Suddenly Sabra: Is my boyfriend racist?
How can he seem to hate anything that looks 'Arab,' yet still be open to dating, even marrying one?
APRIL 1, 2009 14:35
At the end of my mother's week-long visit, she gave me a hamsa - a beautiful teal, plum, and pink one embroidered onto a golden silk square, fringed with red beads. A symbol of luck and a sure sign she'd had a good time. The night she left, I breathed a sigh of relief as I hung it on my wall.
When Boaz saw it, though, he had a different reaction. "Where'd that come from?"
"My mom got it for me."
"Huh," he said. "It looks veryâ€¦ Arab."
He made a face.
"What? You don't like it because it looks Arab?"
"It's not thatâ€¦ people say that something looks 'Arab' when it's ugly," he said.
"First of all, it's not ugly. I like it. And second of all, that's so racist."
"It's not racist. It's just what people say."
"Well, that's awful."
He shrugged, making that "What are you going to do?" face he makes, raising his hands in the air in that "Don't blame me" way.
We lapsed into silence. I was angry. He was watching TV.
"You knowâ€¦" I began.
He held the remote, flipping through the stations. "Ah?"
"If we have kids, you can't talk like that in front of them."
"OK. But you can't make our house look Arab."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You knowâ€¦" he gestured around the room, "all these colors you like. Like red and blue and green together and bright yellow walls."
"But that's how I was raised, in a colorful home. It's not necessarily Arab. And so what if it is?"
"It's too much," he said.
"Well, you're tooâ€¦" I fumbled for a word, for something that would offend him, "Ashkenazi."
It didn't bother him. It bothered me, instead - I realized then that I was stooping to his level and I didn't like it. But hadn't I gotten nervous when I was on a crowded bus and noticed someone with dark hair and a bulging briefcase? Wasn't this a form of racism, too? At the time, I'd thought it was, and I was angry with myself, but now I was fuming over the way Boaz equivocated anything he didn't like with "Arab."
I'd heard it from him before. A blank stare at a pair of earrings and "don't you think those are a littleâ€¦ Arab?" I'd also received the occasional suggestion that I not wear a certain shirt or outfit for the same reason.
But after our home-decorating discussion, I had to ask myself - am I really dating a racist?
A few days later, I seized an opportunity to size up Boaz-the-maybe-racist. I was confiding in him how I'd always wanted a nose job (you should see the schnoz on me) when he said, "An Arab girl in my class just had one."
"Really?" I asked. "Does she look better now?"
"She doesn't look that different, actually."
"Well, is she pretty?"
"Would you date her if we weren't together?"
"Yeah. Why not?"
I forged ahead. "Would you marry an Arab?" I asked him.
"Hmmm. I don't know. It depends on her family."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if her family was strict and was going to make trouble, then no. But if her family was OK, then why not?"
So Boaz would share a home with an Arab, as long as the house didn't actually look "Arab."
The surprise must have registered on my face because he asked me, "What?"
"It's justâ€¦ I didn't think you'd date an Arab."
"What did you think, Talia? That I'm a racist?"
"Sort of. Yeah."
He looked hurt. "Well, then you don't know me at all."
It's difficult for me to reconcile Boaz's simultaneous defamatory use of the word "Arab" with his openness to the idea of dating, even marrying, an Arab. It's a contradiction, a paradox. And it occurs to me that in the States, an argument about home dÃ©cor would be simpler - maybe a manifestation of the relationship-wrestle-for-control that so many couples find themselves locked into. The colors of the wall wouldn't reflect any sort of ideology.
But in Israel, it seems, everything has an additional layer, another veneer.