I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Many others have, too, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal – but I’ve also heard plenty of people saying it’s “not about race,” suggesting that the death of Trayvon Martin, and Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, comes down to guns, laws, confusing jury instructions, prosecution not making their case, and so on.
But let’s be honest – it’s a lot about race.
I am a white woman, born in 1964 in Jackson, MS. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, attended private schools for most of my education, and worshipped at the local synagogue where, at that time, all the members were white.
I didn’t question my insular upbringing or privilege; my parents owned a restaurant, and worked long, hard hours to provide for us. But lately, I have considered this: if I had been born into an African American family, same year, same city - what would my childhood have been like? And framed by those experiences, what would my adult life look like now?
How can I possibly know? Do I even live in the same United States as Charles M. Blow, a columnist and parent of black sons, who wrote in the New York Times recently: “As a parent… I am left with the question ‘Now, what do I tell my boys?’ We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?”
Reading that, I think I don’t live in the same United States. I get to live in a society where I don’t have to tell my kids how to walk home safely, because of how they look to others. I don’t have to fear immediate judgments being made about me, or my children, based on the color of our skin. Because I am white. Yes, I am in the minority because I am Jewish, but unless I’m wearing a Star of David, no one sees my Jewishness when I walk down the street. So how can I relate?
I recalled a movie I had seen some twenty-odd years ago. I couldn’t recall the title at first, but then I found it, and the lines I was trying to remember (thank you, Google). The movie’s title is Soul Man. It came out in 1986, with C. Thomas Howell in the role of Mark, a white student who poses as an African American to receive a full scholarship to Harvard. James Earl Jones played the role of Mark’s professor and when the deception finally was revealed, Mark and Professor Banks engaged in the following dialogue:
Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.
That awareness is key: it’s not the same.
We need to acknowledge this, and we all need to learn more. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued the following statement after the Zimmerman verdict: “There are serious, unresolved issues of race in our country, and this trial underscored the need to explore these issues more fully. Hopefully, the debate concerning the justice of the verdict in the Zimmerman case will inspire a continued much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
There is hope – now, and in decades past. In a glimmer of light this week, NPR featured this story of photographer Joseph Crachiola and a photograph he took 40 years ago in Detroit, of two white children and three black children, clearly friends, in a neighborhood known then (and now) as “racially divided.” The photo I’m sharing again here, in this blog. A photo of friendship. A reminder that we can find connections, and bridge the divide. We are not born divided.
But none of us can do it alone. We need to talk to each other.
Jackson 2000 is an organization here in Mississippi dedicated to bringing the community together in the Jackson metropolitan area by promoting racial harmony through dialogue and understanding, facilitates “Dialogue Circles”– groups of people who commit to a 6 week series of facilitated meetings to meaningfully engage on issues related to race and community. No one is naïve enough to think that 6 weeks of conversation will solve all the problems/issues/inequities that exist, but these conversations, and just as importantly, these connections, help us all move forward, together.
And maybe someday, we will all live in the same country, where all of our children are safe.
“Jews are dogs, killers of Christ!”
The shouts came from an irate woman as I was walking into one of our Southern congregations for Shabbat. At first, I could not make out what she was saying. Then, it became clear:
“Jews are dogs! Killers of Christ!”
She began to quote some scripture, which implied that our Jewish spiritual path is the path of sinners and we are either the devil or a slave to him. In either case, it was clear – to her – that we were destined for hell. Feeling accosted, I debated whether or not I should respond. For the sake of our people and our rich Jewish heritage, eventually I decided in the affirmative. After all, we’re no push-overs! I yelled back:
“Hey, if you’re going to quote scripture, why not ‘love your neighbor as yourself’’?! Surely, it’s a better representation of Jesus the JEW’s theology!”
She mumbled something profane and continued on her way.
I called after her with the departing words: “May God bless you!”
Moments of misunderstanding like this are too common, even today. In fact, leaving this moment, I walked into the congregation and right into another moment of misunderstanding: a member of the congregation, a concerned father, approached me with this story:
“My daughter came home with this certificate from her public school volleyball team. See! There’s her picture next to the verse: ‘I can do all through Christ, who strengthens me.’ Rabbi, what are we to do?”
His frustrations, like mine a moment ago, were palpable. In such moments of misunderstanding, we feel horrified, as if we are the butt of someone’s awful joke, victims of someone’s senseless act of violence. And, in such moments, we may desire retribution, seeking to return anger with anger, hurt with hurt, bruise with bruise, hoping then we may feel absolved of our pain.
“But, from my experience,” I explained to this father and a small group of fellow congregants who had gathered around, “there’s no remedy to be found in that course of treatment. For what we are coming face-to-face with is not true anger but ignorance, not deep-seeded hatred but hard-headed-ness. That can’t be fixed by acting in kind. Doing so amounts to little more than the knocking of heads, leaving everyone with headaches! Trust me.”
So, at that moment, I provided this father and others who may be in a similar place with these words of guidance. I suggested not always using these exact words verbatim, but following the general formula, and particularly the caring tone in which they are offered. For they beseech both the individual as well as that greater essence which pervades our lives, the Divine Oneness behind all that is. These are the words I suggested, using the example of the volleyball team picture and my own experiences and perspective:
“I know your inclusion of this text was done with the best of intentions. It is a beautiful sentiment from Paul, as many understand his words to mean: ‘I can do all through God, who strengthens me.’ In fact, if that was all it said, without the citation of Philippians 4:13, there would be much less cause for concern.
However, please understand, when prayers are given from a specifically Christian lens (i.e. “in the name of Jesus we pray”), when Bible studies commenced from only Christian sources, when certificates and gym rooms are plastered with quotes from the New Testament, what you are really saying to a valued member of your team, who happens to be of a different faith, is: You are not one of us; you do not belong.
Again, I know that was not your intent. But, honestly, that is how it is being heard. Because, with all due respect to your beliefs, Jews do not believe the Messiah has come yet. Thus, in the case of Jesus, we see him as just another son or man of God, as you and I are. For we all are children of the Father, the Holy One, blessed be God.
Coach, I deeply respect the time and energy you are giving to this team and its members. It reminds me a little of what it was like being a Chaplain in the United States Air Force. And, one of the things I learned there is that the differences of every team member are not a hindrance but an asset, not an obstacle to be overcome towards your goal but a tool to achieve it.
I hope that you will consider my words as you continue on to what I pray will be a great season for the team and every individual member therein. May God continue to bless you as you continue to be a blessing to others.”
In the face of such moments of maltreatment, we may think of sounding the retreat, leaving the front lines of Jewish life for the safe zones of suburbia where large Jewish populations have gathered. While this may seem “safer”, it ultimately puts Judaism in greater jeopardy. For then no one will be left to stand guard and confront these moments with the sensitivity and knowledge needed to halt the advance of ignorance moving towards us and our Jewish brothers and sisters across our country. It is a blessing that we in smaller communities can share: increased awareness, and building bridges with our neighbors.