On Race and Repair
A Güero Reads Plato in Jerusalem
In discussing race in America, I sometimes like to tell this story: I moved to Los Angeles at the age of eight and a half and went into fourth grade, where I was asked to do something on a school form that I’d never done before — check off my ethnicity. I read the choices: Caucasian / Anglo-Saxon, African-American, Hispanic, Asian / Pacific-Islander. Since I was just learning English, I had no idea what any of those meant, so I went over to the world map hanging on the wall and looked for Israel, the country where I was born, trying to understand what I was. I noticed that it was next to Egypt, which I knew was for sure in Africa, but it seemed to me that, properly speaking, Israel only bordered Africa, and technically was in Asia. I went back to the form and checked off Asian. My teacher came over and made me erase my check mark. She told me I couldn’t be Asian. I had to be Caucasian / Anglo-Saxon, she said. I asked her where Caucasian / Anglo-Saxon people came from. She said England and Europe. I said I knew for sure that my people originated in the Middle East. She said I still had to be Caucasian / Anglo-Saxon. And that’s how I became a white boy in America.
I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood with mostly Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan kids, along with a few from Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, and Korea. In some cases, their parents or grandparents had come as migrants to America, where they had been born, and in other cases they had themselves been brought to Los Angeles. Our own family had arrived in the country on tourist visas and it took years before our documents were straightened out. My dad married an American citizen, my older sister married an American citizen, and I was a resident alien until the age of 20, when I, too, received American citizenship. I went to school with Hispanic, Asian, and African-American kids, many of whom, at first, couldn’t understand why this apparently white kid didn’t speak English. By middle school, I had found my own group of Spanish-speaking friends and could pass for Hispanic, even though some of them still called me güero, a moniker that referred to light-skinned people and referenced our own neighborhood movie-myth, Blood In, Blood Out. It wasn’t until I was bussed out of the area into the San Fernando Valley for high school that, along with Jews and other minorities, I also found myself meeting people who would self-identify as white Americans. And it wasn’t until I went to UCLA for college that I found myself having to fully engage with majority American culture and society. Ten years later I moved back to the country where I was born.
I’m grateful for my upbringing in America, but it wasn’t always easy. In elementary school, I learned English in Spanish, a language I didn’t know either, and I was hounded by children who just couldn’t deal with difference. In middle school, my friends and I had to find refuge from gang-affiliated kids who ruled the yards. In high school, I finally found freedom from social pressures to dress or behave in particular ways, but it meant getting up at 5:45 AM each morning to catch a school bus out of the inner city, making friends with kids who had never heard of the neighborhood in which I’d grown up, and coming to terms with the reality of even greater racial stratification than I had been aware of up until then. My first stepmother identifies as African-American — her mother was Egyptian, her father was half African-American and half Native-American — and she introduced me to America as she experienced it during the segregation era. My second stepmother is Filipina and also an immigrant, someone who entered an ethnic and religious intermarriage with my father, had and raised two daughters with him, and worked her way up the ladder of a major bank, managing the tellers of one branch after another to improve efficiency and customer service. Everyone in our family struggled, everyone worked, everyone set goals and did their best to achieve them. There is nothing homogenous about the America of my childhood or what I experienced there as an adult. The America I came to know — both in Los Angeles, where I grew up, and in New York, where I lived later — is one of the most heterogeneous places I have ever experienced. It’s one of the things I value most about the country.
But race, and racial discourse, is something that I still find unsettling about life in America. I’ve always had the feeling that talking about people in terms of color is in itself problematic. “White” people are pinkish, “Black” people are brownish, “Brown” people are khaki-ish, and, anyway, what does it mean to be a color? For years I’ve been using the terms light-skinned and dark-skinned, and then only in conversations where race is the topic, because this aspect of life in America has to be talked about. It’s obviously necessary to address discrimination and prejudice, but, in my opinion, not by using terms inherited from repressive periods in which people saw each other in dichotomies. Perhaps this is my privilege as someone who never had the ability to fit into a simple racial category. But it’s something I also see beyond my own experience. Since arriving in America, the racial categories have changed, and when I fill out forms nowadays, I notice they’ve been simplified: White, Black, Latinx, Asian, Other. It’s interesting that people of Middle Eastern origin have been put into the White category — obviously by someone who has never been to the Middle East. I always mark Other — and that’s what I’ll do until they make me mark Jew, as my parents and grandparents were marked on Soviet documents.
I mentioned that I went to UCLA but I didn’t specify that I studied Applied Math. I knew that as an immigrant I needed to find a job after college. So I studied math, statistics, economics, and business. On the side, I studied writing and art, edited student journals, shot student films, put on plays, published cartoon books. I didn’t follow a proper humanistic education and so I never encountered the foundations of literature and philosophy that I knew existed somewhere in the background of what would today be called STEM education. I’d never read Plato or Aristotle or Montaigne or Dante. I later studied writing at the CalArts School of Critical Studies, where I threw myself into modern French philosophy and contemporary film theory, but where I still lacked any study of ancient, medieval, or Renaissance texts.
It wasn’t until I came back to Israel, enrolled in a PhD program in literary studies, and started to teach as a doctoral candidate that I began to really study Plato — in order to teach his works. I had to catch up on an entire over-2000-year-old tradition in a short time and guide others in their own reading. And in these works I discovered a literary form that explored the complex nuances of human experience within a web of social, cultural, and spiritual pressures. I discovered an artistic project beyond anything I had ever had the chance to experience before — one that was written in a land that was only a few hundred miles from the crossroads between Asia, Africa, and Europe where I was born and was again living.
Perhaps it was the Middle Eastern setting — or that my classes generally included equal numbers of Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students, religious and secular, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian — but it never came up in class, as we read Plato, that we might be studying a so-called Dead White Man. I had never considered Plato white, neither literally, since he very likely had dark skin and curly hair, nor culturally, since ancient Greeks were as far away from today’s definition of American Whiteness as the drinking party portrayed in the Symposium is from a modern-day American frat party.
The problem with American racial discourse is not Plato. It’s American racial discourse. People still talk about being White or Black as if they were colors rather than human beings. Discourse around identity in America is determined by an atrocity that belongs squarely to America: the buying and selling of people from all over the African continent for the purpose of forced labor in developing the United States. Plato not only has nothing to do with this specific history, he is also a thinker who broached the problematic of justice and slavery in the Republic, which has led to a long-standing debate over the status of slavery in ancient Greece, and led some to suggest that the ideal society described by the character of Socrates actually aims to replace slavery with earned wages. Plato can help us talk about issues of justice when it comes to the horrible effect of slavery on a society. And American society cannot afford to lose this or any other input in its attempts to talk about the inherited trauma of race and slavery.
It’s a long road from philosophy to politics — and, in our times, this road is traversed mostly via hate. A politician who shall remain nameless recently put down a highly respected member of congress, Representative Elijah Cummings, obviously targeting him for being a symbol of power and resistance in the face of the most inhumane administration in modern American history. He picked an African-American man because the country’s non-American American majority easily relates to the feeling of threat that such attacks presume and propagate. Feeling threatened is a lot easier than feeling guilty — and yet anger is actually one of the most common humanreactions to guilt. That part of America’s majority population that expresses anger or hate towards African-Americans — projecting and transferring it onto other immigrant and migrant populations — is, in essence, admitting its guilt. So the verdict is clear. The question is: what will the sentence be? And the answer doesn’t have to be personal, it can be the answer of a nation. Ta-Nehisi Coates has made at least one solid case for how that might look, which he recently brought again to the halls of the nation’s capital. I’m sure there are others.
As an exceedingly heterogeneous federation, the United States is in a unique position among the world’s nations to seek out creative forms of reparation that would extend, at the very least, to both African-Americans and Native-Americans. Not only would this be an important admission of responsibility for that part of America’s history that benefited from forced labor and human trafficking, it would also significantly change the discourse on race in America. It would also be a remarkable precedent for global civil society. Many modern states in the world, including the one where I was born and where I now live, have been established or resisted violently. Our way toward healing has to pass through an acknowledgement of the pain and trauma we have caused each other. Actually, the trauma of violence has defined societies for as long as human history has existed. Plato was himself a soldier — a person who saw with his own eyes the high cost of violence and conflict on society, and who tried, in his dialogues, to highlight the considered and constructive aspects of the human spirit.
Plato’s writing has inspired me over the years — especially in considering myself critically and in considering others compassionately — and I look forward to many more years of exploring the various contours of his work. This is why I was saddened when, reading an op-ed on the anti-college movement, I saw him thrown into the category of “dead white man.” The idea that Plato would alienate students because he was only interested in the “life of the mind” is so far from what Plato has to offer that it reveals more about how he is perceived than what he actually represents — something that reflects on Plato’s identity a lot less than it reflects on the state of racial discourse in America.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.