The following is created from, and inspired by, answers I have posted to questions on Quora.com.
Whether it’s racism or Antisemitism or classism (or sexism or gay bashing or whatever else) Midwesterners need to break the silence and get past the ‘it doesn’t happen here’ mythology. To this end, I am posting some of my own, personal, experiences with these issues. I am not going to post the worst experiences I have had because I’m not ready to go there, but these are a few examples from my own life:
The Name Adora Myers
The reactions people have to my name are frequently tinged with racial and antisemitic undertones. It’s not unusual for perfect strangers to respond to my name with a pregnant pause, an uncomfortably open examination of my physical being (including peering at my face and scanning my entire body like I was a bug or an animal on display at the state fair), and a growled question that is clearly fishing for proof of ethnicity. The most common questions include:
- Is that a FAMILY name?
- What kind of name is that?
- That’s…different. where are you from?
When people see my name written, the reaction is similar, but they’ve already made their own decision about my ethnicity because of the way my last name is spelled. In the Midwest, this surname is most frequently spelled Meyers and Miers. The spelling Myers is both unusual and presumed to be exclusive to Jewish communities (this is not true).
In my case, the name is a modification of Mayotte, bestowed upon my family by United States government employees because my father’s family arrived to the United States (from Canada) illiterate and speaking only French – it’s a classic American story. Unfortunately, it’s a history I did not know until very recently, so I was unable to respond to conjecture with fact.
My first experience with direct antisemitism occurred in the first grade, when a teacher decided to help me along in life by ‘fixing’ my name.
My name is pronounced Adora (uh DOOR uh) Myers (MY ehrs)
The teacher pulled me aside and explained that I needed to spell it like this:
Andora (AN door uh) Meyers (MY ehrs)
This effectively erased the perceived non-white ethnicity and ‘Jewishness’ from my name.
A short time later, my mother was going through my school work, per her usual habit, when she stopped, pointed to the ‘Name’ field and said “Who is this? These aren’t your papers.”
“Yes they are,” I replied.
“This isn’t how you spell your name.”
“I know, but that’s what the teacher said I had to do.”
My mother had to walk down to the school and explain, in person, that her daughter knew how to spell her own name. The teachers stopped making me change my name on school work, but they never (over 12 years of k-12 school) stopped expressing their…opinions…of my ‘weird name.’
Interestingly enough, my school mates (the children) had no problem with it – until high school when adult/teacher/parental opinions had fully seeped into their perceptions.
I was raised a mish-mash of Christianity but the neighbors were convinced they knew what were ‘really were.’ We had no social connection to a Jewish community, so these perceptions were based on physical appearance and naming conventions. s illustrated in the example above, I had an unusual name by Midwestern standards. However, it was the early 1970s and ‘unusual names’ were something of a fad. My mother liked unusual names and my father didn’t really care, so we all had names that were real, pronounceable, reasonably easy to spell AND just outside the acceptable norm for Midwestern children.
Out of all of my siblings, my physical appearance is the closest to the stereotype of a Jewish person – as defined by people who hate Jewish people.
Children in the neighborhood would call me things like ‘Yid’ and ‘Kike’ and ‘Judas Priest’ (the rock band was big back then) to let me know they knew my family was lying about who and what we were – and they were angry and offended by both the perceived lying and what we ‘really were’.
These anti-Semitic slurs were short lived because people in the Midwest don’t say things like that to your face. Obviously, they were being said behind our backs with consistent regularity because the children knew all about it. However, the ‘we know what you really are’ comments continued with regularity throughout the Midwest and in other regions of the United States (I have done some traveling) for the rest of my life.
My best childhood friend was raised in a family that was ultra extreme far-right Christian. They made a point of aggressively recruiting me for religious events out of ‘concern for my soul.’ This resulted in several…interesting…encounters with the Christian community, but one stands out from the rest:
I agreed to attend a teen retreat. It was an all-day-Saturday thing with meals served, games, movies and prayer sessions (the usual). I attended these things mostly to support my best friend, but I generally tried to suspend judgement and hold on to a small hope that I would make some connections with truly good people. The kind of people religious-types (of ALL religions) are always claiming exist only within the halls of the faithful.
By this point I had started to notice a trend in the prayer sessions and revivals I was dragged into. There was always a point in the service when new people were expected to go up to the front and ‘accept Jesus’ in front of the community. During the first event I attended, I followed protocol (because I was an outsider) and went up to the front and did the whole thing. The next time I was expected to do the same thing, again; and I noticed I was the only person being pushed into doing this multiple times.
The same thing happened during the service at this retreat. This was the third time in a row and (being who I am) I refused to leave my seat. There was no reason for me to be placed on display over and over again, and I did not like this trend, so I decided to test the situation by quietly and pointedly remaining in my seat. I was just like 90% of the teens in attendance who did not ‘feel called’ to go to the front of the church and acted accordingly.
After the service I found myself surrounded by a group of adults and teenagers, all of them were male and my best friend was among them. My friend was angry and started almost-shouting at me about my ‘poor behavior’ during the service. What did I do? Refused to go up in front of the church and ask God for forgiveness.
I remember looking around the group and realizing that these adults had pulled together the teenagers and pressured my friend into fixing ‘the problem.’ I had to be dealt with and it was their responsibility to make sure ‘people like me’ were properly addressed. How did I know this? The teenagers kept looking at the adults for confirmation and/or direction.
My best friend was completely worked up into an emotional tantrum, throwing his finger in my face saying (and I quote): “You! You of all people should be BEGGING God for forgiveness!”
As he walked away, clearly furious with me and the situation he was placed in (I knew him well enough to figure that part out), he growled under his breath “we all know what you really are.”
That was when I stopped associating with any form of Christian-right community. I did not like what it did to my best friend and I refused to be used as proof of the Christian superiority in any from, most particularly through the performance of weekly public-humiliation-of-the Jew ceremonies.
I attended two high schools. I could tell stories from both. This story is from the school I graduated from.
It was the home stretch. I was months…weeks!….away from graduation. I had been planning my escape from Wisconsin farm country for months, including putting great effort into researching colleges. This was during a time before the internet, so researching colleges required an encyclopedia-sized book listing colleges and/or assistance from a school counselor. I pestered my counselor repeatedly, despite his adamant refusal to provide assistance because (and I quote): “the best you can hope for is technical school and marriage.”
My grades were good enough to get into college (despite the odds – but that’s another story) and my ACT scores were actually quite high. I’d managed to secure the contact information for exactly one college and had my acceptance letter tucked away among what little I owned back at the family farm.
In short, life had been tough for a long time but I was finally seeing a small glimmer of light in the form of college.
Then HE entered the picture. My home room teacher was one of many adults who did not approve of my existence (in general) or my presence in their community (specifically).
7 weeks before graduation, he started openly and blatantly handing me detention slips for the actions of other students. On several occasions he actually stood up and announced that I was getting another hour of detention because THAT KID, on the other side of the room, was making noise.
I am an introvert who loves to read and used study hall to finish homework and help my friends study and/or understand assignments. My life as a poverty survivor was difficult and working part-time jobs and the family farm took away a lot time. I needed study hall to complete catch-up work. I was NOT a problem student. If anything, I was entirely to quiet.
Rgardless, I was given detention for things I did not do, EVERY SINGLE DAY for several weeks. This quickly added up and the school had a serve-detention-or-do-not-graduate policy. In other words, anyone who had unserved detention was denied a diploma.
One particular morning, this homeroom teacher handed me yet another pink slip for the actions of others with a sneer, a little reminder of the graduation policy and the words: “We don’t need any more of you people in the colleges.”
Luck came my way in the form of the vice principal. When I was called into his office, I sat in the bad-student-chair looking around at all of the football trophies and though we are not going to get along.
He went over my file, explained the policy to me, tated that I was very close to having so much detention that it would not be possible for me to graduate, even if I spent the rest of the school year serving it out. He was doing the tough-man-talks-to-wayward-teen routine and I’d reached the point of being beyond done with this situation, this town and all of the crap these people insisted on dumping on me and my life. This resulted in my getting uncharacteristically tough in return.
I explained exactly what happened, who committed the acts recorded on those slips and how I had absolutely no intention of serving detention for things I did not do. I fully expected to be expelled and was already beginning to rack my brains for GED resources – maybe I could take the test and continue on with college as planned.
Unexpectedly, the vice principal responded with stunned shock and proceeded to negotiate with me. I had to serve two weeks of detention, because he couldn’t get away with clearing it all out. Thoughts of completing a GED eliminated what fight I had left. I agreed to the deal.
The teacher was replaced in my homeroom for the rest of the semester. To the best of my knowledge, he was never fired or disciplined outside of that one change during that semester.
So, I got lucky and was allowed to graduate.