The first day I got to Grant High School, after being bussed out of Echo Park into the Valley, I met a girl named Meital. I was almost fourteen and she was the first Israeli I’d met since leaving the neighborhood of Jaffa D at the age of nine. She invited me to sit with her friends on the quad. I said I’d rather not. She asked why. I looked her in the face, and, feeling I could speak openly because we shared a common background, said: “I hate white people.” She laughed and said, “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror?”
It took me about six months to start interacting with people I perceived as “white.” It took me a lot longer to reflect on how I could so readily use the word hate. With time I realized it was because, where I came from, hating white people — which mostly meant the police but also the people on the other side of town who had money, and because of whom our side of town was as hard as it was — hating anyone who represented our oppressors was necessary to survive.
In the place where I grew, America was seen as an occupying power and white people were occupiers. White people did not belong in California (to be read using Spanish pronunciation). They took it by force during the Mexican–American War of 1846-1848, and since then have oppressed Mexicans. On their own land. These Mexican people had already been oppressed by colonial Spain — against which they fought a War of Independence from 1810-1821. The indigenous people of Mexico had, by then, suffered about three hundred years of oppression. So overall, we’re talking about well over half a millennium of oppression and exploitation. And the oppression wasn’t over. All over California, Mexicans and those of Mexican heritage still had to fight for their natural rights — every single day. Anyone who wasn’t aware of this situation was simply not living in reality.
You’d think people living in California would be more aware this history. They pronounce Spanish names any time they tell someone where they’re from, or have to read street signs that get them from one place to another, or even order street food. Just in Los Angeles you have neighborhoods like Santa Monica, Los Feliz, El Monte, Alhambra, Montebello, Pico Rivera, La Crescenta, Buena Park, Marina del Rey, El Segundo, Redondo Beach — and this is a partial list that doesn’t even get to street names. In case anyone had any doubt, the current administration has made it abundantly clear that America’s oppression of Mexicans never ended. Americans are stopping natives from repatriating to the lands that were taken from them by force. And they’re calling them aliens.
This is the environment in which I grew up. The Los Angeles of my childhood was not made by white people, was not meant for white people, and didn’t include white people. It was by La Raza – for La Raza. That didn’t mean that people from outside the community couldn’t find their way inside. It just meant they had to learn a unique, rich, and complex culture, full of internal and external conflicts, and develop an identity that incorporated the full spectrum of that culture. This same culture also had to defend itself from those that would have it rid itself of its unique ethnic and cultural qualities. And at the top of the list, at least when I grew up, were white people. So, I did what I had to do to survive — and hated white people too.
A long time later I wondered what made it so easy for me to use the word hate. I didn’t really know any white people. I saw them on TV from time to time, and when I did see white people on the street, it seemed to me that they had no concerns, no cares, nothing to worry about. They weren’t scared — and I resented their sense of security. I wanted them to feel as afraid as I was about what the next day could bring, to witness the violence I witnessed, to pop their bubble and let them experience some of the terror and suffering we felt — and which was exploited by them to live their unworried lives. I wanted them to fear and suffer. And this desire to make someone else suffer brought up powerful feelings of anger and violence .
I had no intention of using violence myself. I’d experienced enough and had made a conscious decision, even then, not to use violence unless I was directly defending myself from an imminent threat. So, on that day when I first got to school, I took another route, a seemingly nonviolent way of dealing with my hate. I decided to boycott white people.
That first week I made a friend named Nelson. His mother was from Mexico and his father from El Salvador. He was Hispanic — but he was different from anyone I’d met in my neighborhood. He knew nothing about gangs, he’d never played tackle football on concrete driveways, he hadn’t seen what was happening in the inner city. His mom worked at a hair salon and his dad was a nurse at Kaiser Permanente — all the way over in my part of town. Nelson and I became close — we shared music, began to play guitar together, and started a band. There was only one issue. Nelson had grown up in the immigrant part of the Valley but had gone to school with some of the white people I avoided. And little by little, whether I liked it or not, my relationship with him bled into a relationship with these people I had avoided. We never became close. But we began to coexist. And I began to develop. Not into something I hated — but into something hybrid and personal. I was learning to be myself.
When I reflect on this period, I know my innocent and unadulterated expression of hate was connected directly to my desire to boycott the kids I saw as white people. And I know very well, today, that I hated something I did not know. As soon as I got to know these kids, I could no longer blame them for everything that was wrong in my part of the city. Everything that was wrong was still wrong. More than once, on the half-hour walk back from the bus stop to our house, I was mugged for my cash or walkman. I half-realized that the kids who mugged me were victims of a broken educational and social welfare system. I gave them what they wanted and only asked them to give me back my mixed tape — which they did. And the so-called white kids, on the other hand, had troubles of their own. They had to deal with either parental neglect or pressure, instability at home, homophobia, an abundance of drugs, pressures to be sexually active. I lived in both realities — and saw the difficulties of both. The system was indeed broken. But this system was a lot larger than it seemed from the inner city. And the solution was not, unfortunately, to boycott anyone. It was to engage.
The real work started then — when I realized that there was no way to really face injustice without engaging all sides. For me, stopping this “cycle of hate” — a phrase I heard a lot as a kid — meant stopping to hate kids I had known only as “white,” because hate was itself at the root of the violence that kept being perpetuated.
I became tolerant of people whom I had perceived, for many years, as exploiters and oppressors. I never lost sight of the differences between us, the role of cultural and economic privilege on those who had greater opportunities than I did. But I also began to resent them less as I came to understand the small yet significant privileges I had enjoyed. I had a roof over my head, food on my table, good public schooling. I studied tennis with a local teacher — an African-American Vietnam War veteran who taught at Shatto Park, near Koreatown, whose students came from every ethnic background. I had good friends — children of immigrants from Mexico, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Israel — who each negotiated their own home lives while learning to adapt to American society. We supported each other even though we were not necessarily building a single cultural community. We also maintained our differences. We were not part of what some would call white America. But neither were we hateful. We were not just surviving. We were growing in our own way, on our own terms, never justifying the wrongs done to us or to those we knew, but also not assigning responsibility for these wrongs to an entire demographics, cultures, or societies.
The people I had perceived as the enemy could no more resolve the conflicts in which our cultures were involved than I could. It was too simple and easy to say these “white” kids were to blame for everything I suffered and that the best way for me to survive was to avoid them at any price. Struggling against injustice meant, communicating with them, interacting, telling them about what things were like in places they’d never been, even though those places were only ten, twenty, or thirty minutes away from their homes. This was the exact opposite of what would have been achieved with a boycott.
There are those who argue that hate has its place when seeking justice. But this kind of hate has its place when it targets a specific individual for specific behavior. When hate spreads beyond an individual to large groups, it becomes dangerous. Especially when we begin associating individuals with their ethnic or national backgrounds. There’s a word for that in American racial discourse. It’s prejudice.
There are also those who argue that boycotts are not about hate, but rather political pressure, policy change, and public opinion. But the apparent “reasonableness” of this argument falls short when examining the focus on one specific group or case of injustice. The very term has its origin in a single person’s name — exposing the deeply personal roots of this strategy. Boycotts that target single large groups or cultures are almost always motivated by a personal element, simply because people choose to struggle against one injustice over another. The denial of this personal element only serves to end communication — an attitude which is actually part of the driving force to boycott in the first place.
Years after I left Los Angeles and even New York, after I’d done much thinking about race and prejudice, I still fell into the boycott trap. Ten years ago, I was on a residency at a writer’s house in Latvia and went to the market looking for dates. I’d bought a bag of dates the day before that were hard and tasteless, so I was looking for dates that looked more like the ones I had back at home in Jerusalem. I finally found a box that seemed closer to what I was looking for, brought them back to the house, brewed a cup of coffee, and sat down to enjoy my writing-break snack. The dates were perfect – juicy, sticky, sweet. They were so good that I wondered where they came from and looked closely at the box. It said, “Made in Iran.” I felt conflicted. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president of Iran at the time, and his repeated claims that Jews invented the Holocaust, or that he was going to wipe Israelis off the map, were more than enough to put me off eating Iranian dates. As hard as it was, I gave the rest of that box to a fellow writer, telling her that I couldn’t enjoy a date that came from a country whose president called for my annihilation. She said she totally understood — and accepted the dates. The next day I asked her how they were and she said they were great. I told her I was glad that she was able to enjoy them. I didn’t want such great dates to go to waste.
For years, I thought about that tiny personal protest and wondered what it meant. I kept asking: had I done the right thing? With time, I came to the conclusion that I had made a mistake. I felt and still feel justified in my instinct to boycott anything made in Iran. But I also knew that this instinct came from a sense of fear. I don’t believe the fear was itself misguided. But it spread out beyond the Iranian president to the Iranian farmer who picked the dates — and who may or may not harbor the same feelings toward me that this president expressed. And even if he did, my eating his dates did not give him any moral justification. On the contrary. All it did was to create a connection between us in a world that would rather we not be connected at all.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.