Me More has covered news involving Trayvon Martin since the winter of 2012, and I have appreciated the show’s focus on the trial and verdict. On July 15th, 2013, Tell Me More dedicated a full show to the verdict, and interviewed people from a variety of backgrounds who spoke about different aspects of the verdict, from the legal proceedings to more emotional perspectives regarding racial biases. One comment that stayed with me was from Jenee Desmond Harris, who writes for, stating that “if Zimmerman is a racist…he is certainly not the old school kind.” (NPR Tell Me More. “Inside the Zimmerman Verdict.” July 15, 2013. )

Harris was mentioning the hue and cry of whether George Zimmerman is or isn’t racist and how those who insist that Zimmerman is not racist point to “new school” facets like his half Peruvian heritage, or dating and volunteering history. But the focus on Zimmerman’s ethnicity and actions obscure the unspoken internalized prejudices all of us Americans have from living in a country that is entrenched in biases against people of color. Biases that exist from the institutional on down to the individual level. These are the prejudices at play when Zimmerman saw and stalked Trayvon Martin, concluding after a glance at his skin that was a criminal threat, giving rise to the fear that prompted him to pull the trigger, ending an innocent life.

I have internalized racism too.  Part of my own efforts in trying to be a sincere white ally begins with acknowledging my own biases and doing my best to work against them.  A simple way that anyone can be introduced to their internalized biases is through the interactive website  “Project Implicit.”  (Project Implicit. 2013 )

A key part of trying to be a sincere ally begins with listening, listening to ourselves as we uncover our biases and listening to people of color. In Lois Mark Stalvey’s memoir, “The Education of a WASP,” Lois Stalvey listens to her African American friend Joanna recount a heartbreaking story from her childhood: how a boy with a developmental disability was lynched for allegedly harassing a white woman. Joanna tells Lois that the neighborhood watched after this boy, who was seldom alone and could not be guilty of the crime.  Lois listens to her friend cry, and realizes throughout history white people have enslaved, disenfranchised, and brutally killed African Americans, yet we feared them.”  (The Education of a WASP. 1989. )

In closing, I am brought back to my post title and the author behind the phrase sincere white person.  A professor at my alma mater recently wrote “a love letter to white people”  in the Feminist Wire. ( Osmundson, Joseph. The Feminist Wire. “Love letter to white people.”  September 3, 2013. ) and here is what Malcolm X has to say:  “I tell sincere white people, ‘Work in conjunction with us – each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do – and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere white people go and teach non-violence to white people.” ( Alex Haley and Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1964. pp. 383–384. )

Women in Resistance–The Story of the Scholarship

On the final night of the “Women in Resistance” delegation, our leaders gathered us together in a coffee shop in Antigua’s parque central for a brainstorming session. We strategized and shared ideas about how we would raise awareness about Guatemala’s land and women’s rights issues while carrying all the voices we heard forward in international solidarity, once we returned to our individual lives in the United States.

Many of my fellow delegates used their unique talents to advocate for land and women’s rights issues in Guatemala in special ways. In Georgia, Courtney collected art supplies and raised funds to support Casa Artesana’s painting program for incarcerated women. In Wisconsin, Agnes shared her experiences with her church, continued to actively volunteer with Racine’s latino community, and collected Spanish children’s books for the Alliance of Rural Women, which I delivered to Guatemala in November, 2012. Alma, who has continued living in Guatemala, used her ties to Nevada, where gold mining company Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates is headquartered, to advocate against the destructive environmental and social effects the gold mining project would have on San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc. Recently, she create an opportunity for Don Alvaro from San Pedro Ayampuc to  protest at Comstock Mining Inc.’s shareholder’s meeting in the United States.

I sought to be “the librarian” of the delegation, writing a record of each meeting as a way to honor the Guatemalans who were so kind to meet with us and share their stories, and also to inspire others to learn about land and women’s rights struggles in Guatemala. In the middle of transcribing the handwritten notes I took during the delegation into posts illustrated with beautiful photographs taken by Paola, Alma, and Courtney, I returned to Guatemala. I studied Spanish with a new teacher each week, and when asked six different times what brought me to Guatemala, I always explained the delegation. My teachers were intrigued, and many expressed a wish to participate in such a delegation as way of building international solidarity, and also learning more about on-the-ground issues in their own country.

When I returned to the United States in January 2013, I reflected on how meaningful participating in the delegation had been for me and that many Guatemalans may want to participate but lack the funds to do so. I decided to fundraise for a full scholarship so that a person with Guatemalan heritage who could not otherwise afford the delegation could participate in what was for me and my fellow delegates, a transformative experience. I solicited donations from friends and family, and sold Guatemalan textiles and jewelry that GHRC has stored in their office. It gave me so much positive energy to fundraise for this scholarship, and thanks to many generous donations and purchases, the scholarship was complete by the time that GHRC was accepting applications.  I plan to fundraise for this scholarship annually, and look forward to applying what I learned to fundraise next year. In the meantime, I sincerely wish all the 2013 delegates the best, and I can’t wait to learn about their experience this coming August!

Learn More about GHRC’s Women in Resistance Delegation and the Scholarship

1. “Delegations to Guatemala. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission.

2. “‘Women in Resistance’ Delegation Scholarship.” Causes.

3. Kramer, Ilyse. 2012 “Women in Resistance” Delegation an Event to Remember.  El Quetzal. Issue 13, December 2012.

Reflections on Guatemala’s Genocide Trial from the words of Francisco Goldman

Since my post reflecting on the connection between my Jewish identity and the Genocide Trial for Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt and Maurcio Rodriguez Sanchez, I have not written about the trial.

My reasons for not writing about such a watershed event in Guatemala’s history are complicated.  Writing about the trial necessitates a keen understanding of Guatemala’s present-day judicial system and 36-year Civil War. My knowledge of both topics is limited, and I have preferred to listen to the expert analysis of Guatemalan survivors and Human Rights Advocates. Furthermore, the trial’s proceedings have many nuances, and I believe that I could do harm sharing information on such a public forum without cautious knowledge for how what I publish could affect Guatemalan survivors’ pursuit of justice.

In writing about Guatemala, I perceive Guatemalans and Human Rights Advocates as belonging to the inner rungs of a spiral, and I position myself on an outer rung, whereby I aim to reach outward to promote awareness and simultaneously inward to draw support to them. Yet April 18th and 19th brought about such surprising turns to the Genocide Trial that I have decided to briefly share my thoughts, and point readers to excellent sources of information that they can access to learn more about the trial. In addition to the sources linked below, I recommend following the blogs, facebook posts, and twitter feeds of NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala) and GHRC (the Guatemala Human Rights Commission) to receive up-to-date information of the trial’s proceedings.

On Thursday, April 18, 2013, Genocide Trial Judge Carol Patricia Flores declared testimonies from genocide survivors invalid, which would suspend the trial, and turn back progress to pre-trial proceedings of November, 2011.  According to journalist Allan Nairn, this shocking and confusing decision was politically motivated. Despite this heartbreaking setback, that very night hundreds of Guatemalans, led by a delegation of Ixil Mayan genocide survivors, marched on the Palacio de Justicia, chanting “We are all Ixiles”and held a candle light vigil praying for justice.


Hundreds of people, lead by the Ixil Mayan delegation, chanting “We are all Ixiles”, marched on the Palacio de Justicia, and in a candle light vigil prayed for, demanded justice. (photo courtesy of Laurie Levinger via Facebook Page for “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,” April 19, 2013)

The next day, Friday, April 19, 2013 brought even more twists and turns. Judge Jazmin Barrios reconvened the Genocide Trial, and the trial’s panel of three judges issued a statement that the trial would continue. However, the trial was temporarily suspended so that the court could resolve the legal issues that had caused Judge Flores to declare the trial illegal the day before.

While following April 19th’s updates on facebook, I was listening to Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language radio program showcasing compelling human stories from around Latin America and the United States. I was listening to an interview with Guatemalan American writer Francisco Goldman and Dominican American writer Junot Diaz regarding their experiences writing about Latinos in English and their relationships with Latin America.

The interview was incredibly interesting as I am a big fan of Francisco Goldman’s work, and have reviewed “The Art of Political Murder” on my blog. I also wrote my undergraduate thesis on “Drown,” Junot Diaz’s collection of intersecting vignettes about Dominican immigrants. Much of their conversation about language and identity fascinated me, and I plan to dedicate a future post to their interview addressing this topic.

Toward the end of the interview, Goldman shared a perspective that eerily resonated with Guatemala’s genocide trial proceedings. His recently published  novel “Say Her Name” is about his wife Aura Estrada, who tragically died in a surfing accident. He stated how he was “plunged into trauma” after her death, and his suffering gave him a newfound understanding of Guatemala “as a space filled with thousands of people who have lost their loved ones in a violent way.”

My reflection on the weight of Goldman’s words gave way to thinking about the waves of suffering Guatemalan genocide survivors feel–not just from the loss of their loved ones, but also from the re-traumatization of sharing their stories in a court room that denied them justice on April 18th. However, their refusal to accept this verdict, truly speaks to incredible abilities to yoke their trauma with resilience. As the trial proceedings continue to unfold, I am uncertain of the future portends save for my commitment to sharing information and expressing solidarity and support for justice in Guatemala.

Learn more about the Genocide Trial of Rios Montt and Maurcio Rodriguez Sanchez

1. The Open Society Justice Initiative. The Trial of Efrian Ríos Montt and Maurcio Rodriguez Sanchez. 2013. This excellent website, written in English and Spanish, contains detailed updates of trial proceedings written by International Human Rights Monitors, comprehensive historical background information, Glossary, and Timeline.

2. Rodriguez, James. “2013-04-19. On day 21, the Genocide Trial’s fate rests on the Constitutional Court.”  MiMundo. and “2013-04-18. On day 20, the Genocide Trial is Abruptly Cancelled.” James Rodriguez’s evocative photoessays document the courtroom on April 18th and 19th.

3. Golman, Amy. “Genocide Trial of Former Dictator Ríos Montt Suspended After Intervention by Guatemalan President.” Democracy Now. April 19, 2013. Democracy Now’s interview with journalist Allan Nairn is very helpful in illuminating the reasons that motivated the April 18th trial suspension.

Listen to Francisco Goldman and Junot Diaz on Radio Ambulante

1. Alarcón, Daniel. “Junot y Francisco : En vivo desde Nueva York.” Radio Ambulante. February, 2013. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this interview, and look forward to discussing many of the issues the authors discussed in a future post. I also highly recommend listening to Radio Ambulante, which I have compared to This American Life for Latin Americans and Latinos living in the United States.


Reflecting on the Rios Montt ruling & introducing reflections on Judaism and Guatemalan Human Rights

On January 28, 2013, judge Angel Galvez ruled that former Guatemalan general Efraín Rios Montt and intelligence officer José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez would stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. This announcement, which according to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s News Roundup, “drew a large crowd which included many survivors of the armed conflict as well as journalists, retired military personnel, and human rights activists” fell one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th.

When I think about these two dates and how they connect in my mind, I also mull over what Judaism means to me. I think about how Judaism taught me empathy. In learning the story of the Holocaust, it was not only 6 million of my own people who were massacred, it was all people perceived as different and less than–political activists, people with disabilities, the Romani (Gypsies), gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.

As a conclusion to my delegation with GHRC, my fellow delegates and I had talked about next steps for outreach and activism around Guatemalan land rights and women’s rights. During the delegation, I had observed many parallels to the historical oppression that Jewish people had experienced and Guatemala’s past and present day struggles.

Having recently returned from Guatemala and Israel, I wish to pursue this connection. More specifically, I will explore the intersection and commonalities that exist in the histories of Guatemala and the Jewish people. These explorations written here on my blog will address history, culture, society, art, and politics, with a focus on how both peoples’ have suffered oppression for belonging to ethnic minority grops.

One goal of these explorations is to raise awareness within the Jewish community of the rich history of our own people as well as the complexities of the human rights situation in Guatemala. My goal is that through learning about these intertwining histories, the Jewish community will become engaged in promoting and protecting human rights in Guatemala.

Learn More about Efraín Rios Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez’s Trial

1. Mychalejko, Cyril. “Ríos Montt and the Need for International Accountability for War Crimes in Guatemala.” Guatemala Human Rights Updates. February 13, 2013. Cyril Mychalejko, an editor for Upside Down World, online magazine addressing politics in Latin America, has written an article that gives valuable historical context of the genocide that occurred during Ríos Montt’s administration as well as the support he received from United States President Ronald Reagan.

2. Malkin, Elizabeth. “Ex-dictator is ordered to trial in Guatemala for War Crimes.” New York Times. January 28, 2013. This article provides a clear explanation of the trial.

Learn More about Holocaust Remembrance 

1. Gera, Vanessa. “International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2013: Victims Mourned At Auschwitz And Beyond.” The Huffington Post. January 27, 2013. This article describes how Poland and other European countries honor January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The article concludes with a quote from President Obama that also illustrates why the ruling against Efraín Rios Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez is an important step forward in enabling Guatemalans to commemorate the lives lost in genocide: “”Many brutal crimes have been left without punishment, redemption and commemoration….I want to believe that by remembering the death and suffering of the victims the new generations will be obliged to fight any form of prejudice, racism and chauvinism, anti-Semitism and hatred.”

GHRC Delegation–Meeting Women from Barillas

Us delegates arrived in Guatemala from various parts of the United States, and from El Salvador in stages, slowly forming a whole. Since I was among the first to arrive in Guatemala City, I was present for dinner with activist Lolita Chavez, a friend of Lolita’s, two professionals from Guatemala’s Independent Media, and three indigenous women from Santa Cruz Barillas, a western municipality, recently rocked by an 18-day siege in May.

In the crowded pizza parlor where we dined, the three women from Santa Cruz Barillas stood out–their traditional clothing, huipil (blouse) and corte (skirt), and weighty sadness in their eyes–contrasted with the restaurant’s western bustle. As we sat around a shared table, these women introduced themselves by declaring the sadness they carried in their hearts.

They had spent a grueling weekend visiting a high-security prison. Two of the women’s husbands, and the third woman’s son, had been charged with evidence-less crimes of terrorism for their peaceful protests regarding the establishment of a hydroelectric dam that 46,472 of 46,481 residents of Barillas had voted against.

I had read about these men mere hours ago, when the story had happened to people I did not know. Confronted with the sorrow of the women sitting across from me, the distance fell away and facts were eclipsed by feeling. As we shared a meal, I yearned for the ability to do more than munch garlic bread from a communal basket, I yearned to connect with the three women and express compassion for their suffering. But bread broken, and sadness coalesced, all I could say was “gracias.”

To learn more about the siege and its aftermath in Santa Cruz Barillas

1. GHRC/USA Blog. “Weekly News Roundup.” May 31, 2012. The GHRC blog provides detailed news about what transpired in Santa Cruz Barillas throughout May 2012 when the siege occurred. These blog posts also provide links to the Guatemalan news, and these links are helpful for understanding the unfolding of events.

2. Mercatante, Rob. El Quetzal. Issue No. 12. “State of Siege Spreads Fear and Sorrow in Santa Cruz Barillas.” Director of GHRC’s Guatemala Office, Rob has written a heart-wrenching account of his visits to Guatemala’s prison to meet with two men from Barillas who were imprisoned during the siege, the husbands of two of the women I met.

3.  Geglia, Beth. Waging Nonviolence. “We are all Barillas: A New Moment in Guatemala’s Anti-Extraction Movement.” June 23, 2012.  Beth, whom I met the very same day as the three women from Barillas, has written a clear explanation of the siege as well as the historical and political context surrounding industrial development in the department of Huehuetenango, where Barillas is located. Beth’s article also links to the Guatemalan Independent Media.

4. Goldcorp Out News. “Guatemala and the Siege of Santa Cruz Barillas.” May 25, 2012. This blog is an extensive information clearinghouse on mining in Guatemala’s western highlands, including the municipality of Santa Cruz Barillas.

Benevolent Paternalism–Holding the Invisible Hand & the Helping Hand

Last weekend, I was speaking to a good friend on the phone. We once lived together in the same house, but now that jobs and geography separate us, speaking to her is a rare and precious treat.  In our conversation, I updated her on my fundraising project for German Chub Choc. Since German was able to open his store in December 2011, I am focusing on raising funds for his long-term medical needs as well as funds that will help keep the store going. My friend asked, “but shouldn’t German Choc be able to keep his store going on his own?”

I had answered my friend simply, “Yes, German should be able to keep his store going on his own, but he has a lot of ongoing expenses that make it difficult.” Yet my friend’s question is worthy of greater reflective consideration, and raises additional questions. Namely, now that German’s store is operational due to donations from his community, Canadians, and Americans, isn’t it now his own responsibility to maintain it? By raising funds to help support his store, am I actually taking away his self-sufficiency over his own income?  Is my fundraising project a form of benevolent paternalism, where I believe that German Choc cannot take care of his own medical and economic needs without my help?

The final question is one I often grapple with, not only for this project but throughout my history as an economically privileged white American woman helping vulnerable people. I bumped up against this question in a visceral way during my college years. I was a dedicated member of Hunger Action, a grassroots initiative that sought to end hunger and homelessness in New York State through direct service and advocacy. I led a regular event called “Bright Nights,” where my friends and I distributed food, clothing, and toiletries to  families who were homeless and living mere blocks away from my college, which has an endowment of millions.

My experience as a privileged college student striving to break down barriers separating me from the adults and families experiencing homelessness who lived within walking distance from my dorm weighed on me. In my senior year, I hosted a “Community Conversation” with my friend who co-founded and led the Class Issues Alliance, a group that supported working-class and first generation college students and advocated on issues pertaining to socioeconomic class differences. Our Community Conversation brought together student groups, staff, and professionals from local organizations to talk about experiences in service and discuss how we could advocate for and with people who are vulnerable while honoring their resiliency.

This long-ago conversation has stayed with me, and is a strong thread tethering me to my present day project. I felt great apprehension in taking on the task of raising funds for German Chub Choc’s medical and economic needs–wondering if I was unwittingly perpetuating an attitude of ivory tower charity by raising funds for an indigenous Mayan human rights defender that I have never met. The reason my project exists though, is because back in November 2011, I met indigenous women’s and land rights Maria Choc, who asked for funds to be raised on German Choc’s behalf. Moreover, in Rights Actions November 2011 fundraising appeal, German speaks for himself, “I am asking for your help out of real need. I have no other option but to knock on the doors of members of the international community. I hope I can appeal to your hearts, as I feel abandoned and dejected.”

Another answer to my question is spoken not in emotion but economics. The average first-year expense for someone who has German’s level of paralysis is $480,431. The cost for each following year is estimated at $63,643. Over a lifetime, the estimated cost for someone who is 25 years old and paralyzed at German Choc’s level of injury adds up to $2,138,824. These numbers only tell part of the story. According to the exchange rate of United States Dollars to Guatemalan Quetzals (GTQ), one US Dollar is equivalent to 7.8 GTQ. German Choc’s estimated lifetime costs are 16,734,158.72 GTQ. I do not yet have information regarding the operating costs of German’s store or the amount of income his store generates. But I do know that almost 60% of Guatemalans live on $2 a day, and German’s parents are unemployed. These facts as well as German’s appeal, answer my question–my fundraising project responds to German’s needs, and not what I, a hemisphere away, have decided his needs are. Yet my broader question, a consideration of how my privilege affects my work with vulnerable individuals and communities carries on, tracing a thread from a soup kitchen in Poughkeepsie to a store in El Estor, and will wind its way to whomever I advocate for next.

Interesting article about benevolent paternalism in African Development courtesy of my friend

Theroux, Paul. “The Rockstar’s Burden.” The New York Times. Published: December 15, 2005 

Source Notes

1. Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. “The Costs of Living with SCI.” Paralysis Resource Center. 2012

2. Universal Currency Converter. 2012.

3. “Why Guatemala.” Project Harvest, Guatemala. 2012.

4. “About Us.” Hunger Action Network of New York State. 2012.

5. Rights Action Team. “Special Fundraising Appeal–Health Needs and Family Store for German Chub Choc.” Rights Action. 2011. 

Privilege and Positionality

I was as young as six when I understood that six million of my people perished in a Holocaust during the Second World War. But I was as old as twelve before I learned that the Nazis also persecuted many others–people with disabilities, homosexuals, religious and ethnic minorities. This was around the time that I learned that my people’s Holocaust seemed to attract much more attention than the suffering that many other people around the world experienced.

In my sixth grade Civilizations class, the story of the Japanese internment during world War II was a slim textbook supplement to the bulky Holocaust narrative. My teacher added, as she read about Japanese internment camps in California, that our school librarian, Mrs. H– had been interned not far from our Philadelphia neighborhood. Two years later, my United States History teacher walked my class through a discussion of slavery in the American Antebellum south and asked, “why isn’t there a movie as popular as Schindler’s List about the American Civil War?” She answered her own question, pointing out that in such a movie, white Americans would need to look at ourselves as people for responsible for enslaving more than 600,000 Africans.

Stories of  unacknowledged suffering surrounded me.  Browsing a book catalog, I discovered the Armenian Holocaust, and was horrified to learn that the Turkish government massacred more than one million Christian Armenians during World War I, in what many regarded as inspiration for the Final Solution.  Adolf Hitler even quipped eight days before invading Poland, “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Soon, I learned Hitler’s rhetorical question reached far beyond the Armenian Holocaust. From stumbling upon The Rape of Nanjing in my beloved Reader’s Digest, I learned the Japanese military massacred  over 200,000 people in Nanjing, China during the years 1937-1938.  The author Iris Chang, was the daughter of  Nanjing massacre survivors. She grew up hearing about the atrocities her family experienced, yet when she tried to find books about her parents’ experiences, none existed.  She wrote The Rape of Nanjing to ensure that the stories of her family and people of Nanjing would not be “reduced to a footnote of history.”

Although the massacres in Armenia and Nanjing predated my birth, I was coming of age with Rwanda and Kosovo on the evening news, and Cambodia’s genocide not to far in the distant past.   I was itching to shine the spotlight on these stories, to give all these Holocausts the textbook chapters and classroom space they deserved,  that my own Holocaust had.  I confided these feelings to my best friend. She encouraged me to find a way to talk to my school, and even offered to help me find a way to teach nearby middle schools about these genocides. But I balked before the idea taking a project so close to my heart into the public, speaking to others would open myself up to ridicule and rejection, which to my thirteen year old self felt almost as excruciating as the stories I yearned to share. Ultimately, my adolescent shyness spoke louder than my passion for giving voice to the suffering of so many all over the globe.

I silenced myself, and I shelved my project in the recesses of my mind, where it has not emerged until now. Learning about Guatemala’s own genocide–more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the 1960-1996 Civil War, awoke my memories of this project, and re-ignited my passion to uncover and share hidden histories of suffering around the world. To explain why I want to excavate and these share these histories, I will defer to the words of another.  Regarding Rawanda’s genocide,  Mahmood Mamdani’s stated, “Atrocity cannot be its own explanation. Violence cannot be allowed to speak for itself, for violence is not its own meaning. To be made thinkable it needs to be historicized.”

I believe  all violent atrocities must be historicized to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Judaism observes Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the six million lives lost in the Jewish Holocaust. We also have an expression, “never again.”  But never again tends to be an exclusive phrase, referring only to the suffering of the Jewish people. Insight into this exclusivity comes from a surprising source, the television show “Weeds.” In a fourth season episode, an adult son of a Holocaust survivor tells his thirteen year old nephew about his mother’s experiences, and concludes, “never again.”  His nephew says, “but it has happened again,” and lists genocides in many countries including Rwanda and Kosovo. But his uncle cuts him off with the words “may never again such a thing happen to Jews.”

As a Jew, I deeply believe that my positionality, which stems from losing six million of my people in a Holocaust, as well as my privilege of having this loss acknowledged and memorialized in history books, blockbuster films, and a National Remembrance Day, that gives me the perspective and drive to advocate for  people experiencing oppression everywhere. It is my privilege and positionality that also connect me to German Choc, and give me the determination to use my clay and colored pencils, my beads and blog to help give him and his family the smallest measure of what I take for granted each day.

Source Notes

1. Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. 1997

2. Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. 2003

3. 60 Minutes. Turkey and Armenia’s Battle over History. February 28, 2010;segmentUtilities This 60 Minutes episode

4. United Human Rights Council. Genocide in Rwanda.

5. Holocaust Museum Houston. Genocide in Cambodia (1975-1979)

6. Kosovo Genocide: Massacres. 1999.