Reframing Privilege

December 24, 2013

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 


Shave for the Brave: My Pledge

December 14, 2013
Sammy Sommers z"l

Sammy Sommers z”l

When someone dies, we say, “May his (or her) memory be for a blessing.” Sometimes we mean that we hope that the family and friends will be comforted by good memories, that the person will be long remembered, and so on. But it can mean a lot more than that.

“May his memory be for a blessing” can mean “May he leave a legacy of blessing.” In Jewish terms, that might be the very best thing that you can wish for a person, that long after they are gone, the goodness of their lives will go on doing good in the world.

A little boy died this past Saturday morning. He was only 8. He had a short life, and there were many things he never got to do. The unfairness and the sadness of it is heartbreaking. Sammy Sommers‘ life was cut short by leukemia and he will never … I can’t bear to make the list, but make it for yourself. What good things have happened to you since you were eight years old?

Sammy leaves a legacy of love already – his sweetness and that of his family have touched a lot of people. But some of us who are heartbroken for him and for his parents would like to do more. We’d like to leave a legacy to bless all the other Sammies, children who will be diagnosed with one of these terrible diseases and who face a limited set of treatment options. We want to raise at least $180,000 for research to give them more and better treatment options.

I’ve already posted once about this: I’m one of 36 rabbis who will shave our heads on March 31 to raise money for pediatric cancer research in Sammy’s memory.  Our joint goal is $180,000. My personal goal is 1/36 of that, $5,000.

My total has been stuck at $878 for a few days. I’m very grateful to those who have donated thus far, but I intend to make my goal, so I’m saying here and now: I will shave my head March 31, and I will not let it grow back until I have raised $5,000.  

So now, take your mouse, CLICK ON THIS LINK and donate $5, or $10, or $50, or $100 to pediatric cancer research through St. Baldrick’s. If you don’t have a credit card, don’t worry, they’ll take a check. If you really can’t afford $5, or if you’d like to do more than donate, pass this link along to someone else. But please, do something.

Too many children die of cancer. Too many families suffer as the Sommers family is suffering. We can do something about this, in Sammy’s memory.

Please.


Frequently Asked Question

November 29, 2013

image

Some people ask if the Coffee Shop Rabbi has a favorite coffee shop. This is it: Cafe Sorriso in San Leandro, CA. The Vietnamese coffee is jet fuel, the atmosphere is mellow,and they serve killer won ton soup. Best of all, my little friend Gabi can keep me company if we sit on the porch.

The East Bay is home to many great coffee shops. This is just a personal favorite.


A Pre-Thanksgiving Treat

November 26, 2013
A deep-fried turkey.

A deep-fried turkey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kitchens around the country are warming up: Thanksgiving is coming. Chanukah is coming.

(Deep-fried turkey, anyone?)

Around some tables, there will be talk about Pilgrims and Indians. And around some tables, we might talk about our ancestors and Thanksgivings past. Perhaps at some tables (I hope!) there will be conversations about the unique relationship between the United States and its Jews, and about what Chanukah might mean here. And here’s another view of the Thanksgiving holiday, shared by Michael Twitty (@KosherSoul) an expert on the foods and lives of enslaved African Americans.

If you are about to click away nervously, thinking that you don’t want a load of guilt dumped on you — don’t. Really. Mr. Twitty is not about guilt. He is about enlightenment and education, and fascinating facts.

Read and enjoy: An African American Thanksgiving Primer


The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 2

November 18, 2013

I read a great blog post on PunkTorah.org last week on the issue of Jewish legitimacy. Rabbi Patrick Aleph held an event at OneShul in Atlanta where they wrestled with the idea of Jewish legitimacy, and it emerged that each individual felt that he or she lacked legitimacy relative to “everyone else.” Rabbi Aleph concluded:

The bottom line is simple: we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life. We are terrified that someone is going to call us out for doing things wrong, that for some of us it’s easier to hide in the corner and do nothing.

But I’m here to tell you something: hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die.

This was the point at which the lightbulb went on over my head; I have become a rather stubborn cuss when it comes to my legitimacy as a Jew, but I’ve struggled with legitimacy and disability. Now I see that they are the same issue: it’s the old “I’m not worthy” thing, the fear of being called out as a fraud.

I feel legitimate as a Jew, even though I am aware that there are Jews in the world who would disagree. I am not disturbed by that, because when the question comes up, my mind immediately produces evidence of my legitimacy: I think of the rabbi who oversaw my conversion, and certainly I see him as legitimate! I have studied Hebrew, lived in Israel, observed countless mitzvot. I feel legitimate as a Jew, because I am part of a Jewish community. I get feedback from fellow Jews that I’m the real deal enough of the time that I can  discount the ones who don’t agree.

But there was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece.

A supervisor at one of my internships in rabbinical school asked me about my conversion and then indicated that he didn’t recognize it. I went back to my school and asked for guidance. My teachers there bristled to my defense. They saw me as legitimate and saw him as an outsider who was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Their response said to me, “Yes, you’re the real deal. Now act like it.”

Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. They need to hear about it when they do something well, whether it is saying a blessing or helping to set up chairs.

And for me, I need to accept the fact of being a person with disabilities, and continue to build relationships with other people who identify as disabled. My dear friend and study partner in school is deaf, and she was the first to say to me, look, ask for the accommodations you need! Initially I was not sure about this, but her reassurance that she saw me as having legitimate needs helped me to ask for things I needed. Later, another colleague whose disability I recognized as “real” asked me why on earth I didn’t have a handicap placard for the car, when I obviously needed one – and she was right, and I finally accepted it from my doctor.

There will always be critics. But why pay any attention to the jerk at Home Depot who sees me on my scooter and says I wouldn’t need it if I lost 50 lbs? Why am I giving him so much authority? Why give some busybody self-appointed expert the authority to shame me? Because the words are his, but the shame is mine. I can accept it, or I can reject it. It’s just that rejecting shame requires resources: I have to own my situation, and know that my community sees me a particular way to have the gumption say “phooey” to the ignoramus.

The enemy is shame. The cure is community – loving, supportive community, that knows the importance of nurturing the newbies and the shaken.

Hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Part 3 tomorrow.


The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 1

November 17, 2013
On my scooter.

On my scooter.

When I applied to rabbinical school in 2001, they told me to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam.) On the opening screens of the test, it asked demographic questions, including a question about disabilities. I had never used that word to describe myself, and I started to click past. Then I remembered: oh yeah, the learning specialist I saw made me go see an audiologist, and I’m hard of hearing.  OK, I’ll click that.

And as my eye moved on, I realized with shock that I had other boxes to click. Learning disabilities? Uh, yes. That was why I’d seen the learning specialist. Mobility problems? I eyed the cane propped against my chair. Yeah, I guess. I quit reading and clicked to the next screen, where it fed me back my demographic info, including the words “multiple disabilities.” I felt queasy, clicked past, and shoved the whole thing out of my mind to take the test.

That was the first time I admitted to having ONE disability, and I will admit now that I read “multiple disabilities” as “object of pity” which I had no intention of being.  I spent the next year proving I could keep up with my twenty-years-younger peers, in class and out, and by the end of the year I was on antidepressants (for one of the other little issues I hadn’t mentioned) and my body was a wreck. I was deep into chronic pain territory, and determined to deny everything.

Because, you see, I had two problems with this multiple disability thing: first, I looked down on disability, so I couldn’t possibly have one (much less lots of ‘em) and secondly, my disabilities weren’t legitimate. Other people had worse disabilities so I couldn’t possibly take up room in that category. Or something.

It was years before I finally owned the category of “disabled,” thanks to the encouragement of friends whose disabilities I regarded as legitimate. Then, and only then, was I willing to take the blue placard the doctor offered me, which has made life so much more manageable. There were more years, and more isolation, before I was willing to step up and get myself a scooter so that I could go places that required more than 10 minutes of walking or standing. And I must confess that to this day, I spend more energy than I should worrying that someone will think I am using the scooter because I’m fat, and they’ll judge me, and — what? I’ll die? I will eventually grow up and quit worrying about that, too, I hope.

So why am I yammering about this on a Jewish blog? To start, Torah covers all  of life: there is no subject about which there is no Torah. I needed to learn to accept the body I’ve got, to regard it as holy, and I’ve made strides in that direction. But even more, there’s this legitimacy thing.  I was hesitant to accept a handicap placard for the car because I didn’t see myself as legitimately needing it. In the same way, I remember my longing for Jewish legitimacy: the thrill when I stepped out of the mikveh, the struggles I had every time someone questioned my legitimacy as a Jew, because no one questioned it more than me. And then eventually I learned the truth: I would be a real Jew when I acted like one.

So here I am, 100% Jewish and definitely disabled. Also fat, lesbian, Southern by birth, Californian by choice. Pretty smart in some subjects, remedial level in others. A work in progress.

I believe that every human being has a spark of the Divine. I have very little trouble believing that, except when it comes to myself.

I gather a lot of people feel that way. So to all of you (and myself) I will say: Wake up! Life is marvelous, terrifying, a gift we have only for a short time. Figure out how to make the most of yours, and do what you can.

As for legitimacy – well, more about that later. I’m on a roll.


The Rabbi and her Green Stamps

November 16, 2013
Remember Green Stamps?

Remember Green Stamps?

Anyone who spends much time with me hears about Green Stamps. Once upon a time, the Sperry & Hutchinson Company printed these stamps.  Back in the 1960’s we received them as a premium at the grocery store and various retailers, and if we saved enough (usually by pasting them in special saver books) then we could trade the Green Stamps for all sorts of goodies: toys, housewares and other loot. I don’t know what happened to Green Stamps, but they are a fine metaphor for one aspect of my life.

I’ve got multiple disabilities: I have hearing problems, I am prone to cyclical depressions, and as if that weren’t bad enough, I’ve got mobility and pain problems as well. The actual diagnoses are not important (and frankly, not for the Internet) but the effect on my life is that I have to pick and choose carefully how I spend my energy.  When I talk about “saving up my Green Stamps,” that’s what I mean.

Recently I ran across Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory which is a similar concept, brilliantly expressed. (Stop now, and click that link. It is an almost perfect expression of a very important concept.)  The bottom line is that for some of us with chronic troubles, every choice has to be weighed and considered, because when we run out – whether it’s spoons or Green Stamps – the day is OVER.  If we somehow get into a deficit, Heaven help us, because it will take weeks or months to recover.

I write about this not to whine but to say to you: this is how some of us live. If you see me or someone like me parking in a “handicap space,” don’t stop me to fuss at me.* You (1) can’t see my disability and (2) I am not going to stop, because if I stand there for more than 5 min I will break out in a sweat and eventually fall down and never run my errand. Don’t tell me that if I lose weight it will be all better. Don’t tell me about herbal supplements, meditation, medical doctors, or the miracle surgery your Aunt Flossie had. Trust me, I’ve heard it all.

But you want to help!  I understand that. Here’s how you can help: When you see me, or any other person disabled by chronic illness, don’t try to fix things. Assume that my medical affairs are my private business (just as yours are your private business) and behave as you would to anyone else. Invite me to join you, and then don’t take offense if I tell you I really can’t. Because it’s not personal: believe me when I tell you what I need and don’t need: I know exactly how many Green Stamps I’ve got in my pocket.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary; go and study! – Rabbi Hillel

 

*If you think someone is abusing a handicap space, you can (1) leave them a note on the dashboard or (2) report them to the police. Just remember that you might be wrong.


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