a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Post-Racial My Ass

Posted on: February 25, 2014

This morning I browsed the New York Times on my phone while waiting for my rather late train, “Colorblind Notion Aside, Colleges Grapple with Racial Tensions”.  I read the title and was immediately angry and frustrated, I thought the term “Colorblind” went out of vogue 10 years ago.

In the news media and in popular culture, the notion persists that millennials — born after the overt racial debates and divisions that shaped their parents’ lives — are growing up in a colorblind society in which interracial friendships and marriages are commonplace and racism is largely a relic.

But interviews with dozens of students, professors and administrators at the University of Michigan and elsewhere indicate that the reality is far more complicated, and that racial tensions are playing out in new ways among young adults.

Some experts say the concept of being “postracial” can mean replicating some of the divisions and insensitivity of the past, perhaps more from ignorance than from animus. Others find offensive the idea of a society that strips away deeply personal beliefs surrounding self-identification.

When you say that you’re “color blind” what you’re really saying is that you have the ability, because of your privilege, to erase someone else’s race. News flash, you can see my black skin. You can see that brown skin of the group of guys walking down the street (which is why you walked on the other side). You notice when the person doing your nails is a different race than you. You hear people speaking in languages other than your “norm”. You know when you’re the only X-person in a group of X-people and if you’re a person of color in a Jewish space, you notice that too (and so does everyone else). The same goes for the idea of our society being “post-racial” until we live in a a society where being white is no longer the norm, we’re never going to be “post-racial“. To imply that racial tensions are playing out in “new ways” is, in my experience, completely inaccurate. Sure, I never had to sit at the back of the bus, but it doesn’t mean that racism in our society, in the year 2014, has somehow disappeared.

It’s been my experience that children are keenly aware of race and color, I’ll give you an example. A few years back I spoke at a diversity retreat at Be’chol Lashon. I held a black child, adopted from Ethiopia by two white Jewish parents, in my arms. We had an immediate and special bond and after lunch one day she took my hand into hers and examined it. She held it up with both of her little girl hands, flipped it over and examined my palms and the brown lines in them. She flipped it over again, examining my skin, stroking it in a curious, soft way before bringing her big brown eyes to mine. “Your skin is like mine,” she said to me and my heart was pulled in a million directions. I wondered if she’d be able to have open conversations about race and ethnicity with her parents. I wondered if her extended family acknowledge or ignored her skin color. I wondered how she would feel and identify as an child, a teenager, as an adult. I wondered if the Jewish community she was in would accept and nurture her or if she would feel alienated by her Jewish community because of the color of her skin.

I’ll give you another example. I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating. When I was converting to Judaism I arrived to my conversion class early and sat on a big, leather Chesterfield sofa outside of the room we had class. Inside, the room was occupied by students who appeared to be no older than 13 years old. I read a book and sat, but one student noticed me. I noticed him noticing me because his voice became louder than the murmurs of the others. “Hey! Someone’s babysitter is outside.” I felt myself get angry when he said this, and felt like a kid again as 12 pairs of eyes turned to look at me and my heart was also pulled in a million directions. What was this kid’s perception of race? What’s his perception of people of color and how does he perceive his Jewish community. Could I ever be accepted into the Jewish community if a Jewish child only sees me as the help?

People often send me emails or leave comments on posts I write accusing me of being racist, or too sensitive or creating an exaggeration of the issues of race and racism in the Jewish community, but I ask, given those two experiences, can we honestly say that the Jewish community is immune to racial tensions or racism?

The answer to that question is no.

No one is immune- no community, no individual, no religion-we all have issues with race and racism because as a society we have placed so much value into what it is to be white (and for society at large we could argue male and Anglo-Saxon) which therefore invalidates and belittles the value of other races and ethnicities. As much as I’d like to say that the NYT article was shocking, it wasn’t. This is the world that we live in and we really have a few choices: We can live our lives appreciating, learning from, caring about and acknowledging diversity for what it is (and diversity is awesome) or we can live our lives in our own individual worlds, segregating and separating ourselves from people who are different from us. We can teach our children about inclusion and live our lives surrounded by a variety of races, religions and ethnicities or we can teach our children by example, only exposing them to people who share their race, religion and ethnic background.

As Jews, we have an obligation to take a look at our communities and make internal assessments, are we living our mission statements or are they empty words on our websites. As individuals we have the responsibility to live our truths while allowing others to live their individual truths. And as a society we have to find a way to hold on another up rather than using them to step on. That last bit seems a bit far-fetched, but my thought is that mellinnals aren’t post-racial because they see interracial marriages and have interracial friendships, but because they are more willing (or hopefully so) to speak out on bullshit and hopefully the desire to make the changes necessary in our society. Not to end on a Mr. Rogers note, but it’s all of our jobs.


2 Responses to "Post-Racial My Ass"

Perhaps you’ve been accused of racism because you say things like “You can see that brown skin of the group of guys walking down the street (which is why you walked on the other side)” as if all of your readers live that reality. I could see that alienating those of us who do not behave that way.

Interesting thought, though I don’t think so. I write from my experience and ask my readers to take an honest, introspective look at themselves. If that is not something that you’ve done, then the sentence doesn’t apply to you.

I have been in a group of brown people on several occasions and watched someone who wasn’t brown see us and decide to walk in the same direction on the opposite side of the street. I have had people not sit next to me in my synagogue so that I’m the only person in a pew. I have been followed around a store. These are my truths. I simply ask my readers to consider them.

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