The Race is On

It’s easy, being white, to assume that racism doesn’t affect me.

(If this is too particular for you, allow me to generalize: It’s easy, being [insert dominant class here], to assume [the associated discrimination] doesn’t affect me.)

In fact, for many, it’s remarkably easy to assume racism doesn’t exist at all.

But the truth is, if we’re really honest with ourselves, it affects us like nothing else.

The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.

Adolf Hitler

I’ve heard Jews called their own race my entire life, and I’ve fought vehemently against the inclusion: Race is not religion, and besides, there are white Jews as well as black Jews, I reasoned, so how could Judaism be its own race?

Then, as my awareness continued to grow, I remained adamant: Judaism =/= race.

Except, perhaps, over the last couple years, I’ve come to concede that perhaps Judaism, being as much a cultural force as a religious one, may actually fall into the category of ethnicity–in fact, for a while, when asked to ponder how I identify ethnically, I’ve begun to say, Ashkenazic, referring to my European Jewish heritage and ancestry.

However, ethnicity still isn’t race, and while at times they do overlap, more appropriately ethnicity is another layering of identity, rather than a substitute for race.

Then, earlier this year, my assertiveness was challenged–with so much force it shattered.

I’ve learned, in many workshops regarding inequality and both legal and social manifestations of bigotry, that when hate crime legislation is in place, people are protected not only if they belong to a protected class, but if they are perceived to belong. Just so, as you’ll soon see why, even though Judaism is not a race, Hitler’s definition still stands today.

* * *

A bit of background: I have few dating apps on my phone, for the fun of conversation, and in my profile picture you can see my Magen David necklace, that is, the “Star of David” that’s come to symbolize Judaism. It’s made for more than a few interesting encounters, and this one–from late April–stands among the most profound.

HIM
Oh you’re Jewish
Some of them are beautiful as is the case here

ME
Excuse me?
“Some of them”?

HIM
Some of the jews

ME
I think that’s a very racists statement. That’s like saying “some Arabs” are beautiful or “some black people” are beautiful. Beauty exists in everybody, and while different people admire different physical attributes, to judge an entire group like that is simply blind, ignorant, and hateful.

HIM
There’s not a single racist cell in this body
But there are certain races who are beautiful
Take the Argentinians the Romanians the Italians
Almost every man is gorgeous
The jews are not necessarily known for their beauty

ME
Then perhaps you should rethink how you say things because to say “some of the Jews are beautiful” implies the rest of them are ugly, and that’s racist. And Jews are an ethnic group, a cultural group, not exactly a racial group either. I’m glad you can parse people out and bin them into groups you seem attractive or not, but that way of thinking is problematic because it’s grounded in the notion that the attributes of a certain group of people–typically white people–are superior to others. And that, my friend, is why saying everything you have said to me makes you racist.

HIM
You are being too politically correct sensitive
Thank you for calling my friend at the end there

ME
No, I’m being realistic. And that, I’m afraid, was sarcasm.

HIM
I still don’t agree with you on calling me racist
My best sex ever was with a rabbi from tel aviv
He was a father of Four children I will never forget him.he was gorgeous
My darling Nathan

ME
Ok, I’ll concede that you might not actually be racist–you seem like someone who might actually favor anti-racist policy–but by subscribing to these thoughts and classifying beauty along racial and ethnic and national lines, you are actively upholding the institutions that perpetuate racism.
And by simply remarking that the best sex you had was with a rabbi further upholds my point. He was not a man to you, he was something exotic–an animal for show and tell, a fond memory, but not a person.

HIM
I don’t care ugh for racists that have nothing better to do

ME
I challenge you to consider the fact that racism is more than the behavior of bigots, a systemic problem that still has a firm hold on our culture. These implicit biases you have for and against different groups is precisely the shadow cell that racism has become.

HIM
You are running ahead [of] your shadow child calm your hormones [sit] down relax and talk to me

ME
I am talking to you–with sound reason and a college degree to back me up. Forgive me if what I say makes you uncomfortable, but that’s how we grow, and if you’re as opposed to racism as you say, then you’d try a litter harder to think outside the box you’ve built for yourself.

HIM
I told you I don’t have a racist bigoted bastard cell in my body
I am beyond your abilities or degrees to aggravate me

ME
Then your definition of racism is too narrow and there is nothing else I can say to you.

HIM
I am a cool cucumber
Please calm down
I can not thumb type as fast as you
Save energy you need to calm down
As you may [not] have realized with all your aggression I have not said a bitter word to you

ME
Yes, you have said nothing bitter to me, but what you did said had a very negative impact on me. First, you imply that while I’m beautiful, others in my family and faith community are not; and then you try to justify that by saying the best sex you had was with a Jew. You may not have intended any of that as an insult, but that is precisely how it felt.

HIM
And I refuse to get angry

ME
Now as I’ve said, if you believe you are against racism, then I implore you to read about implicit biases, microaggressions, and the many ways racism is still alive and strong today.
Or you could continue to be complicit in a system you seem opposed to. So tell me, is it better to be an informed agent of change, or a hypocrite?

HIM
Too many labels and stickers
You can not get [so] worked up against anything and everything in life

ME
I would like to kindly remind you that you were the one who used too many labels.

HIM
Calm down and give me a hug I will never be angry at you it is the youthful rage in you that has come out

ME
And I’m not getting so worked up. I’m simply trying to make an impact that will help the lives of many. I’m trying to make our society more in line with the ideals we offhandedly throw around. I’m trying to change the world, and those who resist that change are precisely those who most need to hear why that change is needed.

[At this point, a friend who I was meeting with arrived, and it was some time later when I went back to my messages.]

HIM
Look babe do you want me to leave you be?
I refuse to go on like this I won’t get angry and you are raging mad it is not fair to you
OK if you want I’ll go kill myself if that would satisfy you and calm your raging hormones
Just say yes and I’ll do it I have nothing to lose
Someone who says something hateful to someone else is being honest someone who for the sake of being politically correct is not saying out loud what he is really thinking is the bigot
Think about it
I bid you peace conserve your energies the world changes but very slowly you won’t be that champion in this life so let it be
Shalom to you I am peaceful
You are still beautiful crazy and excitable but beautiful
Take care kiddo

ME
I would never ask anyone to take any life, let alone their own, and it’s unfortunate for even a moment you thought I was that kind of person.
The belief, even the fact, that the world changes slowly should never be an excuse to be complicit with the systems that disadvantage people based solely upon who they are. It’s easy to “let it be” because then we don’t have to try to change ourselves, we don’t have to recognize our shortcomings, we don’t have to threaten the privileges we have, but I won’t be complicit. I won’t uphold the oppression of others just because it benefits me. That’s morally reprehensible.
If you don’t care to learn, so be it–people, like the world, change slowly, but I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said and keep an open mind that what you think is racism is only a small part of a bigger picture, and that what you’ve said can have consequences beyond what you intended.
Take care and have peace. Hopefully someday you’ll look back on this conversation and realize it was the starting point along a much greater journey.

[His last reply, neither kind nor productive, I will not include here.]

* * *

I share this conversation for many reasons. First, it made me realize that even though I’ve fought against the idea that Jews belong to their own race, it made me realize that facts can only shape a person’s perceived reality when they’re informed; otherwise, people will continue moving in the same direction, perpetuating the same systems. It’s as Newton teaches in his third law: An object in motion, absent a net force, remains in motion.

Second, that day was the first time I really felt the impact of racism on my life personally. I’ve witnessed racism, I’ve seen my friends become victims of prejudice, and even though I had suffered beneath the hand of anti-Semitism in the past, it hadn’t felt like racism. Now, and very clearly, I felt those same biases that are turned against my friends, who how many times have told me guys turn them down because they’re black, or Asian, or Latino; and I could be sympathetic and brush it aside then, but now I can’t.

And finally, as I pushed our dialogue forward, I found myself falling back upon many of the lessons I’ve learned about racism and social change in general. In a way, I don’t just want this post to be entertaining or humorous, or even make the statement that sometimes religious relations are just as challenging (if in different ways, to different degrees) as race relations, but also because–even though he wasn’t listening–I hope you will. Sometimes I reread this just to remind myself what I’m fighting against: This man was a pawn, he was a player in a game he didn’t know he was in, and yes, he was prejudiced and biased, but it falls on us to inform people like that. To teach them that racism, any system of inequality, isn’t perpetuated by the active oppressors who are visibly bigoted, but by the silent passersby who have been trained to think and act in racially-biased ways.

It’s hard to recognize these things, and it’s harder to deal with the cognitive dissonance that discovering our own biases creates, but without having these hard conversations with ourselves, we won’t have these conversations with others, and the world will never change. Yes, that change is slow, but it only continues when we act to help it along.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “The Race is On

  1. Prejudice of any kind is disturbs me, perhaps because I am a Muslim–a word which is often used as a synonym for terrorists these days–and there are times when honestly it seems foolish to think that there will come a day when discrimination will cease to exist completely.

    Then I read things like these written by people like you and I think maybe there is hope for our world afterall.

    • Thank you! It always pains me when I find people who have such negative views of Muslims. I’ve had the fortune to meet many Muslims while in college, and they are often among the kindest, most respectful people I meet. We don’t believe all Christians are members of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan, so we have no right to assume Muslims are all like the extremists portrayed in the media. Hopefully, as we all continue to talk and share our experiences, more people will realize this and we’ll be able to appreciate, rather than fear, our differences.

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s