By Peter VAN BUREN
One of the great things about not being obsessed with racism is not having to go through the mental twisty turns required to see racism in everything. Of course not being obsessed with racism still allows me to understand that racism has played a sordid role in our country’s history. I can understand anger and the sting of discrimination because I, too, am a human being. But I don’t have to pretend moving from New Jersey to Manhattan to find a new job was for a free black man in the 19th century was the same thing an Irish immigrant underwent boarding a “coffin ship” hoping to survive the journey across the Atlantic knowing his only alternative was to die of starvation amidst the Potato Famine.
That unexpected example infiltrated my life a week ago because of an article I wrote criticizing New York’s Tenement Museum for including an exhibit about a (black) person who was neither an immigrant nor lived in the tenement building the museum occupies, two of the criteria that kept the museum from telling the story of say any Haitians, Spaniards, Japanese, and blacks until now. The museum has told, magnificently, the stories of a handful of the 7,000 actual residents of its building on Orchard Street since 1988 — German, Irish, Jewish, and Italian families. I should know; I worked there as an educator in 2016, quitting after the Trump election turned the institution into some sort of woke bunker fighting imaginary fascism.
After my article suggesting the black family from New Jersey’s story could be best told elsewhere, I became a racist. I’m not, but no less than the liberal coven at the Daily Beast sort of called me that. They wrote a story calling my argument nonsense, said I’d provoked an ugly fight by even asking questions, took a headline from a New York Post reprint of my article and attributed it to me as a quote, mangled another quote, and hinted I might just be a disgruntled employee seeking revenge over a minimum wage job I quit almost six years ago. Every story needs a villain and in 2021 that would be a old, white, straight man writing for a conservative outlet. The Beast even selected their “race and diversity” editor to interview me. They go hard in the paint, these folks.
That’s how I found out how difficult it was to be woke. In order to shoehorn the Jersey guy into the immigrant world, the Museum told the Beast that the black guy, who was born free in America and was never a slave, left New Jersey for New York in 1857. The Museum claimed “though he was not an immigrant in terms of leaving one country for another, he was still embarking on a new life in a society with social norms that differed from what he was accustomed to.”
So an immigrant from New Jersey? That sounds like the set up for an SNL gag except wokeness has no sense of humor. If you surgically remove the woke, here’s what the Museum should have said. Jersey, seriously? The immigrant experience involves being desperate enough to leave absolutely everything you have ever known behind on often a one-way trip, including but not limited to language (the early Irish immigrants spoke mainly Gaelic), culture, religion, food, profession, and family, cross an ocean at direct risk of life, and fight your way out of the status that you’re given when you step ashore in a new land overtly hostile to your presence, except for those standing by to exploit you as you cross that stern barrier at Ellis Island. I cannot see anyone seriously claiming that was the experience from someone moving from New Jersey to Manhattan, black or white.
Well, check that. A white woman (photos show 11 of the 14 Museum senior staff are white, ten are women) so guilty her Museum doesn’t have a black guy in it that she is willing to ignore the base realities and somehow claim a guy who took the ferry over from New Jersey is an immigrant. That is what wokeness drives otherwise intelligent people to do, twist facts to match a narrative (“we have a winner, folks, nobody suffered more than black people”) rather than allow facts to create a narrative (America treated its 19th century white immigrants poorly, visiting upon them many of the same discriminations as it did slaves, because class and capital, not race, is controlling.)
No less than The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) said it is also concerned about the Tenement Museum’s replacing its Irish single family tour with a hybrid story of Irish and black families. The Museum was quick to respond they aren’t doing away with the Irish, just pushing them toward the back of the bus a bit to make room for some 2021 white guilt. “The history of anti-Irish Catholic bigotry in the U.S. is little told,” stated the AOH. “The Museum proposal to eliminate it in favor of a ‘hybrid program’ only furthers the trend of airbrushing it from American history… The Museum’s strategy of pitting the story of one heritage against another is a recipe for enmity, which is the last thing we need in these divisive times. It would indeed be sadly ironic that the telling of the story of the 19th-century history of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ at the Tenement museum should fall victim to a 21st-century incarnation.”
I am glad I remain unwoke. Unwoke, I see no special reason to celebrate a transperson won Jeopardy. I see no progress in an endless series of wordplays that means nothing actually changed, things like “raised awareness” or “increased representation.” Unwoke, I do not skip a beat when some made up superhero character is cast as Asian or gay or disabled. I remain free to ask troublesome questions. Wokeness, and flippant accusations that anyone who disagrees is a racist, shields society from asking questions, and creates a stage where any intellectual bull is accepted as long as it sells the narrative, whether at the Tenement Museum or the Daily Beast.
At its heart wokeness is anti-intellectual, almost medieval, with today’s canceled comedians or perhaps the Irish of the Tenement Museum, as the modern Galileo.