"If You're Fat, Then What Am I?"

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about body image and eating disorders. I can’t even begin to address all of them here. But there’s one I’ve been thinking about lately–that problems with body image are caused solely by comparing yourself to unrealistic standards, and can be solved by simply comparing yourself to the “real” bodies around you instead.

First, a disclaimer–I’ve never had anorexia or bulimia. However, I’m not entirely out of my depth here. Had I gone to see a psychiatrist at some point prior to this year, he or she would probably have taken note of my obsessive calorie-counting, severe dietary restrictions, compulsive weight-checking and fat-pinching, and general conviction that I was “fat,” and diagnosed me with something called “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or “EDNOS.” This means that one doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any of the eating disorders, but is definitely disordered nonetheless.

(For the record, I’m much better now.)

Anyway, one thing I remember very vividly from my years of thinking I’m fat was one particular response that I often encountered. Some people (mostly other girls), upon learning how I felt, would respond with this: “If you’re fat, then what am I?”

Now, I understand exactly where this comes from. Many of my peers were probably insecure, too, and it makes sense that they would be reminded of their own insecurity once I mentioned mine. Since I was indeed thinner than many other people, that response makes sense on some level. If I’m fat, they must be obese!

But it doesn’t really work that way. It would certainly be convenient if people’s self-concepts were always rational and based on reality. But the very definition of mental problems is that they’re distortions of reality–they’re unrealistic. That’s why grief after the death of a loved one isn’t considered a mental disorder, but depression is.

And that’s exactly why “If you’re fat then what am I” is not an effective response. At the time, I didn’t give two shits what other people were. It didn’t enter my thought process. In my case, my conviction that I was fat was mostly caused by cultural factors; namely, the fact that Russians are fucking preoccupied with beauty and weight. Absolutely preoccupied. It was also caused by years of ballet lessons, my depressive personality (which magnifies personal flaws), the belief that I could lose 10-20 pounds and still be healthy, fear that guys wouldn’t find me attractive if I had folds on my stomach, and many other causes.

For other people with body image and eating issues, the causes may be different. Some people develop the feeling that they’re unable to control their environment, so they control the only thing they can–their body. Others may start out actually overweight, start to diet and lose weight, and find that they’re addicted to the feeling of getting thinner. Others develop an overwhelming guilt whenever they eat, especially when they eat unhealthily, and they start to purge after eating. Some may have friends who constantly talk about their bodies’ flaws (remember Mean Girls?) and start to think the same way.

Whatever the causes are, these issues are much too complicated to be defeated by a simple glance at someone who weighs more than you.

Of course, “If you’re fat then what am I” also fails one of the most basic requirements of being a good listener–don’t change the subject to yourself. If your friend feels crappy and needs to talk to you, don’t make it about you. If your own issues are making it difficult for you to listen, tell your friend that. Sure, they might be disappointed that you can’t listen to them, but that’s much better than how they’re going to feel when you take their pain and turn it into a conversation about you and your weight.

It’s easy to resent people who, according to you, “should” be perfectly happy with their weight but are not. I can’t say I don’t get a twinge of annoyance whenever I witness a girl much smaller than me freaking out about her weight. But then I remind myself that she’s not me. Poor body image seems almost like a cliche among young women these days, but it’s so much more complex than you might think.

You Don't Need Alcohol

[This is my first column for the Daily Northwestern, NU’s student newspaper. I can’t find the link on their website so I’m not linking to it, but here’s the full piece.]

You don’t need alcohol.

Wait, hear me out. You really don’t need it.

Before I came to college, I obviously expected that there’d be a lot of drinking and partying going on here. What I didn’t know is why. I grew up in a large, loud Russian family, where alcohol flows freely at dinner parties and camping trips, but never takes center stage. My parents seem mosty the same to me whether they’ve had five drinks each or not a single drop, and they seemed to have just as much fun without alcohol or with it.

I was puzzled, then, when I came to college and found that alcohol was often–not always, but often–the main event. As far as I knew, most people readily admit that they don’t like the taste of alcohol, at least not of the sort usually served at college parties. Dealing with the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much is a drag. Meaningful connections aren’t usually made while one is drunk. So why?

The answer both suprised and disappointed me: people think they need it.

I started hearing the same story from almost everyone I asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable with people unless I’ve been drinking.” “I can’t talk to girls without a few drinks.” “I could never hook up with someone if we’re not both drunk.”

One friend even confided to me that he literally can’t have sex if he’s not drunk. “Why not?” I asked. “I’m more of a traditional person,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t really know if I’m sober.”

Could it really be that the brilliant, accomplished people I go to school with can’t make friends or hook up without alcohol?

The answer, I think, is no. I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. Sure, it can be fun to get drunk. But should it ever be something we “need” to function socially?

I think I can attest to the fact that it’s not necessary. I used to be painfully shy and incapable of having a conversation with anyone my age. Since coming to college, I’ve truly branched out and made many friends. Yet I’ve never been drunk and can count the number of parties I’ve been to on the fingers of one hand. People, if the girl who used to bring encyclopedias to read at birthday parties can do it, anyone can.

I also don’t think we should be using alcohol to help us ignore our own values. If you’re just not the sort of person who wants to sleep with people you don’t know, that’s totally fine. I’m not either. If you think it’s perfectly okay but feel too insecure to do it without alcohol, that’s something you can work on.

That applies to making friends, too. This school is full of really cool, really interesting people. You’re going to find people who think you’re awesome. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself of that. So practice in front of the mirror, get friends to introduce you, do whatever you have to do. Having the confidence to approach people and connect with them is a wonderful thing, and it’ll be with you always–long after the party’s over and the alcohol’s all gone.

Islamophobia Does Not "Cause" Riots

So I was reading the current issue of Utne Reader (great magazine, by the way) and came across an article about Islamophobia, reprinted from Intelligence Report.

At was a good article, at least up until the third paragraph. There, I saw something that made my eyes want to pop out of my head, migrate to the author’s place of residence, and slap him in the face:

Recent news reports strongly suggest a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In May 2010, for example, a bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Florida. In August, a man slashed the neck and face of a New York taxi driver after finding out he was a Muslim. Four days later, someone set fire to construction equipment at the future site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In March 2011, a radical Christian pastor burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people dead. [emphasis mine]

No. No no no. First of all, unlike the first three incidents, burning a Koran is not an “anti-Muslim hate crime.” Last I checked, in America that counts as free speech, heinous as it may be. Second, Islamophobia may have caused the first three incidents, but it did not cause the fourth one. That one was caused by morons who chose to respond to a provocation in a violent way.

One of my biggest issues with liberal discourse on societal problems is its proclivity to diminish or erase entirely the concept of human agency. (Some) liberals talk as though society just makes people do things without them actually processing information and deciding how to act on it.

(Among more radical liberals, this lends itself to the belief that violent response to injustice is not only inevitable, but morally justified, even if innocent people are injured or killed in the process. See: Hamas apologists.)

Leaving aside the morality of the rioters’ actions, it nevertheless takes quite a few conceptual steps to get from American Islamophobia to Muslims killing people in Afghanistan. While one could reasonably assume that Islamophobia (along with a number of other factors, such as having a violent disposition) caused people to do things like bomb mosques, stab Muslim taxi drivers, and burn Korans, one cannot then jump from that to “Islamophobia causes people in Afghanistan to riot and kill people.” Just, no.

I should hope that it’s quite clear that moderating variables must be at play here. (Case in point: Jews have been subject to as much [if not more] racism and discrimination throughout history as Muslims have, but if we rioted and killed each other every time somebody did something anti-Semitic, there’d be none of us left. Do a Google search on “burning Israeli flag” and you’ll see how common this is, and don’t tell me nobody ever burns Bibles, either.) For whatever reason, the rioters in question chose not to respond to this incident by starting an initiative to educate Westerners about Islam, by simply ranting about it to family and friends, or by shrugging and moving on.

Instead, they chose to respond to a no-name dipshit burning a Koran thousands of miles away by killing 20 innocent people.

Clearly, the vast, vast majority of Muslims in the world did not react this way, just like most teenagers who happen to come into possession of a loaded gun do not immediately go shoot up a school. The few who do go shoot up schools have serious issues that go way beyond the fact that they have access to a gun.

Islamophobia is a serious problem and should not be swept under the rug. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. All humans have agency, and we should assign the same level of responsibility to the Muslims who rioted as to the Americans who provoked them.

Everyone Should Go to Therapy

Recently I wrote a post about why some people might choose psychiatric medication over seeing a therapist. (Fine, so it wasn’t that recent. >.<) I promised a followup post about a belief that I hold concurrently–everyone should see a therapist.

Now, before everyone freaks out, let it be known that I say “everyone” only in the most theoretical of ways. Meaning that, I recognize that as things are today, what I’m proposing isn’t really possible. But in the Happy Fun Miriam Land of the future, where stigma against mental healthcare is gone, insurance coverage is reasonable and available to the majority of people, and research has identified effective therapeutic interventions for most mental problems, everyone should and would be able to go to therapy.

For now, I’ll qualify what I’m saying with this: if you are able to see a therapist, you should, and if you are able to take your children to see a therapist, you should.

Why?

Well, why do we have regular dental and physical checkups? Why do children receive vaccines? Why do we make an appointment with a doctor when we think we’re coming down with something serious?

Hopefully the answers to those questions are self-evident.

Clearly, it is acceptable–and even expected–that people seek two types of healthcare throughout their lives: preventative and palliative. We should see a doctor regularly to make sure that nothing’s going seriously wrong with our bodies, and we should see a doctor when we suspect that something IS going seriously wrong with our bodies.

This much isn’t in dispute. But what about our minds?

For the most part, people wait until things are really, REALLY wrong with their mental state before they go see a psychologist. (And some don’t go even then, but that’s a different story.) For instance, I didn’t see a psychiatrist for my depression until I wanted to kill myself. People with eating disorders typically don’t receive care until they’re dying, or close to it. People with anxiety issues don’t get help until their anxiety is preventing them from having any semblance of a normal life.

Like most physical maladies, mental illnesses don’t just come out of nowhere. They usually develop from years and years of poor coping strategies and maladaptive beliefs. For instance, I remember being as young as 6 and constantly thinking that everyone secretly hates me, nobody wants to be my friend, and everyone’s talking behind my back. Guess what? When I was 18, I still basically believed that. Except by then, my beliefs had become self-fulfilling prophesies, and they had reinforced themselves until it became nearly impossible to get rid of them. Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if a child psychologist had helped me get over them 15 years ago?

My little brother, age 10, thinks he’s ugly. He has adorable curly hair, itty-bitty freckles on his face, and beautiful blue eyes. He’s thin and athletic, but thinks his stomach is fat and sometimes does crunches in his room. He hasn’t really learned how to make friends yet, and he has nobody to teach him. As a result, he thinks nobody will ever want to be his friend, and he chooses to brag and show off for attention rather than try to make other kids want to be his friends.

My brother does not have depression, an eating disorder, or even–believe it or not–a serious case of narcissism. What he also doesn’t have, however, are effective mental tools for interpreting the world and for being happy. And he’s not going to find these tools on his own.

What if, in addition to physical checkups to make sure that kids’ bodies are developing correctly, that they’re learning good hygiene, and that they’re eating well and exercising, we also had regular mental checkups to make sure they’re developing good mental habits?

Clearly, not everybody is going to need constant mental healthcare like I do, and like everyone else with a serious mental illness does. Most people would be totally fine checking in with a trusted family therapist every once in a while. But others, like my brother, would seriously benefit from catching the problem before it mushrooms into the sort of thing that I went through.

Even if people never do develop diagnosable mental illnesses, unhappy children often grow into unhappy adults. Ever had a boss who made your life miserable by demanding constant ass-kissing to protect her fragile ego? Ever dated a guy whose fear of commitment destroyed the relationship? Ever had a bully in high school whose inability to relate to others in a positive way greatly affected your own life?

These people have psychological issues. I’m not saying that in a degrading way at all; many people have issues. But because most people don’t think that they should see a therapist unless they want to off themselves, people like these usually don’t get help.

Although I strongly despise the mindset that people with mental problems should be treated as personal inconveniences, the fact is that people do affect each other emotionally. Imagine if every time someone got a contagious illness, all they could do was just continue going about their daily lives until it passed, infecting everyone they came into close contact with. Luckily, that’s not how it works; most people go see a doctor when they realize they’ve come down with something. What if people did the same for mental problems?

I think that’d be a much more pleasant world to live in.

And I promise I’m not just saying that because I’m going to be a therapist and want money.

"Shit Girls Say" Isn't Funny

Or, perhaps, it’s only funny if you don’t consider the context.

Check it out:

This is the first episode of the wildly popular web series Shit Girls Say, which draws its humor from portraying stereotypical (white) (middle-/upper class) women in quick bursts of cliched speech. And I can definitely see how many people, even many women, would find it funny.

But let’s deconstruct it a bit.

Why do women talk like this and men don’t? No, seriously, try to answer that question. Is it because they have two X chromosomes? Is it because they have more estrogen? Is it because they have tits? Is it because their bodies produce eggs?*

Or is it something cultural?

Except for those of us who had the most progressive of parents, most of us were raised in a viscous sludge of “boys do this/girls do this/boys don’t do this/girls don’t do this” remarks. As my gender studies professor recently remarked, hang out near a parent with a toddler at a store sometime and you’ll hear a barrage of comments to the tune of “You’re not getting that, that’s for girls!” and “Don’t you want to wear something prettier?”

Right, so. Part of the education that most of us receive is how to properly relate to both same-sex friends and to members of the opposite sex. The basic lesson is, of course, “Boys don’t cry,” which can be extrapolated to mean that girls can cry, if they want to. From this basis, the entire structure of normative ways of interacting develops–women can be very emotional with each other; men cannot.

Eventually, girls who don’t display this “relational” style of behavior come to realize that they’re acting wrong somehow. I would know, because I was once such a girl. From early childhood onward, it was always “You’re so insensitive. Why can’t be you be more considerate? Why can’t you think about someone besides yourself? Why can’t you realize that I need your help? That wasn’t very nice of you to say that to your friend. Have you thought about what present to get her for her birthday? You really think she’d like that? Don’t say things like that, you’ll hurt someone’s feelings.”

I don’t think many little boys are told such things.

What the women in the Shit Girls Say videos are saying are more evolved forms of the things I was expected to say as a little girl. They relate to each other. They ask each others’ opinion. They want to share the details of their lives with each other. They want to commiserate, open up, engage. I could analyze the language of the videos in detail if anyone were interested in hearing it, but I think it will suffice to say that the stereotypical ways in which women behave–the gossiping, the complaining, the requests for help–are all designed to help them connect with each other.

(As for one of the girls’ constant need for help with the computer, I would hope I don’t need to explain how women’s supposed lack of technological expertise is not only a huge overgeneralization, but also entirely attributable to a culture that still values girls who play with dolls over those who tinker with electronics.)

Recently I noted that in our society, women are considered ugly if they don’t maintain their appearance, and vain if they do–unless, of course, they manage to wind up in that magical sweet spot where they always look flawless but make it seem like they haven’t expended any effort to look that way.

Well, this is similar. Our culture trains women to be relational, and then pokes fun at and belittles them for being so. Shit Girls Say succeeds in its comedic endeavors by noting and exaggerating stereotypes about how women behave, but women don’t behave that way because they’re women. They behave that way because they’re taught to behave that way.

You can’t really win as a woman. If you don’t act in a relational way, you’ll be a loner, like I was for many years before I learned how to wear a mask of friendliness and approachability. But if you do act in a relational way, you’ll find yourself the target of jokes about how frivolous women’s conversations supposedly are, how overexcited they are when they see each other, and how they apparently ask their boyfriends to do everything for them (don’t even get me started on the fact that many men still buy into antiquated ideas about how they’re supposed to be the “providers” and whatnot).

So I don’t think Shit Girls Say is funny. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sexist or misogynistic. But I would say that it’s ignorant in that it ignores the cultural origins and meanings of women’s behavior, and it’s insensitive in that it disregards the burden placed on women to act in those ways.

Cheap-shot comedy like this favors easy caricatures over meaningful critiques and analysis of our culture. (Try this for a still-funny but socially conscious parody of Shit Girls Say.) Go ahead and laugh–it’s funny in a way–but educate yourself, too.

*I’m defining “men” and “women” very generally here for the purposes of making a point. Needless to say, I don’t believe that any of the traits I listed are necessary for being a man or a woman.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breast Cancer Awareness

If you have ever seen a bunch of women posting Facebook statuses with a random color, or a location where they “like it,” and felt a mix of confusion and frustration, you are not alone.

These memes are part of an effort for breast cancer “awareness,” a word that I use cynically here and only in quotation marks. The color meme referred to women’s bra color, and the location one referred to where they like to put their purses. Of course, they made it sound sexual to attract more attention: “X likes it by the bed”, “Y likes it in the closet,” etc.

Now, an acquiantance of mine (who also happens to be the Director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Northwestern University, and therefore isn’t entirely ignorant about these things) has reported that this stupid trend still has not died.

Perhaps even less sensically, the latest iteration of this meme is people posting stuff like “is going to New York for five months” or “is going to Las Vegas for twelve months,” and this, too, is supposed to elicit friends’ queries and be met with the response that it’s for breast cancer “awareness.”

As anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking skills can tell you, such a status, when finally deciphered, tells you exactly one thing: “There is a thing called breast cancer and you should know about it.”

Yes, yes there is. But could we finally get beyond that?

For instance, here are some actual facts about breast cancer:

If you’d like to do some actual good, why not spread this information around?

Besides that, here are some other ways you can help:

  • Volunteer to provide support for people battling breast cancer. (This is even easier if you know of such a person. You can help by driving them to doctor’s appointments, making them meals if they’re too tired, babysitting their kids, or just being there to listen.)
  • Donate to charities that provide such support, or to organizations that fund research on breast cancer. Here are some to get your started: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. With a quick Google search, you could find local charities, charities that cater towards a particular demographic that you belong to, and so on.
  • If you want to go beyond simply giving money, participate in charities’ fundraising events, such as Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. That way you get to raise money while meeting other people who care and physically showing your support for survivors and people battling breast cancer.
  • If you’re politically liberal, be an activist for government initiatives that fund cancer research, education initiatives, support for cancer patients, expanded insurance coverage, etc. One good place to start: ask your representative to support H.R. 3067, the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act of 2011, which proposes an initiative to end breast cancer by 2020.
  • If you’re studying medicine or biomedical engineering, consider making cancer research your focus. Or work as a research assistant in a lab that studies cancer.
  • Buy products from companies that donate to breast cancer research (but beware of pinkwashing).
  • Similarly, if you happen to own a business or want to start one (and I know many of you Northwestern students do), consider donating a percentage of your profits to breast cancer research.
  • If you’re going into journalism and you’re interested in health, consider writing about breast cancer. Not everyone has enough knowledge to decipher academic articles; you can be the one who makes that information accessible to those who need it.

As you can see, some of these require your time and money. Others do not. The few seconds that it takes you to type your stupid status could be better spent posting a link to an important recent article about breast cancer.

And now, I get it. Cancer is a terrifying thing. The amount of information available about it could fill books upon books, and some of it is constantly going obsolete or being revised. Even I felt a bit overwhelmed just looking at the few websites I looked at to research this article.
I also get that when your friends are posting oh-so-funny things on Facebook, you want to join in the fun. Trust me, I was in middle school once, I know.

But I have some unfortunate news for some of you: neither I, nor breast cancer survivors, nor families of breast cancer victims give a flying fuck what color your bra is or where you like to put your purse, cutesy sexual innuendo notwithstanding.

If you’re old enough to make sexual innuendo, you’re old enough to educate yourself and others about breast cancer (and, for that matter, anything else you think people should be educated about). Let’s stop selling ourselves short here.

*edit* Another reason I just thought of to hate these memes–they are generally restricted to women only, and women aren’t “supposed” to tell men what they mean, thus constructing breast cancer as a “girl thing.” Not only do men witness their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. fighting breast cancer, but some men actually get breast cancer, so it’s not only a women’s problem.

Anyway, there is enough of a stigma placed on men who get breast cancer without its promotion through this meme.

Update (2/2/2012): In case anyone’s going through my archives and reading old posts, let it be known that I officially withdraw my support for the Susan G. Komen Foundation in light of its defunding of Planned Parenthood.

"I really want to screw you, but you have so much baggage."

A guy actually said that to me once.

He may have been the only person I’ve ever encountered who was willing to verbalize his shallowness and ignorance, but he’s far from the only one who thinks that people need to be perfect before you can get involved with them.

That idea runs rampant in our culture, and it’s not only men who are to blame. Advice columns for women under 30 often exhibit what I call the “Dump His Ass” effect–anytime a woman writing a letter mentions virtually any imperfection in her crush or boyfriend, the advice columnist usually responds with some form of “dump his ass.” Still has feelings for his ex? Dump his ass. He’s insecure? Dump his ass. Doesn’t like your friends? Dump his ass.

(Of course, there are plenty of offenses for which a person of any gender should almost certainly be dumped, such as sexual harassment or assault, emotional manipulation, being a flaming racist/sexist/etc, and so on. I’m talking about much more minor sorts of flaws.)

Common wisdom seems to suggest that before one can get involved with another person in a healthy and stable way, they need to do things like “work on themselves” and “learn to love themselves” and “figure out who they are.” Leaving aside the fact that for most people, working on yourself and figuring out who you are is a lifelong process, there are some people who are never going to “love” or be comfortable with themselves. I am one such person. Do I not deserve to ever have a partner?

Similarly, people are expected to be “happy on their own” before they can be dateable. That’s preposterous. If you’re 100% happy being single, why would you need a serious partner in the first place? Why is it considered unhealthy to really, really want someone to share your life with?

As someone who has had “baggage” virtually since birth, I have never not been aware of the fact that American culture considers people like me undateable. However, the idea that we’re also unfuckable is a pretty new one to me.

Why? Why do people need to be perfect before we’ll have anything to do with them?

It might surprise some people to know that everyone has flaws and psychological baggage; it’s just a matter of getting to know them well enough to figure that out. And yes, other people’s baggage can sometimes cause you trouble. You know what? Tough titties. You have two options: grow up and deal with it, or avoid getting to know anyone.

Incidentally, the guy I quoted in this post’s title eventually overcame his reservations and spent quite some time harassing me for sexual favors. After I refused, he looked at me and said, “You know, I couldn’t ever see you as my girlfriend. I’d need a girl who’s sweet and kind.”

Now who’s the one with the baggage?

Learning Racism on the NYC Subway

I spent this past week in New York City with my mom and little siblings, who are six and nine years old, respectively. Aside from a few times that they were too young to remember, this was their first time in the city and they had a great time.

On our last day in New York, however, they were confronted with a situation that they would never have encountered back home in Ohio.

We had just gotten on the subway in Queens to go to Manhattan. The train was full, but my  brother and sister found seats next to an older lady. My mom and I, meanwhile, stood facing them.

As my siblings sat down, the older lady mumbled something in their general direction. “I’m watching you,” she growled at them.

None of us paid much attention to this at first. I took out my phone and started reading on it, just as many other commuters on the train were doing.

And then the older lady started saying something that made me consciously notice her race–African American–for the first time.

“Are you takin’ pictures of me? You takin’ pictures of me? I can call the police on you for that. I’ll blow your brains out. Look at your ugly white face.”

I calmly ignored the diatribe, as is the unspoken code of conduct on the New York City subway. It’s impossible to spend even a day in the city without encountering at least one person who is drunk, high, schizophrenic, or otherwise in a state that makes them spew nonsense. The thing to do is to just let it go.

My mom and my siblings took note as the lady kept going.

“You bunch of white trash. I’m watchin’ all of you. You and you and you.” She gestured at my brother and sister.

She kept going in this vein right up until the train reached her station. She stood up and picked up her purse. “Finally I never have to see your ugly white faces again,” she said, and left the train.

I sat down in her seat next to my siblings, glanced out the window, and saw the lady walk off. I turned back around and relaxed. As the train was about to pull out of the station, I heard a thud on the window behind me. My siblings and I, startled, turned around and saw that the lady had come back and hit the window where we were sitting.

This experience made quite an impression on my brother and sister. They talked about it to all the friends and family we saw that day, and they were still talking about it on the plane home the next day. I tried to tell them that some people are strange or disturbed and say weird things, but that these people are not the majority. I’m not sure what they thought about it, but I’m afraid that they’re too young to consciously, coherently think about it at all.

As a young adult who purposefully tries to stay educated about race relations and the history thereof, I can’t say that this experience changed my opinion about anything. I’ve met and been close to enough black people to know that most would never say such things–just as most white people would never say such things to them.

But my siblings have not. In the leafy Ohio suburb where my family lives, diversity is almost nonexistent. We’re one of very few Jewish families here, for instance, and when I Iived here I knew only a handful of black people and no Latino/a people. (Asians are probably the only minority that’s well-represented here.)

This trip to New York was probably my siblings’ first experience with seeing such a tremendous diversity of races and ethnicities (not to mention orientations and gender identifications). The fact that one of their only verbal interactions with a stranger in New York happened this way can’t be a good thing.

Furthermore, unlike my little siblings, I’ve read enough about race relations to understand the circumstances that cause people to develop the views that the lady on the subway had. Perhaps she’s watched friends and family members being unjustly stopped and searched by the police. Perhaps she’s been denied housing or other needs because of her skin color. Perhaps she’s witnessed white people refusing to sit down next to her on the subway at all. Perhaps her calling us “ugly” is a response to a mass media that depicts whiteness as the only variety in which beauty can come.

I know all of this and more, but my siblings don’t, and they’re way too young for me to try to explain it to them. With all the difficulties they face because of learning English as a second language, having a culturally nonconforming family, and, sometimes, even simply being Jewish, the idea that someone might view them the way they view kids who taunt them for their accent or curly hair, is probably a confusing one. They don’t know what it means to be “white” in America. I don’t think they’ll know for a long time.

And that’s the real tragedy. If these two kids develop the unjustified fear of black people that many white people have (even if it’s only subconscious), it won’t be from the surrounding culture, as many would assume. It’ll be from a concrete experience that happened when they visited New York City for the first time and encountered people who don’t look like them. They’ll remember feeling trapped on the subway as a woman they don’t know threatened to “blow their brains out.” They’ll remember being told that their skin color makes them ugly. They’ll remember that the woman was black, because she pointed out that they were not.

And so, racism is perpetuated. Even if my siblings end up forgetting this particular experience, there may be others, and there will be many other kids who encounter a situation like this one. My brother and sister weren’t to blame for this woman’s distress, but to expect her to “rise above” it would be presumptuous. Whatever happened that made her say those things is real.

For once, I have no solution to propose. My purpose in sharing this story was only to illuminate the importance of teaching children how to empathize and how to keep themselves from forming stereotypes–much easier said than done.

They should also be taught more than just that slavery “happened” and is now over (if only race relations were really that simple). The woman on the subway was a racist and she was wrong, but people don’t become racists in a vacuum.

I can only hope that when my siblings are old enough to understand all of this, they will still be open-minded enough to learn it.