culture/multiculturalism · education · Hispanics/Latinos · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · race/racism

From Safe to Unsafe and Back Again

Sometimes I think I must be going crazy. Never before in my life have I stumbled across so many well-meaning (and not well-meaning) white people (usually Orthodox Jews) who consider themselves “not racist” but make all manner of racist comments in front of me.

Growing up, I heard racist comments from my family members but I was taught at school, thankfully, that those comments were W-R-O-N-G. No, my Mexican friends did not “sleep with their brothers and sisters” as my mother had explained. No, my other friends’ parents did not ask their children what color their friends were.

Despite what my mother told me, my black friends were not “lazy, ghetto criminals”–especially not Kim who taught me to cartwheel but who was not allowed to come inside my house. I ignored whatever my mother said and I made friends with the black, Asian, Dominican, Mexican, Greek and Arab children who went to my public elementary school. When family members and friends called me “white girl” for a variety of reasons, I shrugged it off as “their craziness.”

In high school, I was also sheltered. I went to an “anything goes” art high school and my friends were people of every color. We befriended each other and dated interracially without problems. Sure there were those gang members who would fight each other, sometimes just because of racial differences alone, but the rest of us thought they were nuts and made it a point to avoid them. Sure, a (Greek) friend said: “You know, you would be white if it wasn’t for that hair” but that didn’t sting as much as the Dominican guy, who in the midst of asking me out, likened “that hair” to pubes.

College was…shocking. Immediately, I was ostracized by the Hispanic kids who had bonded together in a summer program for freshman who needed extra help to be ready for college. I was excluded from the program because my SAT verbal score was too high. The Hispanic kids, even the ones who became my friends, frequently asked me if my father was white because my English was so good (and my Spanish was so bad) and my skin was so “well, white.”

An older, white female professor accused me of plagiarizing a film paper on my favorite movie because it was “too well-written” and she shared her hypothesis with my other professors. A white middle-aged editor on the school newspaper said that my sentence structure was bad because English was not my first language. (I told her English WAS my first language, which I had learned along with Spanish simultaneously from college-educated parents and family members!). When I asked a white scholarship donor (I had a full scholarship) for help finding a job after college because I had recently kidnapped my sister, he told the university that I had tried to “hustle” him for money.

But like in high school, other than some other traumatizing experiences I haven’t listed here, in college, I was surrounded by friends of every color–black, Asian, white/Jewish from middle-class to working class and impoverished immigrant backgrounds, who never made racist comments around me. Things were usually okay as long as we didn’t talk about affirmative action (with the Jewish friends) or my hair (with the Asian and black friends).

But now that everyday racism has become a part of my life as a Jew, as part of an interracial couple, I am trying to read as much as I can from people who know much more about dealing with the subject. Sometimes, I am simply looking for affirmation–thank G-d, there are other people who deal with this! Sometimes, I am looking for ways on how to cope–I’ve made friends and joined many support groups with other Jews of color and white Jewish allies.

And every now and again, I’m trying to figure out what my place is. I have so many questions. How can I educate my friends, my family members, my acquaintances, and myself when I’m still so horrified, so shocked and raw, from the awful things I hear them say? How can I educate myself when I worry that the constant racism and insensitivity about racism I experience from white Orthodox Jews (and once or twice from other Jews of color) is making me racist and wary of my ability to maintain friendships in the community?

How can I raise my future mixed race children in this community and set them up to face these same obstacles or more–unchecked hostility in day schools or in the shidduch dating process against converts AND people of color? How can I raise them in a community I don’t always feel safe in? How can I raise them among friends who express that they think I am a “credit to my race” or that believe I became Jewish to get away from the terrible values of Hispanic and black culture?

How can I get my readers to understand that I am not being attacked by crazy strangers or even blatantly racist people but from friends, family members and acquaintances who believe they are, indeed, “not racist”?

A friend of mine who is an African-American convert recently gave a talk to white Jews about Jews of color. At the end of the speech, one of the white Jews in the audience asked, “What’s a Jew of color?” He realized then that he started at the wrong place. Perhaps, the talks my husband and I give on racism also start at the wrong place. We begin by pointing out stereotypes instead of defining racism and thereby erroneously assuming that everyone in the room has the same definition of racism.

From Chapter One: “Rethinking Racism” in “Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide” by Barbara Trepganier, a self-described well-meaning white woman, antiracist activist and sociologist. Her audience for this book is other well-meaning white people.

Silent racism—the racist thoughts, images and assumptions in the minds of white people, including those that by most accounts are “not racist”—is dangerous precisely because it is perceived as harmless.

Definitions of racism:

White Americans and people of color in this country different significantly in their definitions of racism (Blauner 1994). Most whites think in terms of the oppositional categories “racist” and “not racist.” Whites in the “racist” category are defined as disliking or hating blacks and other minorities, and their animosity is portrayed in acts or statements that are blatanly racist (Jaynes and Williams 1989). The white definition of racism is problematic because it does not recognize racism unless it is blatant and/or intended; neither does it acknowledge institutional racism.

Furthermore, the view overlooks subtle forms of racism that have emerged since the civil rights movement and that are color blind; that is, forms of racism expressed in nonracial terms that are not obviously race-identified. The white definition of racism also ignores acts of everyday racism: routine actions that often are not recognized by the actor as racist but that uphold the racial status quo (Essed 1991).
For example, black women report that whites often seem surprised to find that a black person has a college degree or is a professional. This form of everyday racism—marginalization—is based in the white assumption that blacks are not educated or successful. Ignoring racism that is not hateful and intentional effectively hides the fact that white people daily perform acts of everday racism.

Two assumptions underpin the view that white people are either “racist” or “not racist.” First, most whites assume that racism is hateful; and second, most whites believe that racism is a rare occurrence. These assumptions–that racism is hateful and rare—deny that racism today is often unintended and routine.

In contrast to the white definition of racism, data shows that blacks and other people of color see racism as permeating the institutions of society, producing racial inequality in employment, education, housing and justice (Blauner 1994; Bonilla-Silva 2003; Feagin 2001).

Rethinking racism entails rethinking the language we used to talk and to think about racism. Changing the oppositional categories “racist” and “not racist” to a continuum ranging from “more racist” to “less racist” would more accurately depict racism because it would encompass blatant racism (Essed 1991) that is concealed in the “not racist” category.

The oppositional categories in our language today hide subtle acts of racism, especially from the actors performing them, primarily because the “not racist” category implies that no harm is done. At times, everyday racism is not hateful, and it is often not intentional. And yet, everyday racism contributes to the production of institutional racism, which produces negative effects for minorities.
An important function of the racism continuum would be to portray white people as racist in varying degrees, eliminating the false notion in the minds of most white people that they are not at all racist. The change to a continuum would lessen the importance of whether people intend to be racist and focus instead on the racist effects of their actions.

More Racist Moderately Racist Less Racist

Race Hatred Colorblind Racism Silent Racism
About her study for her book, “Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide”, Barbara Trepagnier says in Glamour Magazine (October 2008).
“It’s not talked about; we’re scared to death of racial controversy. In my study, I found that whether you are racist is about how aware you are of the concerns that people of other races have. So we need to stop wondering, ‘Am I racist? Oh, G-d, no, I couldn’t be’ and ask how aware we are.”
Questions? Get the book!

11 thoughts on “From Safe to Unsafe and Back Again

  1. My mother told me a story about my grandmother. Now, I'm not sure when the following occurred, but given my grandmother's date of birth, etc., it would have been about 1945, give or take a few years.

    She was working as a nurse at the hospital, and one day, she was schmoozing with one one of her fellow nurses, who happened to be black. They were talking about where they went to school, and my grandmother said she went to X, the nursing school nearest that hospital they were working in. The black nurse said she went to a different nursing school, Y. My grandmother asked, in all innocence, “Oh, why did go to Y? X is so much closer!”

    The black nurse looked at my grandmother like she was an idiot. You see, blacks were not allowed to learn at X, but my grandmother was not only devoid of any racism herself, but she couldn't even conceive of anyone else being racist either. Thus, she was quite oblivious to the phenomenon of racially-segregated schooling.

    Now, I'm not saying this is altogether good. After all, non-racists cannot fight racism if they (the non-racists) are oblivious to the existence of racists (as my grandmother was). But it does show that my grandmother was a non-racist if there ever was one, and so I have good lineage. 😉


  2. Email from a reader: “Aliza, It isn't only black Jews who are getting it. Add to your list Sephardi Jews (you can't imagine what goes on in Israel) Breslovers, Lubavitchers, working people (discriminated against in school admission even access to housing in some places) etc etc. Yes, we are narrow minded, bigoted (I've heard that Obama muslim socialist crap more times than I'd like to say and I supported him in the election (one of two people in my community). Better than maniacal McCain, a man with some serious challenges in the mental health dept) crooked, vulgar, materialistic, etc etc etc.
    We Jews have a long way to go–take note Mashiach is NOT here. , Dont judge Judaism by the Jews but dont forget, we've got some good guys too and some good qualities–charitable, equitable, we don't do female circumcision, the folks in Passaic are standing up to child sexual abuse, There is some light here too.”


  3. Racism doesn't equal discrimination, though they're equally terrible. I think there is discrimination against Breslovers & Lubavitchers, but not racism.
    I don't understand why the author suggests that only white people are racist though. Maybe it just sounds that way from that small excerpt. I know plenty of Black, Hispanic & Native Americans who are as racist as anyone.
    One thing I've noticed specifically about older Jews-usually Holocaust survivors-is that some say derogatory things about ALL 'goyim', across the board. They say goy as a distasteful word, when it's real meaning is “nation/nationality”-which is beautiful. Their reason for equal-opportunity racism is simple. As one Auschwitz survivor told me, “None of them said a word when my family was burning up in the crematories so don't expect me to care about them.” Understandably, many Jews feel that the whole world is against them and wants to see them dead, and they're right to an extent. Unfortunately, I've seen that attitude get passed onto the younger American Jewish population which is unexcusable because the kids haven't had traumatizing anti-Semetic experiences.
    I also notice that Jews raised in mostly insular Jewish (not necessarily religious) environments just don't seem to relate to non-Jews as people the same way they do their Jewish community. That is what bothers me the most. WAY too many Jews seem oblivious to the fact that people are people and we're all G-d's children.


  4. Yeah, I think most people of color will find a lot of the stuff in the book repetitious and obvious. Especially illuminating for me was how she dissects the interviews she has with white women for her study. You hear everything from “why don't black people go back to Africa? i mean, if America's so hostile, maybe they would be treated better there? I mean, they're African so African people would like them” (said in a totally rational, pleading tone by one white woman). I've had conversations like these with friends but the friendship usually hasn't survived comments like these or the other types she details in the books. Perhaps they were as well-meaning as this poor woman but I just don't have the energy or patience to educate my friends when I hear this kind of stuff.


  5. Wow. I guess I thought everybody knows that ALL Americans are racist – we're taught “race” as a category from so early on that it totally permeates everything.

    That's a good book to know about, thanks.

    And sorry for all the awful experiences you're having. I have a hard enough time stomaching the Orthodox attitude to converts (and women) in general, let alone adding in race.


  6. Of course not all. And I could see how it might be tougher in a Conservative shul, where they don't necessarily have the whole “but of COURSE being Jewish is better than anything else so of COURSE everyone would want to convert once they know about it” thing going on.

    I tend to hang out with Orthos online, only, so I no doubt have a skewed view.


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