Miriam Messinger and daughter, Amani Hayes-Messinger speaking at HBT MLK Shabbat 2014
I am nervous today. Mostly because some of my family is sitting in the sanctuary. I’m not nervous because they are those to whom I hold myself most accountable around issues of race and living responsibly as a white person in the United States, although I do. I am more nervous because I have spent the last 2 months supporting Amani as she wrote her college and scholarship essays and I am humbled because she is a much better writer than I.
I will try to use other gifts as I share with you, as I don’t have the same way with words that my daughter and wife have.
I am also nervous because this is something about which I care passionately When I bring it here to Hillel B’nai Torah I must do so in a way that pushes us to think about how each of us is implicated in the systems of inequality. And I must also consider the ways in which I have not done enough at HBT over the 12 years I have called this one of my communities. Even in this sentence, you might hear a strain — I struggle to even say “my community” as it is not a place that either represents all of who I and my family are nor where I can be sure that others are thinking about race in ways that make us safer.
There is much to say about race and racism in America. I will take a narrow slice of that today. Racism is nothing if not personal….and political. I will start with the personal.
This summer, my world exploded anew around racism during the trial and after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in what I still call the murder of Trayvon Martin. I worried more actively for my son. I was devastated by the message, not new yet painfully clear that, black male lives are of little value to us as a society. I struggled with how to be a real ally to my spouse knowing that as painful as it was for me, it was still different. And I failed a few times in that goal.
What I came to as 3 critical steps for me to take in the days after the acquittal were:
- To talk with white parents of white children
- To talk to white progressives who still didn’t get it in a way such that it changed how they lived; and
- To confront my fear of being truly angry and holding white people accountable, particularly those who are close to me.
So, without worrying if it was exactly right, I wrote and sent the following email to my family of origin and I share it today with you.
I really appreciated your calls and emails after the Marathon bombing and was hurt and upset not to hear directly from anyone in our family last week. The killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal is much scarier to me [than the bombing] as it represents something so much more insidious and possible, and personally dangerous.
It is a shitty moment to be a parent of a black or brown boy.
The verdict in the Zimmerman trial was like a swift kick to the gut. And I am not feeling very optimistic this week about America.
I felt jolted and hurt over the last few days knowing that what has always been in the US is being bronze-plated by the legal system. We have said it’s okay to shoot first and gather your story later if you are white and shooting someone black.*
Institutional racism is harsh and pervasive and yet systems are made up of individuals. With some of you, I began a conversation about 20 years ago, as Felicia and I were first thinking about kids, about what it means to not only consider oneself progressive but to make change in ones own life and to think about what it means to have a child of color in your family as your niece, nephew, cousin, grandchild. I don’t feel that those conversations or 25 years of having black people in your family have made a real difference.
I appreciated Giulianna’s posts this week and how she is hosting a conversation amongst white friends, even when I disagreed with the content. And I know that many of you have been processing the news of the country in one way or another. I am not saying you aren’t and yet I would be remiss if I didn’t push harder. Boys of color are expendable in this country. A few of them are related to you. My wish is that you feel like all of them are your family and that the pain is truly your pain and more than a political perspective.
We are all Zimmerman and [we are all] the white women on the jury in some way. As one of my colleagues stated this week: this is the most clarion call in 50 years for white people to reject white supremacy. What can you do?
I’ve listed some things below but mostly I wanted to let you know how I feel.
Please do more, change more, talk to people you haven’t, read things you don’t usually (there is perspective beyond the Nation, NYT and moveon.org), ask how you’ve benefited from privilege today, explain systems to your kids, talk to your kids about this case, undermine the ALEC work, challenge stand your ground and other racist laws.
Make my family (and the broader world) know through your actions that you are a part of the change.
All white people have the choice about when to take our blinders off. Keeping them on may feel less risky but the long-term result is not healthy for any of us.
Let Rami and all the others know you care. Don’t offer opinions. Just find the young black men—let them know they are seen, loved and supported.
There are things I am reading, doing and/or encourage others to do.
- I created space at work to stop, talk, examine how this is our work and what we might do differently today. We wrote about it on our blog.
- Talked to friends, especially white friends, especially parents of white kids—asking how they are talking to their kids, assuring them that their conversation is easier than the ones we have with Rami, sharing that I believe not to talk is to propagate the supremacy.
- Take the implicit bias test and see where you need to do work and how you can replace the media’s stereotyped images of black men with ones of your friends, your cousin/nephew/grandson, your brother in law doing their everyday things. Check out Maya Wiley on how implicit bias works and how it affected the case.
- Talk to your kids about how you are in learning mode and that constant learning is the only way out of this mess.
- Read people and places you don’t usually—go beyond the Nation and the NYT and moveon.org. Try Robin DJ Kelley, or Color of Change or dangerous black girl or Maya Wiley or Melissa Harris-Perry or Akaya Winwood who wrote a piece about turning to our young people of color to lead us forward.
I share this as a window into one person’s way of taking on racism in everyday ways and as an opening to ask some questions
I am curious to hear from a few people the extent to which the issues of systemic racism I address are new to you.
To the extent that you are aware, and the issues do not feel new, do you see yourself as afraid to address these issues? What makes you afraid?
As we sang at the chanting service here last week, Samuch Libo lo yira — “when my heart receives support, I have no fear”
Support each other and your hearts so you will have less fear as you choose to take on new work.
To paraphrase Audre Lorde—your silence (fear) will not protect you. What else might you do?
We at HBT are farther along than some Jewish communities--that is a starting point and the only reason that my family is here. Some things we have done well:
- Attracted families of color
- Posted a Jews of color poster centrally
- Take on social justice issues in general
- Hosted a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group
- Read “the New Jim Crow”
And yet there is far to go. Some specific problems I have seen or areas for growth:
- The dearth of curriculum on Jews of color—historically or in the present day,
- Resting on our laurels—thinking that having Jews of Color in our membership is enough,
- Interpersonal racism (from a negative interaction with Moreno, to the times Felicia has been invisible in a conversation, to the comment about danger in Roxbury over one Shabbat dinner).
To the extent to which interacting with people of color as full equals is not part of your daily habit, it will show up when you try. But still try. It’s like exercise and many other things—the more you do it, the better you get and the greater the impact.
To understand a little more personally what it means to have your identity questioned, I want to invite you to listen to my favorite congregant.
What I’d like to share with you today relates both to white Jews interacting with Jews of color and white people interacting with people of color in the world.
For me, the most daunting part of being Jewish is the beginning. The introduction. The double take. I will always have to repeat my religion twice. I have gotten used to this. Typically, after the initial shock, the questioner will accept my Judaism or admit defeat and give up on their interrogation. Sometimes I am not so lucky. Sometimes--even though I wear my Jewishness around my neck, literally, in the form of the Star of David or a hamsa, depending on the day--I am still required to defend my identity.
I wrote a poem that explores this idea of defending my identity. It’s called What Are You?
What are you?
Ninety-five percent of the time this is the first question that slips from between those unfamiliar lips framed by that unfamiliar face.
What are you?
What do you mean, what am I?
I am a human, like you too I presume
Oh but, that’s not what you meant right?
Your twisted brain with your confused sense of what it means to be different and what it looks like to be the same.
It asks me “what are you?” like I am the result of a specimen sent from an alternate universe
But no I am not; I am a human just like you
And then, there it comes again
To you it’s just the soft whisper of the wind but to me no
To me it is the rumble of an impending thunderstorm threatening to sweep me off my feet and strip me of all that I am,
Leaving me only with what you think I ought to be.
The question comes loud and clear
Where am I from?
With my exotic hair and my mysterious complexion, darker than the translucency of paper pale skin
I am from Boston.
I know, not what you were looking for either, right?
I didn’t think so, but then
Maybe you should start looking for the truth
Where are my parents from? New York.
I know, I know all the wrong answers.
Well tell me please, what are the right ones?
Because I say, you’re just asking all the wrong questions.
And so you ask again, “Where am I from, really?”
And again I say Boston, though my roots run deep throughout the lands in every corner of this world, because I refuse to conform to the answers you want me to give.
Stop assessing the unknown.
Stop making assumptions.
Stop thinking my skin says it all.
I am not defined by my soft caramel complexion.
I am not a product of my sweet molasses tones.
I am not my skin.
My skin is just a part of me.
I was so happy that my daughter offered to share some of her insight and words today as well. And you can see why I am so proud and why we must do more:
What can we do at HBT? Here are a few items:
- Offer more inclusive images,
- Provide examples in the school and the services that highlight contributions of Jews of color,
- Talk about these issues year-round, not just on MLK weekend and Human Rights Shabbat,
- When you meet a new Jew of color, don’t assume they are a convert or ask for their story (particularly if you are not sharing yours),
- Do an assessment—where do we need to grow in terms of membership, leadership, policies, etc.
- Ask what images and language do we use to fully include Jews of color.
I want to thank the Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN) a place that has been an important home for our family. Some ideas of what we can do are taken from the soon to be released JMN Handbook for Creating Diverse Jewish Communities.
If you are not seeing racism on a daily basis, you are probably not looking very hard. The pervasiveness in 2014 is depressing and makes me wonder about human progress. But the opportunity is that there is much that each of us can do. This is our issue—both out in the world and in the Jewish community.
-On an individual level—read, push yourself, challenge your explicit and implicit biases, and as the announcement on the T says—if you see something, say something; be an ally, especially before you are asked
-On a professional level—ask where you have power and how you can do something differently—in hiring, in challenging assumptions and comments, in creating equitable policy.
-On a systems level—make changes, here at home at HBT, and in the rest of the world.
I will close with a quote from Lilla Watson, an aboriginal leader:
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
* "Yet stand-your-ground laws affect people of different races in significantly different ways. In states that have enacted these laws, "when white shooters kill black victims, 34 percent of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable, while only three percent of deaths are ruled justifiable when the shooter is black and the victim is white." Lots of data about how stand your ground is only magnifying the inequities in acquittals.