When i started high school in the eighties, we were given a choice of four languages to study – French, German, Italian or Japanese.
I chose Italian. For no logical reason, it was just an intuitive feeling, with implications for my life that i could not have foreseen.
Image from http://www.sju.edu
In year eight, (the first year of high school), each class was streamed according to gender and language of study. My Italian class was the smallest in the year, with 24 students, 20 of whom were daughters of Italian and Greek families.
My school was located in an inner city suburb with a fairly large immigrant settlement population. Post war Australia received many southern European immigrants, all with their own culture, experience and stories to tell.
Image from http://www.italianschoolcommittee.com
This class, was the first time in my mostly white, middle class, suburban childhood that i experienced being in a cultural minority. It was an eye opening, expansive and in many ways challenging experience. Of course, you are often not aware of cultural norms and your cultural lens until taken out of your environment.
Later, in my early twenties, i travelled and experienced being in a minority in overseas countries. Truth is, i was culturally blind and naive in many ways, and these experiences opened my eyes to complexity and difference.
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One of the many things I love about other languages, is learning words for concepts where there is not direct translation into English.
For example, learning the Italian verbs “to know”. In Italian there are two words for this, “sapere” and “conoscere”.
The first, “sapere” is to know through the mind, theoretically through ‘book’ learning. The second, “conoscere”, is to know through lived experience, to know through the heart. For me, it’s even deeper, a knowing from your soul or your essence.
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Sometimes it feels to me that the journey of life is scattered with opportunities for the ignorance or knowing of the mind to be transformed into knowing of the heart and soul.
I had such an experience this week.
Last weekend, we were out to dinner with friends and the topic turned to discussion of the Irish living in post war England. A time when racism took the form of violence, exclusion from jobs, education and life opportunities, social exclusion and slurs in the form of “Irish jokes”. I grew up hearing (and telling) Irish jokes, ignorant of the political implications of using humour to point out the assumed stupidity of a whole group of people, supposing it to be funny.
Image from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk
During the conversation, it was implied that I, being the daughter of the white, dominant culture, couldn’t really know and understand what it was like to be an oppressed minority.
I was slightly rattled by this, hadn’t i spent over 25 years working against injustice on both a personal and political level? My husband is Irish and we share everything equally in partnership. I hadn’t been through it, but I thought i was a card carrying member of the inclusive, tolerant generation? How could it be implied that i didn’t really understand?
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During the week, i watched the first season of the series The Man in the High Castle. Based on a book by Phillip K Dick. It is set in a fantasy early 1960’s North America. The story is located in a dystopian world, where the Japanese and Germans won World War Two. North America is partitioned into the occupied Japanese and German States, and the neutral zone.
It is a totalitarian system, anyone who is not Japanese or German is an oppressed minority and anyone who does not support the regime is exterminated. It was a shocking world where people were treated appallingly. This was done in many overt and subtle ways, such as standing back in a secondary taxi queue whilst the dominant culture received preference, remaining silent in the presence of the dominant culture, living in impoverished housing, employment in lowly jobs, living with curfews and starkly, arbitrary arrests, mass graves etc.
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This was confronting, but there was a deeper layer in my response. For the first time I was seeing my own culture being treated as an oppressed racial minority. My gut turned as i experienced it coming to life in the unfolding drama.
What i learned, was not what it was like to be part of an oppressed minority, but that i truly don’t know and can never know.
I knew this in my head. I had been told many stories, read books, seen movies, spoken to people, did “brown eyes / blue eyes training” etc. I thought I was fairly aware of racism but the experience this week enabled me to “conoscere” or experience that I truly do not know.
It is often said that we don’t know what we don’t know. The first step to knowing is to become aware of our ignorance. For me, this is to know not just in my mind but also in my heart and lived experience.
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There was a part of me that has been blind to my own racial privilege. Not in my mind, for a long time i have know this, but in my heart, to truly feel and own this. To ‘conoscere’ this.
Things have changed and come a long way in our society, but there is still so much further to go in achieving peace and justice among all peoples, especially for Aboriginal people. One of the deep fears of an oppressive culture is being treated as badly as we have treated others. When I look around, I sometimes wonder how we can ever get to a place of reconciliation.
Racism, particularly subtle, internalised racism, is both a dirty secret and an uncomfortable truth. Yet when we look it straight in the eye, we can own it and move beyond.
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The courage to do this gives me hope for the future.
What this experience does for me, is to strengthen my resolve to stand against oppression. To not take my freedom for granted and to demand that others be free. To challenge injustice that any person, race or class experiences.
I’d love to hear your story or your experiences where knowing of the mind became knowing of the heart and soul.
Sending big love today!