Wrestling with Race During the New Year
By Diane Tobin
On Rosh Hashana we are supposed to leave the old year behind. But coming off of a summer that was fraught with racial unrest, instead I suggest that we keep this summer close to our hearts and make 5775 a year that changes the conversation about race in the Jewish community.
Much of the Jewish media coverage of Ferguson linked the current events to the civil rights era, with images of Blacks and Jews marching together. Despite the positive messaging, the underlying implication is that Jews exist only on one side of the “colorline.” Even though the majority of Jewish immigrants to America hailed from Eastern Europe, perpetuating the stereotype that Jews are only white infers that this struggle is about somebody else. It is not.
Although there was talk of a “postracial” America in the wake of the election of a Black president, incidents like Ferguson suggest otherwise. In 1903 WEB Dubois asserted that, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” and that “the secret of social progress is understanding the social forces which move and modify your age.” What are those forces today and how should they inform 21st century Americans?
America is rapidly changing. With taboos around interracial marriage declining, the fastest growing demographic group is mixed-race youth. In his book, “Who’s Afriad of Post Blackness,” Touré makes the case that that there is a profound shift in how post civil rights generations think about race. They take equal rights and integration for granted and enjoy unprecedented agency in defining their identities. A similar analogy can apply to younger generations of Jews. What does this mean for race relations?
It cannot be that the only time Jews reference race is around incidents of gross injustice, while the rest of the time we think the right thing to do is to be pretend to be “colorblind” and not talk about it. When MLK said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin,” he did not mean his children’s identity should be ignored. In Racing to Justice, John Powell asserts that color-blind approaches can render racism “unexamined and intact.”
Our past and current support of civil rights does not absolve us of the responsibility to wrestle with what race means in our lives on a day-to-day basis. Important issues are not resolved by ignoring them. Margaret Heffernan’s book Willful Blindness explains our reluctance to confront uncomfortable facts or situations and our tendency to turn a blind eye in order to feel safe and to avoid conflict.
Jewish tradition does not shy from discomfort. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac that we read on Rosh Hashana is a very troubling family drama. We put it front and center to wrestle with and contemplate. Our tradition does not wrap up complexity with pat answers. Dealing with the complexity of race often means dealing with disquieting realities. Sitting with the real challenges that race and diversity bring up is a very Jewish New Year thing to do.
There is no right way to begin grappling with race. The best advice is simply to start. Here are a few things you can do this year, in addition to reading some of the excellent books mentioned above, to begin to gain comfort with and better understand race in America.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s astute observations about race make Americanah a must read book. Somewhat autobiographical, her young Nigerian protagonist has a blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” Another recommendation is The Wedding, a classic written by Dorothy West, one of the last surviving members of the Harlem Renaissance, which provides a fascinating glimpse into affluent black society in Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s.
There are some wonderful books for children that open up the possibilities for conversation including Carolivia Herron’s delightful Nappy Hair, the subject of controversy when a 3rd grade teacher was under fire by the school board for using the book to educate her students about racial tolerance. Jack Ezra Keats’ The Snowy Day, a 1963 Caldecott Medal winner, is the first picture book to feature a young black hero. Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou and illustrated by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, creates a place where everybody can experience his or her own fearlessness. Their particular and universal messages help open up ways to understand race as part of humanity.
There is a broad array of new news outlets that can provide distinctly different points of view. NPR’s Code Switch features stories by a team of journalists fascinated by the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting. Check out columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, who writes about culture, politics, and social issues. Practice active listening and explore the what and why of their view points and how they irritate or enlighten.
Along with traditional memoirs, film and other media provide excellent vehicles to discuss race. Norris, the first African-American female host for NPR, fosters candid dialogue with The Race Card Project. Like Norris’ memoir about a painful family past, Lacey Schwartz’ film Little White Lie, currently at film festivals and on PBS this spring, dares to ask questions about her racial identity and family secrets in her deeply personal and riveting documentary, raising larger questions for us all.
Americans have become great culinary adventurers and food can be a good way to expand your experience. The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden is a treasure that not only has recipes but tells the history of Jewish food. Michael “Kosher Soul” Twitty explores the culinary traditions of Africa, African America and the African Diaspora. You can bring the food and the stories to your Rosh Hashana table.
Moving beyond Jewish and Black means knowing a little about the complex racial and ethnic make-up that is both our ancient legacy and modern Jewish reality. An increasing number of Jewish families are multicultural. How we talk about and deal with race carry implications for the Jewish future and builds on a multi-cultural past. There were centuries of Jewish experience in Ethiopia and India before there were shtetels in Poland. The legacies of these communities are as valuable and instructive as any others; there is no single story that encapsulates the range of experiences of diverse Jews. These High Holidays, as we engage in Cheshbon Nefesh or “accounting of the soul” – to transform ourselves into the people we want to be – push your understanding of Jewish and race.
photos courtesy Be’chol Lashon