The racism of lowered expectations

My experiences as a black, Ethiopian woman in Israel reveal that Israeli society has low expectations of Ethiopian Jews. In turn, Ethiopians have come to have low expectations of themselves.

Shula Mola (photo credit: courtesy)
Shula Mola
(photo credit: courtesy)
MY EXPERIENCES AS A BLACK, ETHIOPIAN woman living among the Israeli white majority may differ across time and place, but the stories I tell have one thing in common: they reveal that Israeli society has low expectations of Ethiopian Jews. In turn, Ethiopians have come to have low expectations of themselves.
These are some of my stories:
1. I AM IN 10TH GRADE. THE HISTORY TEACHER hands everyone back their tests, except me. I go up to him and ask if I may take the test again. I think I failed. I don’t know how to assess my own abilities.
The teacher asks me whom I had been sitting next to when I took the test. Next to Tamara, I tell him. And who was in front of you, he continues. Idit, I tell him. He says I have to take the test over.
Because I failed, I think. No, he tells me, I had received a good grade, an 84, but he wants to me to take the test over – this time, orally and by myself.
How naïve I am! I don’t get it – until Idit tells me how dumb I am. The teacher thinks I cheated. He doesn’t believe that an Ethiopian girl could get such a good grade.
I run to my guidance counselor. I’m sure she’ll be angry at the history teacher, too, and that she’ll back me up. But instead she, too, coolly tells me that I have to take the test over.
I am still a religious girl then, and I don’t know which hurts me more – that I’ve been accused of breaking a commandment or that my teachers don’t believe in my abilities. My stomach aches; I fight back tears – I won’t let them see me cry. I run wildly through the hallways, demanding to be tested then and there. I want to confront that teacher and his lies. He asks me a few questions; I answer them well.
For me, it is a decisive moment. In that moment of victory, I redeem some of my lost dignity. But for the first time, I have to admit what I already know: Some people are prejudiced. And, in that minute I also know that I will always fight against prejudice and discrimination.
2. I AM A JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER. EVERY year, before school officially starts, we meet with the new students and their parents. I am so happy and excited. I stand at the front door to the school. The parents and children walk in, and I greet them with a “good morning” and a big smile, directing them to our classroom.
“Good morning,” the mother of a young girl responds politely.
She hesitates. She looks around. She looks straight at me. “We’ve come to meet Shula, the teacher,” she says.
And, in that second, I realize that she expects a different Shula.
“I am Shula the teacher,” I tell her. Her expression changes. She takes a step back, mumbling, “I didn’t know… nice to meet you… I didn’t think…” As I approach the child, I wonder what her mother is feeling.
Does she feel ashamed? Embarrassed? Disappointed? I collect myself. I smile at the young girl and start to talk. I ask her what kind of a teacher she wants. “A good teacher who’ll be nice to everyone and won’t yell at the students,” she says. “I’m a good teacher and I’m nice to everyone,” I tell her. And I want to tell her that the only person I want to yell at is her mother, who thinks that because I am black, I must be the guard, or the cleaning lady. That’s the only story that white Israeli society knows about Ethiopians – that we are poor and pathetic and that our men are violent towards our women.
I am an adult, a qualified teacher. But I still have to constantly prove that I am capable of making it among “regular” people.
3. “IF ANYONE HERE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND something, just ask!” the workshop leader tells the class.
I am at a teachers’ training course, with about 20 other people, most of them white women. The leader presents the goals for the workshop. Do you all understand? she asks the class. A few of us, including me, nod. We understand. She looks directly at me. “Do you understand?” she asks me. I nod. She continues speaking to me, and only to me. “If you don’t understand something, just ask me.”
Later on, she hands out worksheets and again tells me, and only me, “If you don’t understand something, just ask me.” She’ll continue to ask me this throughout the five-hour workshop. She checks my notebook to make sure that I am taking good notes.
We introduce ourselves. I present myself briefly, but I word my presentation carefully. I deliberately speak softly, drawing her in. I watch the change in her expression as she hears me speak articulately, showing that I understand the material. There are immigrants from other countries in this group, but they are all white. She doesn’t ask them as many questions.
I think about the writings of Frantz Fanon, the French revolutionary.
A black person is a victim of her visibility; always wearily seeing herself in comparison to whites, she develops a destructive self-consciousness. Often I feel that I am on the outside, looking in.
I’m glad I forced that workshop leader to realize that Ethiopians have more to tell than the one story she knows about us.
4. AS PART OF MY WORK AT THE ISRAEL CENTER for Educational Innovation to improve the education offered in schools with a high concentration of Ethiopian children, I am attending a four-day workshop with a group of colleagues. We meet with the children in the schools.
Rachel is a 6th grader with good grades. She asks me if I am an Ethiopian. I smile, convinced that she is joking. She repeats her question, this time in Amharic. “Yes,” I answer. “Are you with them?” she asks, pointing to my colleagues, who are all white.
“Yes,” I tell her. “You’re together with the nachim [the whites]? You mean, you can really teach everybody? Nachim, too?” she repeats.
She is surprised that an Ethiopian teacher can teach nachim.
Rachel’s world is divided into whites and blacks, and the blacks are inferior. Even though she is a good student.
The balanced approach to literacy, which we use in my educational work, helps us deal with this vicious circle. We help the Ethiopian children improve their grades and their self-image.
But our work is also political. It’s not about partisan politics, but about changing public consciousness, to gradually break down these racist stereotypes that perpetuate Ethiopians’ failures. When a child like Rachel, or that workshop leader, or the mother of my student, or my history teacher meet more and more successful Ethiopians, maybe they’ll change their thinking. Maybe they’ll realize that there is more to the Ethiopian community than failure. Some of us are success stories; some of us aren’t.
Ethiopians will be fully integrated, and racism will be eradicated, only when society develops normal expectations about us and when we have normal expectations of ourselves. ✡
Shula Mola works at the Israel Center for Educational Innovation and is Chairwoman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.