In his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote a profound personal letter to his young nephew (also named James), in which he poignantly described the dehumanizing world that Black people must face in America:
“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying ‘You exaggerate.‘” [emphasis mine]
This passage captures a critical component of racial inequality. When people under oppression try to articulate the injustice they face to the society in power, their narratives are actively ignored, undermined, and delegitimized as absurd, false, or unimportant. To this day, Black Americans are regularly told that they “exaggerate” when they warn about white supremacists, police brutality, job discrimination, and other racial problems. This feeling of dismissal, expressed by Baldwin 55 years ago, resonates powerfully with the Palestinian experience.
The recent outrage over the political interrogations of prominent left-wing American Jews like Simone Zimmerman and Peter Beinart is an important and much-needed development. But for many Palestinians, it can be very frustrating to watch. Despite thousands of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims being detained, interrogated, humiliated, threatened, deported, and banned for trying to enter Israel or the occupied territories, hardly any of them could garner the same local or international attention, or stir the same level of shock, among people with power and privilege who claim to be concerned about democracy and civil rights in the country.