It dawned on me a few days into the Ferguson crisis I had not posted about it on Facebook. I post almost daily about Israel and Gaza or LGBTQ rights or the crisis in Iraq. But, not Ferguson. In trying to understand this silence, I could only come up with my great confusion when it comes to discussions about race.
Growing up in a mostly black school, with teachers speaking about “our people”, “our leaders”, and “our history”; I assumed I was part of the “our.” It was the early seventies and a welcome surge of pride in Black Identity was sweeping our nation. Our school was caught up in this pride, and I just assumed it included me. My parents had volunteered me for desegregation busing. It made sense to me to be bused from my racially mixed neighborhood to the mostly black school because these were my people.
Until. Now one must understand I do not actually remember this story, but it has been told so often with such factual consistency that I assume it is true. I have always loved to write; poems, essays, letters, stories, songs, notes. One day when I was in 2nd grade, I announced to my father I wanted to submit my poetry to my Ebony Jr. Magazine for publication. Apparently, the conversation went something like this:
Dad: Oh, honey, they won’t publish a poem by a white student.
Me: A what?
Dad: A student who is white.
Me: blank stare
Dad: You know, like you.
Me: I’m not white!
Dad: Yes, you are. This magazine is for black children.
Me: Right, like me.
As the story goes, at this point my dad started flipping through the pages showing me pictures of the children and trying to explain the difference between them and me. He knew I understood when I ran to my room sobbing.
While I don’t remember this happening, I do remember around this time starting to feel a deep sense of shame. I was becoming aware that I was not only ‘other’, but the terrible, oppressive ‘other’ my teachers and peers spoke about. I was white. I felt ashamed of being white and embarrassed I had thought I belonged. I felt betrayed, too. Rejected. I couldn’t belong to a people I believed were mine. I soon learned they didn’t want me to, either.
Around 3rd grade anti-Semitism started. Kids yelled, “watch out for the flying Kike!” as they tripped or pushed me and I went hurdling into desks. They rolled pennies down the bus and shouted for the “Jew Girl” to pick them up. By 4th grade, my head was becoming quite acquainted with the brick walls lining the schoolyard. I learned how to fight (though I was never any good) and how to run (this, actually, has led to a life long passion).
I am very confused about how I feel about race. Though anti-Semitism in Cleveland during the 70s knew no racial lines, I experienced it at the hands of my black classmates. And yet, I still feel an inappropriate over-identification with people of color. I still feel rejected and betrayed when it is obvious I am seen as part of the white privilege that just doesn’t get it. And I know that of course I don’t get it. Yes, I experienced violent anti-Semitism. But, when I walk into an expensive store or run down the street at dusk, I do so in white skin. I pass. Unless I decide to share my religion, it is undetectable. My children can wander unencumbered in our lily-white suburb. My son often wears his kippah during sport practice, so others know we are Jewish. But, this is our choice. While we have had some incidents in our town because of it, this isn’t the same as having absolutely no secure safety net. We see police cars and feel reassured, not tense because they might think we are up to no good. I tell my son if he gets lost or needs help to find a police officer. I have no fear that by approaching said officer my son might be shot.
This is a racist country. There is no getting around this. The impotence and fear and humiliation of what it is like to live in a racist country has, is and will continue to boil over. Unless we do something.
And I just don’t know what to do. I don’t understand my role in this. I write this blog not offering analysis or answers or a call to action. I write because I am confused. I need guidance.