Being Black, Brown, & Jewish in 2016
A Reflection on the Pieces of my Pain, Power, & Privilege
Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes about the Two Pockets: “It was said of Reb Simcha Bunem that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam — ‘for my sake the world was created.’ On the other he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer — ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.”
It’s a beautiful dichotomy of self-realization which requires that we live in the tension of the humility and immense power that together comprise our humanity. On the one hand, our lives are both short and fragile and none of us will escape the mortality of this world — from the dust we came, to the dust we will return. On the other, we are invited to stake claim that the universe itself was created for our delight.
But how can people of color truly believe in the latter when being constantly bombarded with reminders of the former? It takes immense energy, reflection, and intentionality to first claim and then reconcile these truths, particularly as of late, for the past few weeks and months and years have been devastating, traumatizing for people of color. As a Jew of color, I am not at peace.
Like anyone else I have many intersecting aspects of my identity, but none have been more relevant than my race. I am black and indigenous American and I have been haunted by the violence that stalks my people, the white supremacy that pursues incessantly in its attempts to undermine my full humanity. Over the past few weeks I have done what I can to process the ongoing trauma of institutional and systemic oppression that is unrelenting and unrepentant. I am tired.
Recently some of my people, the Meskwaki, joined many other Indigenous protectors of land and water in South Dakota in opposition to the pipeline. I was proud, but soon horrified when hired mercenaries unleashed dogs on them. It was reminiscent of Bull Connor’s assault on the black protesters — most of whom were children — in Birmingham in ’63.
Meanwhile, my state of North Carolina has made national news again, this time for the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Charlotte. I do racial equity community organizing in Raleigh, one of the cities that last year was on the short list of locations where 100% of those killed by the police had been black. I work as an educator in rural communities where I pass Confederate flags waving defiantly in the southern breeze; I drive alongside fields where the ghosts of my enslaved ancestors intermingle with the cheap, exploited labor of brown workers. I have cause to fear for my life even when my ability to pass for white in certain spaces affords me an unreliable and inconsistent safety net.
I have to check in regularly with my black and indigenous family members, particularly those without my passing privilege, to ensure that they are safe physically, but also emotionally. Mentally. Spiritually. We can only endure so much before we run the risk of losing parts and pieces of ourselves. It leaves me wondering: do we get those pieces back? Will we be whole again? Will we heal?
I ponder, too, my responsibilities in anti-racist, anti-oppression work. What does it mean for me to be intimately connected to and impacted by this trauma, to choose to speak truth to power, but to know that my blackness — my mere existence — does not confront or threaten the way my father’s does?
In many ways I can blend in, I can hide… until I can’t. Until I am asked, “Wait, what are you?” Until I am run out of a gas station in the rural south because I represent tainted whiteness. Until I’m reminded that I am not wholly this nor wholly that by my own people. It starts to cut, it starts to hurt. But it’s not really about me. It’s about the work, it’s about liberation. It’s about reconciliation for my people, my people who are my soul, my people who are my roots. It’s about constantly fighting racism because racism is constantly fighting us.
A Collective Pain
Research and studies on black and Indigenous people, as well as research on the survivors of the Holocaust and their children, supports that ongoing exposure to trauma can have such a debilitating impact on individuals that it actually begins to alter the chemical make-up of that person. Furthermore, this altered chemistry can be passed down genetically to one’s offspring, such that generations who did not experience the oppression or trauma directly can nevertheless be impacted by it in a physical way.
The psychological impact of being raised by those who have endured such trauma is also relevant, and the ongoing trauma of being a person of color in America only compounds this. In short: it is hazardous to one’s physical, emotional, and mental health to navigate the racist systems of America when you are black or brown. Not only are we at risk for being gunned down because someone failed to deescalate a situation and instead acted out of implicit bias, but black and brown people suffer at higher rates of death related to stroke, heart disease, and cancer. The stress of being in a constant state of anxiety, anxiety that can spike in an instant to outright terror, is killing us in more ways than one.
And yet we resist. We thrive, we invent, we exude our personal power; we live and create and love and critique through our excellence. We come from a long line of survivors and we continue to rise above incredible obstacles. We convene and connect and ground ourselves in love of self, love of culture, love of each other. It is truly a revolutionary act to love oneself in a society committed to the abuse of our bodies and minds.
A Collective Power
Recently I experienced an opportunity to be in a space with a small but powerful group of Jews of color. We were convened by several white-led Jewish organizations committed to wanting to understand how they could do a better job in supporting people of color and being more inclusive of Jews of color in particular.
The experience was as empowering as it was triggering. We entered the space with hope and gratitude, but also trepidation and uncertainty. We endeavored to realize and live out commitments to one another that neither fully captured everyone’s needs nor ensured anyone’s emotional safety or comfort. We engaged in meaningful, imperfect dialogue. We listened. We debated. We interrupted. We apologized. We were Jewish together. We were Jewish apart.
We were willing to come to the table for two days and we remained there, our urgency and entry points and perspectives all different, but with a kind of willingness to learn and grow, to know and do and be better. We taught one another through our lived experiences and our research and we empowered one another through storytelling. It was draining, but I left feeling refreshed.
I’m not sure what the next steps of this experience will be. I networked and connected professionally and personally with the participants — both of color and white — and I look forward to maintaining those relationships. I also grounded myself in the shared pain, hope, excellence, and creativity of those in the group, among us rabbis, filmmakers, writers, educators, and organizers. I know that I will continue to commit myself to repairing the world and that — for me and my people — there is no path to a repaired world that doesn’t include a reckoning with our nation’s sins of genocide, exploitation, and ongoing abuse of black and brown bodies.
I also know that I cannot parse out, disconnect, or otherwise separate my Indigeneity, my blackness, my Jewishness. Society would demand that I attempt to, but I cannot, for I would rip at the seams of my soul; my nefesh would scream out to my ancestors in panic, in desperation. It would not be a step toward healing, toward wholeness, toward a redeemed world.
And so I continue to reflect, to organize, to educate, to lead, and to listen. I will continue to resist oppression through claiming my power, my liberation, my body, and my peace. I may not be whole yet, but I am healing. Even as my heart is breaking, I know I am not broken, and while I may be nothing but dust and ash, it was for my delight that the universe was created.