This post is for my readers who are white citizens of the United States. If you are not a US citizen, or if you are a person of color, this isn’t meant for you. Nothing to see, move along, move along; please refrain from commenting, also.
If you are Jewish and wondering if you are white or not, has anyone at synagogue mistaken you for a janitor or a babysitter? If not, for purposes of this conversation, you’re white. Welcome.
I will post again soon for everyone, I promise.
Ever since the Charleston murders this past Thursday night, I have heard a phrase repeated by several people: “This is not who we are.” I wish I could give you citations, but most of it was on the radio, and anyway, I think you will recognize it. We’ve heard it all so many times.
We want desperately to separate ourselves from a mass murderer. That’s relatively easy to do when he doesn’t look like us, but when he could be my son, my brother, my nephew it is harder. That blonde kid with the bad haircut entering the church in his gray sweatshirt is terrifying to us because he looks like us.
So we say, “This is not who we are.”
“This is not who we are.” We say this because of the horror of his deeds, because of his picture on Facebook with the racist flags on his coat, because of the hateful rhetoric he apparently espouses. We point out every detail that separates us from his ideology: our ancestors, who arrived after the war, our own birth dates, long after 1865, our membership in a group the white supremacists also hate. We assure ourselves that we do not say the N-word. We assure ourselves of our African American acquaintances and friends, maybe even of our votes for an African American president. We are not that man with the gun!
I feel it too: I feel the urge, when there’s a discussion about racist behavior, to point out that not all whites are bad, and that I was just a kid during the civil rights movement. I feel the need to point out that Jews were in the civil rights movement too, that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched at Selma, that white supremacists hate Jews, that … you know the routine. And it’s all true.
But there is a line in the Torah that bursts through all this defensiveness, all this, “Who me? That was not me!” The line is from Leviticus 19, verse 16:
לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ
This phrase, pronounced, “Lo ta-a-MOD al dahm ray-EH-cha” means “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” The “your” in it is singular: this commandment is the responsibility of each individual who hears it. We can’t delegate it. We are commanded to act.
This week, nine African American human beings were murdered in cold blood by a white man with a gun as they sat in a meeting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Those facts are not in dispute. What does seem to be in dispute is each of our responsibility in the face of this crime.
If I am not to stand upon the blood of those nine individuals, then my question must be: What have I done this week to end racism in America?
- Do I vote? (Why not?) If I vote, do I know the record of my candidates on issues of race?
- Have I ever contributed to the campaign of a candidate of color?
- When did I last donate to an organization that works actively against white supremacy hate groups? (ADL, SPLC, ?)
- When did I last notice the hiring practices at my workplace? Do I have any co-workers of color? Where are they in the hierarchy at work?
- When did I last let a friend or co-worker know that racially tinged humor was unacceptable to me? Did I tell them so in so many words?
- When did I last challenge someone spouting racist language?
- When did I last question my own behavior and views?
- If I assure myself that I have friends of color, when did they last eat in my home?
- When did I last use a phrase like, “I don’t see color”? Do I understand how not seeing it is also a problem?
- If my child dated a person of color how would I react? Does the particular color matter? Have they dated anyone of color? Would they know how I’d react?
If I am not actively doing something about racism, then I am standing upon the blood of my neighbors. America has a 400 year old love affair with racism. It did not end with the Civil War or with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It did not end when we elected an African American Miss America or a President with brown skin. There are some people who act as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing, because their behavior is so much worse that we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “That’s not us.” But as long as we do nothing, we are standing upon the blood of our neighbors.
What have I personally done this week to fight racism? What will I do in the coming week?