By Tova Kardonne
My mother sometimes will say that when she moved from Africa to North America she went from being a visible minority to an invisible one. I can only speculate as to what that must have been like, since, growing up in Toronto, I’ve always sported that intermediate-melanin-level that makes me a plausible member of a hundred groups, none of which constitute the ‘majority’, but none of which have the special distinctness of a non-African in sub-Saharan Africa.
As for being an invisible minority, that has its absurd side. One finds oneself, at times, in the company of bigots who expect a sympathetic ear. One might even find oneself outnumbered by them, uncertain as to whether it’s worth the risk of whatever may happen next if it’s suddenly revealed that there’s an impostor in their midst. It makes one think about how and when to self-identify— how awkward or graceful it might be, and whether awkwardness or grace will better serve my purpose—whether my purpose, today, is to be acceptable or to stir the pot.
But then there’s the flamingo-in-a-pantsuit over-the-top preposterous absurdity of being a member of an oppressed visible majority.
Yep, folks, I’m a woman.
I know; I didn’t have to say anything. Up until now, all you knew was that I’d stand out in a crowd anywhere south of the Sudan. And then, bam, there’s something to talk about.
But I don’t really want to talk about being a woman. Let me tell you what I do want to talk about. I want to talk about you.
You’re the one I’m talking to. You are my primary concern. I can’t even begin to write without considering you, so let me take a moment and consider. Do you know what my mother was talking about? Being a visible minority? Maybe you do. Maybe you can understand her better than I can. Or are you an invisible minority, carrying a secret difference inside? When do you let it be known? Do you wonder or guess to whom it would matter? Have you ever guessed wrong?
Actually, I’m fairly certain you know what I’m talking about. Everyone has a secret difference to defend.
But I don’t know you; not really. Can you forgive that? Can you forgive that I don’t know the first thing about you, and yet I think we have something in common? I do think we have something in common. I am sure of it, presumptuous though it might be. I think we are, both of us, required to be something we’re not. And in that way, I think we are, both of us, oppressed.
And with that:
“This is the season of FREEDOM!” I declared, as I have been tending to do willy-nilly for days, nay, weeks. I would make my declarations at the top of the stairs, the doorway of the house, sometimes from the decidedly leisurely posture of the bathtub—finger pointing skywards. I liked, of course, to have an audience. There was always myself to whom to declare the season of freedom, certainly. But often, my partner Nilan would supply any lack I might find in declaring it to myself alone.
“Oh?” he’d often reply.
“Yes,” I would assert:
“This year we were slaves, but NEXT YEAR MAY WE BE FREE!”
“Okay,” he’d say, taking his fingers out of his ears, “We’ll be free.”
“Not so fast. What are we going to do about our slavery?”
“We’re going to… go to the Passover seder?”
“It’s a start. Let’s identify those things we are enslaved by.”
I have always been of a philosophical bent, you see. These holidays, these feasts, have always suited me just fine, and for just this reason. I am tickled pink that everybody can get down with their metaphysical selves and ask that existentially angst-ridden question, why, oh WHY, truly, IS this night different from all other nights?
I mean really. Can this be the first night of our freedom?
“And if they had not been freed, then even we, our children, and our children’s children might still be enslaved”—have you ever seen that phrase? Every year I read it aloud, and think: yes, it’s true. We: our children: our children’s children.
Whose ancestors are we? What slavery might we liberate our descendants from? What freedom might we fail to deliver them to?
I was thinking this, when exiting my front door while Nilan was entering.
“So,” he said, eying my stance appraisingly, “freedom?”
“YOU BET YOUR BOOTS, FREEDOM!”
“I thought so.”
One mustn’t mistake his tone for disdain. Freedom is a big deal to him, too. But his is another tribe, and this freedom-festival is not a season he has traditionally marked.
“Is there going to be that apple-walnut stuff?”
“There’s going to be FREEDOM!”
My mother grew up the daughter of a highly respected hazzan— a cantor, the one who sings the prayers in the shul, or synagogue. Hers is the stronger cultural tradition, since my father’s parents were highly assimilated American Jews, complete with name-changes and at least one nose job. There was a time when general consensus had it that being Jewish was, in fact, visible, so we carved up our faces. Turns out, it never was visible at all, and some of us will never really know what our grandparents looked like—but we know how badly they wanted out. This, I take it, thousands of years after leaving slavery behind. No, my family got its traditions from my mother’s side, our propensity to argue the whys and wherefores of every crumb, our equal delight at finding it makes sense as finding that, awesomely, we have something to say about it when it doesn’t.
But, as I say, let’s talk about you.
Is your face the one you were born with?
I am part of a visible majority, since most of the world, by a slim margin, is female. Everyone can tell that I am. Though I don’t spend time or money creating a feminine appearance, I’m not androgynous- you can see me from a distance. Oddly, though, despite winning the majority prize, I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am not free.
I know, we could argue about it until the cows come home. Let’s just say that I know something about my freedom or lack thereof. That’s not really the controversial part. The controversy comes in when I tell you that you’re not free. And how could I know that? Ah, it’s uncanny; somehow, even when I don’t know what you look like, I know when I’m not seeing your real face.
I used to live in France. It was a racist, sexist, homophobic place when I lived there. I left. Then I went back for three days a year later, and got to talking with a nice young man about my first intellectual love, mathematics, about which he had theories of his own, theories he was doing research on. On the second day, he proposed marriage, offered to convert to Judaism, to follow me anywhere. I replied that it was a little quick. But, he said, nowhere in the world was there another woman who would understand him as I did, and he insisted he foresaw that I’d be the mother of his children. I fled. The same day I met a lady, with whom I got on well, and we went out that night. She told me that a lover had told her she was too old to be desirable. It had hit her like a slap in the face, but she supposed she ought to expect it, at her age. She was 38. I thought she was desirable, and said so. That, she did not expect. The upshot was that by my third day back in town, two people were convinced I was the only person in the world for them. Neither, I think, gave much thought to the question of whether they were the one for me.
Nonetheless, I considered it to be a remarkable series of events, and have thought about it since. Each of those two people knew what category they fit into. Each of them knew what other categories were available to them in romantic partnership. Each of them had concluded on the basis of their experience that they would have to choose between a partnership for the mind and a match for the body—but not the authentic body, rather, a perception of the body, a performance of the body, a match for their gender. I was the anomaly, an unlooked-for exception. There could never be another person with this combination of traits. Needless to say, this story isn’t typical of my love-life. It’s a story about a mildly unusual person entering a rigidly role-oriented society. It’s a story of the loneliness of being who you’re supposed to be at the expense of who you are. She had accepted her lot; he had accepted his. Their proposals weren’t about me, they were about my freedom. I had escaped my category, and come into their world with the whiff of that freedom on me. They wanted it. They didn’t know they didn’t already have it, but when they caught the scent, they hunted it for all they were worth.
And I left on an airplane the next day. I have not kept in touch. This time, I had the privilege of not dealing. That’s not freedom, though. Escape never is. We’re still afraid behind our faces, our facades. They are useful, merciful things, here for this purpose; to hide us and protect us, and present the world with the thing as which it is safe to be seen. I have faith that you know we are all performing all the time, and fearing that our hidden selves aren’t safe behind our closed faces.
At the seder, we spill drops of wine in remembrance of the pain of our oppressors, when they were thrown down. There will be pain when we throw down our faces. There will be sorrow when we lose that refuge, even though it confines, then traps, and then enslaves us. Oh thou on the other side of the page, I am talking to the real you. This is an all-embracing hug. Nothing that is bad for you could ever be good for me.
You decide. What’s good for you.