White/Black Jewish Relations
Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a talk entitled “Jewish Community, Race, and Who Counts” by Ilana Kaufman, Executive Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. Kaufman convincingly led her audience through an exploration of some of the obstacles, indignities, and microagressions facing Jews of color like herself. She wove together stories from her own history, statistics (20% of families identifying as Jewish in America are multi-racial), Torah, and others’ stories to paint a picture that was simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking.
Kaufman is able to be so effective because, in her own words, she is a unicorn. But her rareness is NOT that she is a multiracial Jew from birth. Rather her uniqueness comes from her being a multiracial Jew with a long resume in the Jewish communal world. Kaufman is fluent in the language that Jewish communal professionals use to talk about the Jewish community. Her ability to weave Yiddish, Jewish jargon, and the acronyms of the organized Jewish community into her message--her codeswitching, as she pointed out--makes white-skinned Jews feel comfortable with her. It allows her to say things that can be hard to hear.
The Jewish community perpetuates a myth about our origins, Kaufman told us that night. The myth suggests that THE Jewish experience in America involves Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the decade or so before the second world war. Though there are many families for whom this is their American origin story, it isn’t true even of all white-skinned Jews, let alone all Jews in America. (As an aside, I have chafed against this myth, notably in a Melton class where the instructor suggested this was THE Jewish story, though it is not my Jewish ancestors’ story.) Kaufman started her conversation by debunking this myth so that she could move her audience toward the realization the even bigger lie we have perpetuated is the ever-present though rarely stated assumption that “Jewish” = “white.”
This assumption, she points out, is one that perpetuates white supremacy. Not the kind of white supremacy that marches with torches, obviously, but the racist view that both blurs true ethnic heritage (we no longer make ethnic distinctions within whiteness) and creates hierarchy based on the blurred categories that are race.
After building to this point, Kaufman laid one of those truths on the room that she is uniquely suited to say out loud and be heard. I am paraphrasing: “Jewish communal professionals are always talking about an ‘engagement problem,’ younger generations just aren’t engaging with the organized Jewish community the way their parents and grandparents did. The truth is, Jews of color don’t have an ‘engagement problem.’ We have a racism problem.”
This truth, “Jews of color have a racism problem,” was not said as a mic drop moment. It was just one of many matter-of-fact statements made that evening. For me, though, it was a clarion. Not because I didn’t believe it to be true (quite the contrary), nor because I’d never thought it before, but because I had never before heard a Jewish communal professional say it so explicitly.
After Kaufman’s prepared remarks, the floor was opened for comments. Several Jews of color from our community here in Baltimore stood up to talk about their own experiences. One woman shared a story about adults being careless with their words around her children (specifically the n word, during a discussion of a book that contained it). The Jewish lens of her appeal hit its mark with me: “We don’t even say God’s name out loud. We know the power of words.”
As the room filled with stories of the indignities JoC have faced at the hands (and words!) of white-skinned Jews like me, I redoubled my commitment to antiracism, especially with a Jewish lens. Following the lead of Ibram Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, I acknowledge that if the heartbeat of racism is denial, the heartbeat of antiracism must be honest confession with a commitment to change.
I have been guilty of the racism Ilana Kaufman calls out in the Jewish community. My freshman year in college, in the dorm room next to mine lived a multiracial Jew from birth. LIke Ilana Kaufman, Brian’s mom was white and Jewish and his dad was African American. He used to wear a ball cap that said “Crazy White Boy.” It confused me, because I had internalized the one-drop rule of black identity. That was probably why he wore it.
Brian didn’t like me, and looking back, I don’t blame him. I was inappropriately familiar with him, assuming friendship where there wasn’t one. Looking back, I’m not sure why I did that. I approached him as if we had something in common because he was black and I was from Randallstown where the majority of my classmates were black (in my graduating class, not my “Gifted & Talented” academic classes, because racism). Did I really think that made us friends?
When I realized that Brian was Jewish, I was as confused as when I first saw his “white boy” hat. I don’t remember precisely what I said to him (it was more than 20 years ago now), but I have no doubt that it was one of the phrases in this article: What not to say to Jews of color. I remember a sort of surprised acknowledgment of his knowledge of Jewish prayers. The microagression that was my surprise and disbelief--and the way it forced him to prove his Jewishness--would have been sufficient to require my confession here, but it gets worse: my dad wasn’t Jewish, either. In other words, racism defined and buttressed my Jewish identity: I felt more entitled to a Jewish identity than Brian because my dad was a white-skinned non-Jew, and his dad was a non-white non-Jew. By every measure, including Jewish education (of which I’d had very little at that point in my life), and according to halacha or Jewish law, Brian and I were equally Jewish. In my mind--and as Kaufman pointed out, in the minds of a majority of the (white) Jewish community, my whiteness made me somehow more authentically Jewish.
Racist ideas are as pernicious as they are destructive. They don’t belong in anyone’s identity. We fight racism with an intentional practice of honesty and self-reflection. We have to slough the judgement and shame inherent in recognizing racism, and realize that we can only fight what we can name and face. I’ve come a long way in my antiracsim since Brian and I lived next door to one another, but I am not, and never will be, done. If you’re reading this, I invite you to think about racism in your own thinking--about your identity or others’. How do your assumptions about race affect the way you interact with others? What are you going to do about it?