Let´s Get Uncomfortable …. Reflections on Being Jewish in Germany by Mia Szarvas - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen aviva-berlin.de Juedisches Leben Mias column

AVIVA-BERLIN.de 4/18/5782 - Beitrag vom 27.07.2019

Let´s Get Uncomfortable …. Reflections on Being Jewish in Germany by Mia Szarvas
Mia Szarvas

When we witness racism or sexism, it is often our first instinct to avoid the discomfort of addressing the situation, leaving the victim to bear the burden of discomfort alone. The only way to change the world is to lift this burden from the victim - let´s make bigotry uncomfortable for everyone.

It´s okay to be uncomfortable sometimes. In fact, it´s necessary. It´s the only way forward. It is the only way to expose oppression to those with the privilege not to see it, to look away from it. It´s the only way to change the social norms of what´s accepted and acceptable. These social norms can be oppressive, especially oppressive in that they are often invisible to all those but the one oppressed by them.

I was sitting at a dinner table in a boutique Italian restaurant in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Berlin. It was a Thursday night and my friends and I were celebrating after completing a several months long course. The wine was flowing and the laughs abounded. We were having an excellent time. Then, out of nowhere, one of my companions made an antisemitic comment to me, quietly, so just the two of us heard what he said.

This was not my first time something like this had happened. As a woman, I´m used to men slipping offensive comments in my ear, unexpectedly, casually, like throwing invisible thorns in my side, smirking, because they know I´m not afforded the societal privilege to even react. They feel safe, because they are protected, I will protect them with my silence. I will absorb the discomfort they have caused, the pain. It is not acceptable for me to place that burden on them, on anyone around me, it´s mine to bear alone. The expected response is for me to smile awkwardly, to appease the large, ex-military man who has been drinking. It´s expected that I manage the situation, manage my emotions, push them deep down and swallow them. It´s expected that I do this all in a moment, flash my charming smile, and move on with the merriment. But that night, I could not fulfill my duty. Tonight was the end of something, and my emotions were already heightened. When this burly German man spewed his antisemitic hate in my direction through his predatory smile, I felt the tears welling up inside of me. They were protesting at the edges of my eyes, begging me to let them out. They stubbornly stood at the door of my social niceties, my training in smoothing things over, in not bringing others into my pain. They were adamant and indignant, they wanted me to feel my outrage. They refused to let me be invisible, to shrink back into myself and laugh away my disgust at this man´s foul behavior.

I excused myself and left the restaurant. I planned to collect myself. I did not want to be vulnerable, I did not want to show myself to that man. I didn´t want to "make a scene", to draw others into my discomfort. I wanted to deal with the situation alone, by myself, so we could continue to have a nice night, so none of them had to feel any of what my reality was at that moment.

But someone appeared behind me, one of my other friends noticed, I thought, and came to comfort me. But it was him. "I´m sorry," he said. I felt the tears welling up in me. I did not want to cry in front of him, "I know you are," I said, "but right now, I just really need to be alone." He left, and I cried on the street for five minutes, before I finally returned to sit back inside at the table, trying to act as if nothing had happened.

My plan was working, I thought, everyone was laughing, no one mentioned how this man had just torn a hole in the night and my heart. But he was silent, he couldn´t look at me, he got up and left.

None of my friends had come to check on me after our friend and my assailant had spewed his hatred at me. But they did run after him as he left. They returned without him shortly after to tell me I had to fix the situation. "Mia, you have to go talk to him", one friend said, pointing his finger at me. "No", I said, backing closer to the wall I was sitting against. I felt the tears welling up again. "This isn´t right", said the friend, taking on the role of "peacemaker". "When you have issues with someone you talk about them", he condescended, "he feels so bad, please go talk to him" he implored as he excused his friend´s racism, and put the burden on my shoulders.

"No, absolutely not", I said firmly, tears starting to spill from my eyes. "Please, stop" I begged. I looked to the last friend remaining at the table, in a last bid for support, but when my eyes met his, he dropped his gaze and looked away. The peacemaker continued, "Mia, you don´t understand, he´s not a bad guy, he even defended Jews once." I was in such a state of disbelief, I couldn´t move. "Good for him, he deserves a medal, leave me alone."

He didn´t leave me alone. This "friend" of mine, was so bent on forcing me to follow socially accepted rules of maintaining the peace, not making situations uncomfortable, not having to feel discomfort, that he truly believed forcing a Jewish woman to take care of and manage the emotions of a racist, physically powerful German man was the right thing to do. He had no concern for my emotional, physical or psychological safety. He only wanted this man to feel better, and for the situation to "go away" because, he told me, he "just wanted to have a nice night." He said this as if I had chosen to ruin his night. He blamed me for the situation.

This is not his fault alone, in our society, people of privilege expect others to absorb discomfort for them. We have been taught to expect this. We´ve been taught the victim should grin and bear it, not bring others into their pain. Why should everyone have to feel uncomfortable because the victim of racism reacted to someone demeaning their very existence? Society sees this as their pain to bear, as a marginalized person. My call to all those with privilege of any kind: stop putting the burden of discomfort on the oppressed. It is okay to be uncomfortable sometimes. Minorities should not have to bear discomfort alone, in silence, to preserve the comfort of others. To ask them to do so is more than unfair.

By avoiding discomfort, we preserve the status quo, and the status quo is racist, sexist, homophobic, xenaphobic - it is unacceptable. If someone perpetuates violence on another in the form of hateful speech, the situation should become uncomfortable for them, and for any bystanders. We should not expect the victim to absorb the discomfort of this violence for us. If they look to us for help, we must meet their gaze, be strong enough to say something, and not look away. I can promise you, they will remember if we look away.

The group forced me outside to speak with my attacker. As expected, his racism escalated. He was not concerned about me, but rather in preserving his image. "I´m not a bad person", he insisted, begging me to reassure him. "I know you don´t know me well, so you don´t know that I stood up for Jews in Cologne once. You don´t know what I´ve done for you people." I went inside to collect my belongings, and left the restaurant in tears, once again. My friend followed me outside to tell me how brave she thought I was for showing my emotions. "I don´t want to be showing them", I said. "You´ve left me no choice." In their bid to avoid any uncomfortable situation, my friends had ended up isolating me, defending my attacker, forcing me to comfort him while he continued his racist rant, and taken my autonomy to make my own choices and to guard my own emotions. They thought I was brave. I felt trapped, small, and invisible.

The next day, my friend was telling me the silver lining was she learned a lot from the situation. I knew she had good intentions, but I could not agree, "I´m not here to be a grinding stone. For me, there was no silver lining, it was just traumatic." Why do we believe marginalized people´s suffering is justified if someone of privilege has learned a lesson?

Sometimes situations are just bad. It´s uncomfortable to leave them that way, but it´s the truth. If we cannot stand in the truth of the disruption hate causes, how can we ever expect things to change? If you want to be an ally, get used to being uncomfortable. Stay with it, embrace it, bare witness to it, and stand up against the real cause of the discomfort - not the victim of hate who is having a normal emotional response to being attacked, but to the assailant. Hate, not the response to it, is the source of discomfort. If we can all be strong enough to shine a light on it, it has no chance to survive. If you want to change the world, start by making peace with your own discomfort.

About: Mia Szarvas was born in Vermont to an Israeli father and Italian-American mother, raised in California, and currently lives in Bremen, Germany. Her grandmother, Marta, escaped from Poland in August of 1939 with her parents and sister, with whom she set up a new life in Palestine, while the family they left behind perished in the Holocaust. Mia has a degree in Political Ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, and works in tech to create empowerment in unexpected places. She is curious about multiculturalism, languages, feminism, and how our intertwined histories inform the present.

Follow Mia´s art project "Humans Who Inspire" on Instagram @humanswhoinspire. Mia draws portraits of humans who inspire her as a meditation on the multitude of incredible humans working to make the world a better place. She also accepts requests and submissions.

Read more by Mia Szarvas at AVIVA-Berlin:

"I Answered All Your Question About Jews, so You Don´t Have To (And so I Don´t Have To)" - reflections by Mia Szarvas

"I Don´t Want Your Shame" - reflections by Mia Szarvas

Yom HaShoah - reflections by Mia Szarvas

Photo of Mia Szarvas by Elena Sloman

Jüdisches Leben > Mias column

Beitrag vom 27.07.2019


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