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On Being Black and White in America

01/05/2017 01:33:07 PM


Rabbi Alan Litwak - July 8, 2016

When I was a rabbinic student, one of my professors taught us that the role of the rabbi is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. In light of the events of this week and the past few weeks, I am feeling deeply those two conflicting responsibilities.
I am a proud American, but I’ve never felt angrier at America. I am a proud American, but I’ve never felt more scared of America. I am a proud American, but I’ve never felt more hurt by America. I am a proud American, but I’ve never been more disappointed in America. I am a proud American, but I’ve never felt sadder for America. I am a proud American, but I’ve never felt more disillusioned with America. I am a proud American, but I’ve never felt less comfortable in America. I am a proud American, but… America, you make that harder and harder to say.
Two more black men - Alton Sterling, Philando Castile - murdered by police. Two more sorrowful hashtags, two more ghastly videos, two more sets of grievous families, two more cities outraged and marching and many more in spirit, two more tragic parallel stories: These were good guys; they had kids; they were doing nothing wrong but being black. Their awful deaths prove, one more awful time, that our system is broken, that some of our police are no better than domestic terrorists.
And then, last night. Five police officers dead. Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. These too were good guys; they had kids; they were doing what they have been sworn to do. Upholding order; maintaining the law; serving the public.
The fact is that on the outside they might be black or they might be white; but in death, they are all one color.
On Sunday, I will be with my friend, Bishop Victor T. Curry at New Birth Baptist Church. On Sunday, I will try to comfort the disturbed. It is my task to speak, as inadequate as it feels. What am I to say to my sisters & brothers of color? I see you. I hear you.
I share your pain and anger and fear and frustration. I will work with you relentlessly to challenge the racism and end police violence.
But, tonight, I am standing here. Tonight, I need to disturb the comfortable. Earlier this week, I enjoyed four days of visiting some of our Temple Sinai partners in the Berkshires. I went to two concerts at Tanglewood. I went to dinner at the Pittsfield Country Club. It was wonderful, and it was lily white. Sitting with the Druckers, I
commented how few blacks I saw in the audience. Terry told me a sad story about her own housekeeper who used to come with them to the Berkshires. One night, after several days of concerts, her housekeeper – whose name I wish I knew – told Terry that she did not want to attend the concerts anymore, because she felt so alone, being one of the only black people in attendance.
When we — specifically white people — behave or talk as if racism no longer exists, or as if it has nothing to do with us, we are not just proving ourselves deeply and stubbornly ignorant about the continued realities of structural racism, about the legacies of violence and discrimination that still pump through our hearts and bank accounts, but we neglect the 40 million black people who are as American as you and I. We condone the violence they are confronting. We collude in their suffering.
What do we say to the next generation? What do we say to our own children? Are we worthy of them? Are we creating a world that conspires to make them moral citizens or moral sleepwalkers?
My daughter is going off to college. She has been driving for two years. In the words of Courtney Martin, a columnist for the online blog On Being, here’s a conversation that I never imagined needing to have with my daughters:
If you get stopped by a police officer, do whatever the man in uniform says. Do not make eye contact. Do not raise your voice. Do not reach into your pockets. Do not defend yourself. Do not resist. Pray that someone records footage of the interaction. And, while you might do all of these things, you still might not be protected.
Instead, I need to have some version of this conversation with my children for the rest of our lives:
As a white child, you are afforded a range of privileges and protections that children of color are not afforded and it’s important for you to recognize this and actively work to change it. This is deeply and historically rooted. This country was founded, yes on optimism and pluralism, but also on slave labor, exploitation, violence, dehumanization. Don’t get bogged down in the guilt or shame of this history, but know it. Your story, our story as a Jewish people, is a part of that.
The only way to “move on” from that reality is to never “move on.” This afternoon, I met with one of my conversion students, a black woman who educated me about what it means to spend a lifetime thinking about her own skin color and how it affects the way she is able to walk through the world. Just as she spends that lifetime thinking about it, you are walking through the world, this country, this city, these streets, as a white person.
Make it a part of your daily consciousness even when it seems tiring and burdensome (this is not a choice for people of color, nor is it for you). Commit to interrogating the
privileges that you inherit and constantly look for creative ways to subvert hierarchies, redistribute power, connect the unconnected.
Understand that this is not about being a “good white person.” This is about being brave and convicted and imperfect and tireless and loving and devastated and sometimes feeling dumb about how to make change and taking it personally. You are not above bias and racism. Apologize when you say or do something racist. Shut up and ask questions.
Make real friends who will push you and hold you accountable. Push and hold other white people accountable. Push and hold our leadership accountable. Push and hold our country accountable.
Then, and only then, can you stand up and say, “I am a proud American.”

Thu, October 24 2019 25 Tishrei 5780