“Smells like burning Jews in here,” she said.
My blood ran cold. The only other time that happened was when I got the phone call that my grandmother was in the hospital. A lifetime of Saturday afternoon phone calls flashed before me in an instant. In the next instant, a future life of Saturday afternoons without those phone calls weighed on my heart. I was so afraid. I’m afraid now, too, at the callous nature of our people who no doubt inherited such offensive language and hatefulness from their parents. Blogs, Facebook statuses, Twitter updates, and Youtube videos have created a new platform for free speech. And anonymity. Voicing these kinds of opinions will only add fuel to the fire and grow a generation of hate mongers.
I looked at my student questioningly, trying to read her face. “That’s not funny,” I said.
“I’m not joking.”
“Well, you can’t say that,” I replied still not sure if she was just being mean and hateful or ignorant and unknowing.
“Well, I did.” She’s such a teenager.
I corrected myself. “I meant to say you shouldn’t say that.”
We’ve been studying World History since the beginning of the academic year and it’s had the opposite desired effect on her. I had hoped she’d be more understanding of other cultures, countries, histories. Who studies WWII and makes quips about burning Jews? How could she be so insensitive?
“Why? Because it’s not PC? Should I say it smells like burning Africans?” she asked, trying to bait me.
“That’s no more offensive to me than your earlier remark but why do I get the feeling you’re trying to get under my skin. Did you think you’d get some sort of reaction because I’m Black? Why would you say such a thing?” I asked.
“You’re not Jewish. Why do you care?” she asked.
“Because no one’s safe when Nazis kill Jews. No one’s safe when white men kill black men or black men kill black men. No one’s safe when husbands murder wives. I’m not Jewish, I’m not a man, I’m no one’s wife. When people are targeted and murdered because of their ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or religion, other people need to stand up them. And I don’t feel safe when someone makes a joke about the Holocaust, genocide, or slavery. It makes me uneasy,” I said.
“Because you’re Black,” she replied. I couldn’t tell whether it was declarative or interrogative.
“Maybe. Being Black does make me sensitive about racism, like being a woman makes me sensitive about misogyny. Or maybe I’m sensitive to hate speech of any kind because I’m human and I know it will inevitably lead to action and that scares me.”
“I don’t hate Jews,” she said. “I just think it smells like burnt human.”
“And when have you ever smelled burnt human?” I asked.
“Like when you’re curling your hair,” she said.
“No, sweetie. That’s hair.”
“When you think of burning people, who do you think of?” she asked.
“I don’t think of burning people.”
“You know what I mean!” she said.
“Back when I was in college, a hairstylist swiveled my hair around to work on the other side of my head. The chair stopped and the curling iron rod seared through my forearm. Within seconds, everyone in the shop could smell the stench of something burning. It had the most foul odor, it was so disturbing. He looked down and saw the black burn mark on my arm, then he looked up and saw the tears streaming down my eyes. I couldn’t move, much less scream. My body had gone into shock from the intensity of the pain. He was practically hysterical at the consequence of his negligence. That’s an appropriate response to burning someone. An appropriate response to learning about the Holocaust is horror, not humor. You don’t make jokes about burning Jews. Not ever.”
“So I’m supposed to say it smells like burning Italians?” she asked. “Who else was forced into ovens and burned by the thousands? The Jews! And when it happened, it smelled. I’m not making fun of them, I’m only trying to describe the smell,” she said.
I sat silent for a long time. My eyes water over as I wondered how she could be so cavalier about the deaths of millions of Jews? What the hell was her history teacher doing? How could this be her take home message? She never took her eyes off me. Finally, she broke the silence. “I have the right to say what I’m thinking.”
“Why do you have those thoughts?” I asked.
“Human nature. But no one ever has to wonder where I stand. Make your judgment, call me racist. That’s your problem, not mine. I’m just being honest. I’m not saying I’m glad it happened. I had a thought and in the privacy of my home I spoke the truth. And if it smelled like burning Jews at school, I’d say it there, too. I don’t care,” she said.
“If you don’t hate Jewish people, why would you say that? Don’t you care about coming off as anti-Semitic? What you said is offensive! Don’t you care about other people’s feelings?” I asked.
“I don’t care about other people’s feelings,” she said.
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
“Again, that’s your problem. You think too highly of people because you don’t know what people say behind closed doors.”
“And you do?” I asked.
“I’m not stupid. They’re more like me. The proof is all over the internet. Every other comment is gay-bashing or Muslim-bashing. People are naturally racist and hate people who aren’t like them. That’s how we’ve always been, that’s how we’ll always be. People feel like they can’t go around saying they don’t approve of gay marriage of interracial marriage or Blacks living in their neighborhood or Jews going to their schools because we have to be all tolerant and liberal. When you go home, you say stuff, too. Pretend you don’t, but at least I’m honest,” she said.
“I’m not pretending. I’m not anti-Semitic. I don’t talk about Jews behind closed doors. I don’t talk about anyone with hate in my heart behind closed doors. Yes, we all walk around with a set of prejudices about different groups of people. I’m not stupid, I know we all do it. But I purposefully live my life not making judgments about people based on what society tells me to think about them. I don’t categorize entire ethnic groups, political affiliates or tax brackets based on the stereotypes of that demographic,” I said.
“Like, I don’t think all 16-year-old girls who go to Catholic school and live in the suburbs are really as self-absorbed, materialistic, ignorant, and self-entitled as you are. I don’t have the expectation that they look down on other girls who don’t carry Coach or Vera Bradley handbags, have the latest iPhone, drive a $60,000 car, or regularly frequent the salon for waxing, tanning, and mani-pedis.”
“My parents don’t let me go tanning,” she said.
“And that’s what you take away from my portrayal of you?”
“It’s accurate. It’s not nice, but it’s the truth. Doesn’t hurt my feelings, might hurt someone else’s,” she said.
“It wasn’t my intent to be hurtful. I’m trying to help you see that it’s not easy being a part of any group, but especially a group that has a history of systematic oppression. You don’t want to be associated with a group of your peers when they’re labeled as mean girls because you know it means people will think things about you that may or may not be true. You want people to make a judgment about you based on who you really are and not who they think you are. You’re not a reflection of 16-year-old white girls, but you do represent them. You should want to represent them well; you don’t.”
“I’m not that bad. You really think I’m this horrible bitch?” she asked.
“Oh, no, sweetie. Quite the contrary. But it does complicate things when you make these kinds of remarks and I can’t keep making excuses for you when you spew this hateful nonsense. I know there’s more to you than calling every girl at your high school a bitch or slut or every girl at the public school in town a hoodrat. I know there’s more to you than some scheme to buy your friend a new handbag for her birthday because you’re embarrassed by the outdated polka-dotted one she carries now. I know you’re better than this superficial shit.. I just hope you see it and change it before it’s too late and you’re stuck in your ways. There’s no reason for you to think like this at your age. It blows my mind that you’re only 16 and you buy into all this crap.”
“And it blows my mind that you don’t,” she said.
I had to go. My insides felt all twisted up inside. I drove home completely mystified on how to properly raise the next generation to not be like her. Naively, I really thought things had been getting better but between the escalation of national hate groups and racist Youtube videos and idiotic comments on blog posts about race relations in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, I find myself more and more staying off the computer. I don’t want to turn a blind eye, I want to do something about it, but I read those comments, watch those videos, feel such intense hatred from people who don’t even know me and I feel myself shutting down.
Things weren’t any better by the time I got home. My roommate had been scouring the internet for hours, following the story of Hunger Games fans and their racists tweets. More young people. This is our future?
Not gonna lie. I didn’t know kids today were so racist and stupid. When history repeats itself, it’s not always a mirror image. We’re obviously doing something wrong, so how can we fix it?