Posted on: June 6, 2016
For the past 10 days I’ve been back home in Ohio. The majority of the time I was here to take care of my three nephews; boys aged 9 and under.
Most readers will remember that their mother, my sister (z”l), passed away from complications of long-term drug abuse. Since her death my parents have been the primary care givers to my nephews, a feat that I am always in awe of. My nephews are three different races; one of them is half Mexican-American, one is half white and the other is not mixed race, yet because of difference in color of their skin conversation about race and color aren’t taboo in their home. So, I was surprised when my middle nephew stated that he was the only black one because his skin was darker.
My emotions ranged from anger to sadness to frustration and of course fear. I wondered how I should respond and knew I needed to do so quickly because soon after he made the statement his brothers put their arms next to his comparing shade. So I said, “You’re all black and you’ll all be men one day, and unfortunately in this country that combination can be dangerous and for many black men, deadly.”
I had to downshift momentarily as they got sidetracked, thinking that the deadly combination meant they some how had the super powers of Superman or Spiderman (if only). And explained to them that boys only slightly older than the oldest had been shot and killed by police officers based solely on the color of his skin. That across the country black men (and women) had recently been killed or died because of their skin. And that this wasn’t something new, but sewn into the very fabric of the founding of our country. They of course wondered how all of this was so with President Obama running our country and I gave them a quick, yet thorough explanation of our country’s founding, the taking away of land of Native Americans, slavery and the resulting systematic racism of our country, as well as a lesson on feminism, patriarchy and white male supremacy. Reminding them that they were brothers and needed to stick together and that even though two of them shared ethnic and racial mixes, that the world we lived in would only see them as black men.
Maybe it was a lot for children who are 4, 6 and 9 years of age, but I don’t think so. I think that when these conversations of the realities of our world aren’t openly and frequently discussed we fall into a few categories; those who deny the fact that racism (sexism, ableism, ageism, etc.) exists, those who recognize it’s existence but who remove themselves from it, and those who have privilege (either racial or financial).
Even as the world rapidly changes around us and whiteness slowly becomes the minority (in the U.S) we can’t seem to shake our history of racism and as I’ve said countless times on this blog, the Jewish community isn’t immune to this racism.
I’m in a Conversion Discussion Group on Facebook and several times one of the Admins has tried to tell me that racism isn’t an issue in the Jewish community. He even went so far as to post a picture of an Ethiopian Jew at his shul and has told me about how Ethiopian Jews in his shul receive aliyot, all the while proclaiming that Hashem (G-d) doesn’t see color. And that may be true (though I don’t think so), even though we’re made in G-d’s image we aren’t G-d, we’re humans and we’re fallible.
So it is my thought that as Jews we have an extra responsibility to not only recognize when our communities aren’t inclusive of diversity, but to call out racism when we experience it. We need to push our synagogue Boards and leaders to make our communities inclusive of racial and ethnic diversity. We need to ask questions and we need to make sure that if the answers we receive aren’t satisfactory, that we work hard to get the answers we need.