July 29, 2009
A Lesson for Jews in Gates’ Arrest?
Did you hear the one about the black Harvard professor who got arrested breaking into his own home? No, this is not a joke. It was the beginning of a Shabbos lunch that left me traumatized.
It’s always the same. I feel safe, comfortable and carefree, and suddenly, punched in the gut, violated, uncomfortable, and all the cares of the world weigh on me. When I feel safe, I feel part of the Jewish community, but when I do not, I feel like an outsider on the outskirts, not fitting in.
My husband and I started speaking out about racism in the Jewish community when a friend asked us to speak at a synagogue in Washington Heights, in my hometown of New York City. As an interracial Jewish couple (my husband is white, I am Dominican), our friend was sure we’d have plenty to say. I wasn’t. But as I started to write about my experiences in Washington Heights (from both white Jews, who thought I was dark and foreign, to Dominicans, who thought I was too light and American), I filled four single-spaced typed pages. I knew from the stories of other Jews of color that this meant I was lucky. I learned still others had been even luckier.
When every inch of my kinky hair is hidden away under a head scarf, people assume there is no one in the room to offend with their racist comments. My husband and I have sat in stunned silence around a Shabbos table. Non-Jews, blacks, Mexicans ... no one was safe, especially not me, a convert with non-Jewish family, a light-skinned Latina with a brown mother and African roots. Even our Jewish real estate broker told my husband and his parents that our new neighborhood would be better because there weren’t many Hispanics. My husband informed her there’d now be one more (me!).
Topics unsafe for the Shabbos table: skin color, class and especially affirmative action, which people have insinuated might be the only reason I got into college. These loaded topics can lead to comments like “Why are they always playing the race card?” and “Jews didn’t use slavery as an excuse never to work again” and “Their cultural values are the reason they can’t get ahead.” When you are the darkest person in a room full of angry white people, your eyes dart for the exit, looking for the best escape.
But something changed recently. When the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Obama’s initial response came up at the Shabbos table, my husband was not silent. He highlighted the issues between people of color and law enforcement. He tried to get everyone to look at the situation from every angle. A conversation that started out, “Doesn’t everyone agree Obama was stupid for speaking out about this case?” changed because of my husband’s input.
The longer we’ve been married, the more my husband has seen racism up close. He has watched me be subjected to routine, tactless interrogations and commentary about my race, my culture and, of course, my hair, in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. By seeing the world through my eyes, he has realized that even he is not without taint from the racism that pollutes us every day in the very air we breathe, no matter how much we fight it. And yes, we must fight it.
My husband’s new thoughts on racism are unwelcome outside of the classrooms we teach in. People have worried aloud that he is a race traitor. (I have been accused of the same for marrying him.) My husband says he has finally learned to really listen to the stories of people of color, especially Jews who are mistaken for the help at Jewish events, who must always defend their Jewishness and who ponder leaving the community altogether because the color of their skin makes things, like dating, harder.
I have been guilty of common mistakes. I didn’t listen wholeheartedly when Jewish friends of color discussed their dating woes. I wondered if they were exaggerating. I made it about me. After all, it hadn’t been harder for me to date in the community. My “exotic” looks drew in Jewish men. My black Jewish friends said that many white Jews dated them for an “exotic” adventure, but ended things with “Well, I can’t marry someone black.”
I couldn’t put myself into their shoes until a white Jewish friend told me point-blank she would “never date a black guy,” because it would kill her grandmother. “What if the black guy were Jewish?” I asked. Silence. She added further thoughts on interracial couples: black and Hispanics are less “jarring” together, as are whites and Asians together. She didn’t realize she was tearing my soul out from my body, telling me my marriage was “jarring,” and people like me should stick to our own kind, that white Jews and black Jews were not the same “kind.”
I wish the conversation had ended there, but like so many white Jewish friends, she began an intimate conversation about how blacks and Hispanics have unsavory cultural values. They assume I will agree with them, and they assure me quickly that as an educated, Hispanic woman, I am a “credit to my race.” I am not one of those people.
“Oh, it’s amazing your English is so good.” Hey, English is my first language. “Oh, you’re so articulate and educated for a Hispanic person.” So articulate and educated, a white college professor accused me of plagiarizing a paper, even consulting my other professors. I guess I didn’t expect to hear the same racist comments from Jews. I knew plenty about racism before becoming Jewish, having made an art of answering stupid questions about my skin color and hair. I just thought Jews were different in this way. I was naïve.
“How can a people that has experienced the Holocaust be so racist?” a young black prospective convert asked me, wringing his hands in total heartbreak. And on a regular basis, a white Jewish friend tells me “You’re too sensitive about race” and “I’m not racist, but…” So I have created a network of Jews of color, of white allies. With them, I know I can safely discuss the latest racist Jewish encounter that has left me raw, exposed, dying from the inside out.
When my husband and I feel safe, we still go out into that scary racist world and teach people (the non-Jews who call all Jews racist, the Jews who call all non-Jews anti-Semitic) about making this world safer for people of every color, every religion, especially our unborn Jewish children. These conversations are always painful, because change starts with getting out of our comfort zone, accepting that “everyone is a little bit racist” and, from there, becoming more sensitive and aware of our own personal biases in a way that will truly change the world.
Aliza Hausman, a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator, blogs daily at Memoirs of a Jewminicana.