When I told the late Sue Townsend that she must be Jewish, since her mother and mother’s mother were Jewish, which is the clincher by Jewish law, she was pleased. “I always wanted to be part of a discriminated against minority.”
She never wanted to be the insider; I think she knew her job was to give a voice to the outsider.
This is the Christmas season, and we are surrounded by Christmas trees, Santas, presents, and all that. But last night I went to Trafalgar Square to see the Mayor of London officially light the first candle on the enormous menorah standing not far from the Christmas tree. The stage entertainment was devoted to Jewish and specifically Chanukah songs, there was a memorable fiddle player with a long beard and great music, and troops of school children coming to sing.
I went because I wanted to see a public acknowledgment of a Jewish holiday in the midst of the Christmas season. For a few brief moments, it was almost, but not quite, as if this was also the Chanukah season.
I think when you are a member of the majority, it is so easy to think that majority culture is simply neutral, and that everything else is highly coloured by comparison, perhaps quaint, perhaps exciting, or perhaps attention seeking, or even weird. Even in New York, where the Jewish culture is so much more available than here, with rafts of famous Jewish comedians, artists, writers, playwrights and the like, and a much greater mass familiarity with Jewish expressions and Jewish humour, this time of year is still most definitely Christmastime.
Luckily, Thanksgiving is an even bigger deal than Christmas, and everyone can give thanks for a good harvest.
I remember going to St. Lucia for the first time in the 80’s, and experiencing what I had never seen before–a culture where black people were the norm, and could run their own country, rather than having a special outsider position. I loved it. Of course, I knew little about the politics. Going to Israel, where being Jewish is the insider culture, is more problematic for me, because I do know the politics. I know how lethal the insider position of the traditional outsider has been to everyone else.
There are benefits to being an outsider, if the outsider is not considered also a low status outsider, and I must have chosen to be an outsider when I decided to be an American living in London. Above all, you do not worry so much about how you are judged by your constituency, because, being Other, you don’t really feel you have one. Still, you cannot help feeling that you are not quite legitimate, not really acceptable.
And of course, when the chips are down, multiculturalism evaporates, and we are told that this is a Christian country, that immigrants are not welcome, and most definitely the best of everything should be saved for those who really belong. Even climate change is acceptable if the worse effects go to some poor outsider country we never have to visit.
I too am a member of a privileged majority culture in many ways that I have grown up taking for granted, and I know I am unaware of all my ways of excluding others by language and assumption. I remember advising a friend to go to see a lawyer, and then I realised that for him, identifying as he did with the manual working class, a lawyer was always there to mess you up and could never ever be on your side.
Beyond language and assumption, it is the deep implicit nature of insidership and outsidership that we need to understand and transcend.
Maybe if we could all be aware of our insidership and our outsidership at once, a bit like one of those paintings of Escher where inside and outside turn into each other, we will go beyond to something better. Human, maybe?