Blogging While Black: Yeah, It’s a Thing.

August 19, 2014

 :לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Lev. 19:16

Yesterday, I posted a link to a blog post by Michael W. Twitty from Afroculinaria.com. He titled it #Ferguson: My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint, and it is a moving piece. It began with an image someone sent via Twitter to him: a racist manipulation of the image of Michael Brown’s dead body lying on the pavement.

I’ve received a share of hate messages via social media. They were nasty bits of Jew-hatred, woman-hatred, or fat-hatred, and occasionally a rancid mix of the three. But none were as violent, as personal, as those sent to my friend. I deleted them and blocked the source, if I could. Then I tried to push the image, or the words out of my head: easier said than done.

But Michael Twitty took this ugly, hateful, personal image and used it as a starting point to talk about the dignity of human beings. He made use of his own experience as an illustration, but it wasn’t “all about him.” He took a very personal attack and turned it into a lesson on social justice. It was a raw, truthful piece of writing, his hurt and anger quite visible in it, and it moved me to some serious thinking about what I was going to do about the dignity of human beings.

Tonight I learned that in the first 24 hours after posting the piece, Michael Twitty has received death threats in response. One message suggested that he should be lynched.

What has happened to us?

The names keep piling up: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, on and on and on. What they have in common is that they were unarmed and unresisting when they were executed. They had no due process, no trial, no appeals. They were assumed dangerous because they were African American males.

Fifteen years ago, in Oakland, California, I attended a meeting about a couple of break-ins on my street. My neighbors, mostly elderly and white, talked nervously about “those kids from the high school.”  The police had given us no idea whom to blame for the burglaries; the assumption was that “those kids” were to blame. No one needed to say “black kids” – that was a given. We discussed the pros and cons of hiring a security service, since the Oakland cops were never seen on our street.

I was on the fence – private security? really? – when an elderly gent leaned over to me and whispered, “Don’t you worry, honey, I see any of those black boys on our street and I’ll shoot them before they get to your house.” My stomach twisted. My sons had friends that came and went from our house, some of them African American.

“Don’t you dare,” I hissed. “They’re my sons’ friends. I swear I will testify against you if any such thing happens.”

That decided my vote. Naively, I thought it was better to have a private security service than to have Mr. Green running around playing vigilante. In retrospect, I see that instead I was voting to PAY someone to play vigilante. They were still going to be a danger to any young dark-skinned man who came our way. The sickness in our society runs very deep.

[Added note: At the time, I thought I was being a nice liberal person, pretending not to notice that everyone in the room was talking about black men, until someone said "black." I knew darn well what they were talking about, and I didn't say anything until it was unavoidable. By making that choice I was complicit in their racist talk and behavior. Mea culpa. That was wrong. I will not do that again.]

News flash, America: you cannot tell if a man is dangerous by the color of his skin. And even if he IS “dangerous” in your opinion, he has the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that every other person has. Until he breaks the law, under the law he’s exactly like you and me. And if he does something to break the law, then he’s still innocent until proven guilty.

We in the US seem to be able to hold onto those ideas when a person has fair skin. We seem totally incapable of it when a person has dark skin. Heck, we don’t even want a dark skinned man to express an OPINION. Hence the horrible mail that Mr. Twitty has been getting since he wrote that post.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 tells me that I may not stand upon the blood of my neighbor. Look where we are standing, America: our shoes are covered in blood.


I’m Not Done: Thinking about Racism

July 20, 2013
Negro boy near Cincinnati, Ohio  (LOC)

Human Being (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Every time someone is reported to have done something racist and all his or her friends begin hollering that good ole George or Paula isn’t “a racist” as if that is the worst, worst thing in the world one person could call another, I want to bang my head on the wall.

For starters, can we quit worrying about who’s a racist and start talking about the effects of racist acts and words? I think we’ll get further in changing people’s behavior. A person who doesn’t intend anything bad can still do a bad thing. I can step on your foot without setting out to do so. The fact that I didn’t plot it with malice does not change the pain I cause when I do it, and i fact, I should look where I step. At the very least I should remove my foot from your instep immediately!

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about unintentional sin: we call such a sin a “chet,” using a term for a missed archery target. Chapter 4 of Leviticus prescribes the proper offerings for atoning for such sins when they have been committed against God. Treating another human being with disrespect or discrimination, even if we do so unintentionally, is such a sin against God, because all human beings are created in the image of God. Someone who calls our sin to our attention (because obviously we didn’t know about it, it was unintentional) is doing us a favor, giving us a chance to redeem ourselves.

These days, with no Temple available for purification or sacrifice, the remedy for sin is teshuvah. (For a description of how to go about teshuvah, check out “The Jewish Cure for Guilt.”) Defensiveness will not work: defensiveness makes these things worse, not better. When I argue that a person who is bringing an unintentional sin to my attention is hallucinating or malicious or “playing the race card” I am missing the point and compounding the error. Those who rebuke me are letting me know how my actions or words came across, and now it is up to me to correct that — with teshuvah.

Secondly, the effect of my words is not limited to the hurt feelings or sensibilities of the listener who speaks up. My words effect all the other people who hear them and who may therefore decide that speaking that way is OK. We teach others with our actions and our speech, not only our children but also other adults. We teach when we fail to speak up about offensive language – when I let something pass, I give it tacit approval. When racist behavior and attitudes are as socially unacceptable as the n-word, we’ll be making real progress.

If I did not intend for my words to teach racism, how much more important is it for someone to let me know that that’s what I communicated?  My intent has been obscured by clumsy words, and the words are teaching evil – better fix them, and fast!

Full disclosure: I was born in Tennessee in the mid-1950’s. My parents are white and during my lifetime, the family has been very prosperous. The only minority experience of which I was aware in childhood was that of being a Catholic in the very Protestant-Christian Southeastern US. I knew lots of  African Americans as a kid, but until I was fourteen, all of them were domestic servants or manual laborers. My parents were open about thinking segregation was a good thing back in the 1960’s. I lived in an environment where I heard the “n-word” all the time, and the only sense I had that there was anything wrong with it was that “nice women don’t say that, they say ‘colored.'” Before I started school, I was explicitly taught that people with any African ancestors were not as smart as white people, and that “civil rights” was an unAmerican movement.

Thank heavens my parents sent me to school with the Dominican Sisters who taught me, and modeled for me, that treating people of color differently was wrong because all human beings are equal before God.

However, the sisters could not flip a switch in my head so that I suddenly became enlightened and would never do another racist thing or think another racist thought. I have said and done things in my life that make me cringe to remember them. I have done what I can to make teshuvah for those words and actions. I continue to make teshuvah for mistakes I make in the present. I do not kid myself that I will ever completely unlearn what I was taught as a child, but I can make an effort to do better, and to teach differently than I was taught.

My background on the subject is very simple to unpack: I was explicitly taught racism, and I am spending my adult life learning to speak and act and think in better ways. This does not make me a bad person – if anything, it is the mark of a good person that I am trying to be better, but only as long as I continue to grow in Torah and treat other human beings with respect.

I realize that for some other whites, things may be a bit less clear. But it is my observation, with my ears that were tuned as a child to such things, that nobody in the United States is untouched by race. Not a single one of us is truly color blind except for very young children (and there have been studies that show that they learn racism early.). Defensiveness speaks volumes, whether it is a liberal insisting frantically that Clarence Thomas‘s race is not an issue or a conservative insisting the same about Trayvon Martin. The mantra of “I don’t care if they are white, black, green or purple” just underlines otherness, and it reeks of desperation. The key word in that phrase is “they,” who are not “us.”

By the way – if this discussion sends some readers to thinking about the ways in which you feel that African Americans have been racist, understand that I am not talking about those behaviors. I’m talking only about the ways that whites talk and behave towards African Americans. Switching over to the “reverse racism” discussion is the equivalent of one child on the playground hollering that another started the trouble: it’s a ploy to change the subject. I’m talking right now about OUR behavior, not anyone else’s, and yes, it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable.

Torah calls us to love the stranger, to love those whom we perceive to be different from ourselves. (Leviticus 10:10) The fact that it repeats this over and over again is a mark of how difficult it is to see someone different as a beloved child of God. How much the more so, if we have been programmed to see that person as dangerous, or stupid, or exotic?

Every time we say a blessing before a mitzvah, we say, “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who sanctifies us with mitzvot [commandments]…” We are given the commandments so that we may become holy. We are not required to already be holy, just to do the work that will take us towards holiness. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say (Pirkei Avot 2:21):

It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come. 

How will we know when we are finished with the task? When can we congratulate ourselves that we don’t need to worry about racism anymore? Not in my lifetime, for sure – I know what’s in my head. If the day comes that I don’t feel the slightest urge to change my behavior in the presence of a black male, when I don’t hear my father’s or my grandmother’s voices in my head, when I no longer notice that the new friend I made is a person of color I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m not done.


You Don’t Mess with the Laughter

April 15, 2012

!מענטש טראַכט, גאָט לאַכט

That is, Menscht tracht, Gott lacht:  “Man plans, God laughs.”  It’s the Yiddish version of Murphy’s Law.  It’s been on my mind this weekend.

My plan to “blog the Omer” took a left turn on Thursday evening, when I posted a commentary on You Don’t Mess with the Zohan to my Jewish Film blog.  I said I thought it was racist garbage, and I suggested other films that do a better job of mining the humor in Arab-Jewish tensions.

Someone had a rather strong reaction to my take on the film.  Instead of leaving a comment, he or she chose to hack my account and mess up a bunch of the links on the blog, so that all links from 2009 films led to the Zohan entry.  What I can’t figure is whether they liked or hated the comment, since if they hated it, why lead everyone to it?  And if they liked it, why not just comment?

On the other hand, someone is reading the film commentaries!  I’m delighted.  If someone out in Internet-land is a little less comfortable about movies that take cheap racist shots, I am doing my job.

Whatever the details, all my blogging time has gone to fixing those darn links, and dreaming up a password that will be harder to crack.  I have continued to count the omer, but am only today back to blogging.

I am absolutely certain that God is laughing.

P.S. to the Link Switcher, if you are reading this:  Leave me a comment, either here or better yet, on the Jewish Film blog, and tell me what you were trying to tell me with the links.  Loved it? Hated it? Let’s argue!  It’s more fun and less work, I promise.


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