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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Recap on LimmudNY Session on Racism in the Jewish Community

Everyone knows what overt racism looks like. If they haven't experienced it then it's easy for them to imagine. We've all seen the awful photographs from the civil rights movement. But most people walk through life on a daily basis overlooking the more subtle forms of racism so that's what my husband and I focused on in our discussion of "Racism in the Jewish Community"---the session we led at LimmudNY.

First things first, when you're a person of color being asked "Where are you from?" frequently means "What are you?" I've mentioned this before on the blog. I'm often asked, "Where are you from?" at a Shabbat table but one time, it played out a little differently. When I responded just"New York." The person wasn't satisfied by my answer, they became more and more aggressive until they finally outright asked, "Where are your grandparents from?" This was one of the few times I didn't say, "New York by way of the Dominican Republic" or "New York, where are you from?" I suppose that asking "Where are your grandparents from?" was a nicer way of asking "What are you?" but really, is it anyone's business?

The answer is no. Picture this. A stranger of color walks into a synagogue. They're the only person of color in a crowd of whites. People make the automatic assumption that this person has an interesting story to tell because of skin color. They are dying to run over, and maybe they do, to ask about this person's story. Maybe like me, this person doesn't want to talk about where their grandparents are from but you're still dying to know and so an introduction quickly turns into an interrogation. You don't stop to think that it might be an interrogation, you're just so curious to know this person's story. But what if they don't want to share? What if like me when you ask them "Where are you from?" They answer: New York. Washington Heights. Harlem Hospital. They refuse to take the bait. Maybe, it's a sign that their story, the one YOU want to hear, is not the one they want to tell.

I called this "exotic monkey" syndrome at our session: you see someone exotic, you're drawn to them because of curiosity. But how does that person of color feel about the fact that you're only talking to them because they're strange or weird or different? One guy at LimmudNY put it this way, people assume he has no story to tell because he's just a "generic Jewish white boy." Well, at least, no one asks to touch his hair after the Shabbos meal. I bet he's never been told that his skin color is a lovely shade. Poor generic Jewish white boy gets no love because people think only the "exotic monkey" has something to say. That's not right.

I know I offended more than one person at the talk. "Exotic monkey," a term I thought up during the talk, did not go over well for some. (Someone assured me later that whenever you open your mouth you're likely to offend someone!) I think I was even accused of being an angry minority when I went off on premeditated tangents with stories I used to illustrate several of the points I wanted to make.

So let me get this out right now: I'm not angry. I'm lucky. Even with the pages of documentation I've been able to draw up about the racism I've experienced in the Jewish community (forget the Dominican community or the white American community at large), I know people who have experienced much worst and aren't telling their stories. I hope that I'm able to stand up and speak for them and do their experiences justice.

Look, I have a cute white husband and great white friends who remind me constantly that some of the inappropriate comments people make are not meant to be hurtful and aren't even understood as hurtful by the perpetrator. I try to take a deep breath whenever I feel like I'm being attacked and I try to think about where the person is coming from. Then if I'm able to breathe properly again, I can educate the person. I am really lucky that I can distinguish between one person's actions and the actions of an entire group of people. I'm lucky that I get to guide people on how to THINK about these issues.

In our session, we also talked about how we all live in a world where too many shampoo bottles still say "Normal Hair," an implication that if you can't wash your hair with this junk then your hair (and maybe you) are abnormal. We talked about Asian women getting corrective eyelid surgery to get "white girl" eyes, African American women straightening their hair because they're told Afros are inappropriate in the workplace and the one that hit closer to home, Jewish girls getting nose jobs. We talked about how we breathe in cultural perceptions and turn them on ourselves. And then, of course, we turn them finally on others.

What else do you call it when Orthodox Jews in Washington Heights ask me "Why do Dominicans dress like that--in tight, revealing clothing--don't they like themselves?" And then Dominicans ask me "Why do Jews dress like that--all covered up--don't they like themselves?" People take those cultural perceptions they're breathing in and they use them to judge others...often, unfairly. G-d forbid anyone ever talks to anyone who looks a little different? I know someone people have already thrown up their arms and decided that it's really safer just to stick to your own kind, right?

But it isn't. It isn't safe anywhere. My Dominican friends with straightened hair are going to continue wrinkle their noses and make nasty comments every time they see my hair isn't "done" like theirs. My Jewish friends are going to make comments about the way I'm covering my big hair. In "Color of Jews," the editor writes about how the Ashkenazi Jewish girls are trying to look white while the Sephardic Jewish girls are trying to look Ashkenazi. It seems no one is happy with their lot. Is this racism? Yes, it's in its own insidious form, it's mostly silent but just as deadly. It's all of us trying to live up to some crazy white beauty standard, some crazy standard of what is normal and hurting ourselves and each other in the process.

So don't forget that "interesting" looking person walking into synagogue could be as interesting as the doormat you use to wipe your shoes, maybe you should try talking to that unassuming person next to you to whom you've never even bothered to stay "Hello." If you still can't take your eyes off Mr. Interesting Looking then maybe you should have them over for a meal, ply them with dessert, tell them YOUR story and give them the chance to tell you about where their grandparents are from before you start asking "What are you?"