August 26, 2013

Race in America - End of the Month Controversy

Talking to my kids about difficult subjects
All this talk about Mily Cyrus at the VMAs and cultural appropriation has me thinking back to a subject I have wanted to discuss for a long time. (So no, this isn't a post about twerking. Sorry.)

The thing is, race is an incredibly difficult thing to talk about. I'm much more comfortable talking about general otherism, about the reality of privilege, or about economics and class than I am talking about race.

Race is something I've always found it difficult to wrap my head around.

You see, I am not white. That might come as a shock to you. I'm Jewish. Oh yes, I can pass. Lots of Jews can pass. And just as many, if not more, can't.

I have two biological sisters. My older sister is paler than me, but she doesn't pass as well. That's because of her hair- her hair that is indisputably ethnic. My younger sister doesn't pass as well either. That's because her skin is so dark that she's sometimes mistaken for Middle Eastern of non-Jewish descent, which can be particularly awkward when it's a Palestinian who's making the mistake.

Me, Aunt Genocide, Aunt Something Funny
But I pass, mostly. I've got blue eyes and pale skin. So I "pass."

But I've known I've been "passing" my whole life.

I've known since I was very little that I wasn't white. It's one of those things, people don't experience privilege unless they're excluded from it. Part of privilege is that you're "normal" from the get-go. When you're not part of it, you're a novelty.

I was the freaked out kid at the pool who all the middle aged white ladies surrounded, to take turns touching my hair without permission.

I was the good natured token Jew, listening to every story about every other Jewish person anyone else in the room had ever met.

At nine years old I sat on the floor with my best friend in the wee hours of the night, patting her shoulder and trying to comfort her through her paroxysms of grief that I was condemned to Hell and she would have to go to Heaven without me someday unless I could somehow stop being Jewish.

I am not white.

I am also not black. I do not share the universal cultural experiences of being African American. I don't have to choose between demanding equal treatment or being an "angry black lady," I've never been pulled over without cause, I'm not faced daily with the cultural appropriation of my incredibly large and visible minority by the even larger and disproportionately more visible white population.

But I am enough other to both to have experienced some of being either.

Being white isn't just about having pale skin and fine hair. Being white is about being the standard. About how any deviation from that standard is bad, and you are less accepted and even tolerated for it.

But being white also means that you have a pervasive ignorance of the experiences outside your privilege. This is something I know. When I was thirteen, I was playing a game with some theater friends of my older sister. I was pretending to be an alien, doing research on humanity. I asked her friend, an African American man, to describe his family. He told me he was raised by his mom. I asked if that was typical. He said yes, and I was shocked. And then I got a lecture from him, as well as another friend of his (also male and African American) about the dearth of male father figures in their communities. In their childhoods.

Although at thirteen I didn't exactly have the words for it, I saw my white privilege for the first time.

(And really, if you are not familiar with this particular social issue- take three minutes and watch this video. I'll wait.)

So even though I'm not white, I know what white privilege is.

But I still have a hell of a time talking about RACE.

I can say to my kids, "Part of who we are is persecution. Our entire Jewish culture is based on a history of fleeing Inquisitions, Crusades, genocides, pogroms... Every holiday we celebrate is under the cloud of five thousand years of otherness. When Columbus sailed to the New World, your ancestors were fleeing his homeland for the Netherlands with nothing but the shirts on their backs. When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, your ancestors fled Polish persecution for Israel. When the Civil War threatened to split your country, your ancestors were fleeing a genocide in Russia. When your great great grandfather came to this country, he would never see his family back home again- they would all perish in the Holocaust. And when your family came to this country, they were not welcome, in the way you feel now, mostly. They were other, Christ Killers, hook-nosed yids, traitorous money-lenders. That is how the country we love and call home saw them."

And I do love this country. Truly. And I am grateful for it, and to it. And it is my obligation to help it continue to grow and mature and change for good. And part of the debt I give my country is my children.

American children.

Children who, unlike me, have a white parent.

DD, she has my older sister's ethnic hair. She has my younger sister's dark complexion. She will not pass as well as me, and definitely not as well as her twin sister- who has finer hair, bluer eyes, lighter skin than I- who so nearly "pass."

So what do I tell my children about race?

I don't know what box to check. I'm not Caucasian, I'm more Middle Eastern. But realistically, I'm not Middle Eastern, either. I'm not non-white Hispanic, I'm not Asian or Pacific Islander, I'm not Native American.

The only box I can check is "Other," and write in, "Jewish."

Because race isn't about the color of your skin. Not always. But it's also about that.

When my three year olds tell me that their friend from school has a big sister with pretty brown skin, so when THEY'RE big girls, THEY will also have pretty brown skin, I bite my tongue.

I don't want to tell them they're wrong, because they'll figure that out on their own. Because I don't want to be the person responsible for making them suddenly see that there is a difference beyond the superficial in the color of their skin and another person's.

I don't want to be the one to put the words of privilege into their vocabulary. But even more, I don't want to leave them unprepared to ignore the words of bigotry and hatred.

I have long come to terms with the idea that it will fall upon me to explain anti-semitism to my children. The pervasive anti-semitism of a largely "accepting" majority Christian culture.

I've already had to explain that I don't want to watch Sesame Street today, because of shit like this:

That reminds me all too plainly of shit like this:

And this:

So, yes, I definitely want to direct this conversation with my kids. I want them to know that people are different, and that's GOOD. That people have different kinds of skin and different kinds of hair and different kinds of faces and different kinds of genitalia and different kinds of histories and different kinds of intellectual ability or disability, and the endless variations of humanity are a testament to how amazing we all are.

But I also want to explain to them, before somebody else does, that some people still see something else when they see somebody's brown skin, or kinky hair, or long nose.

I want to be the one to explain to them that, because they have light skin and light eyes, people will be nicer to them. Almost universally. And that as nice as it might be, it's wrong.

But I don't want to have these conversations, because they are based in a truth that can't be hidden, and can't be candy-coated.

I don't want to be responsible for showing my children that racially motivated hatred exists. I don't want them to start thinking of people in terms of race, because with racial awareness comes judgement.

But at the same time, they need to be aware of people's cultural and racial experiences. They need to know why certain behaviors are unacceptable- yes, including Miley Cyrus's twerking. They need to know that racial experiences are different, and that difference does not imply relative worth.

I have no idea how I'm going to have those conversations. There is no guide book to discussing race in America with half-white, non-black children.

It's far too nuanced and delicate a subject for any one book to handle.

But it is essential. It is essential to teach our children that racial biases exist. It is essential to teach them that our culture, as a whole, embraces them. That if they're not careful, one day they'll realize that they trust white skin on sight, and don't trust brown. Or that they'll expect every news report about a criminal to be about a person of color. Or that they'll be surprised when the bad guy in their movie doesn't have darker skin and coarser hair than the good guys.

I want my children to see these messages for what they are- ignorant assumptions made by a class that is spoon fed privilege from the day they're born.

I am in charge of making sure this is the message they receive. I need to take ownership of that. I need to make sure I raise people, American citizens, who don't accept their privilege.

The only way to end this culture of privilege is to ensure that those who benefit from it reject it. That when we are in the position of privilege and somebody else is struggling through persecution, we stand up and take ownership. I want to know that someday, if my kids see that their brown-skinned friends are being treated differently than them, they will approach the culprit and demand an explanation.

That is the debt I owe to a society that has largely accepted me as one of its own.

But I also want them to point out their differences when they are ignored. Point out the hurt it does when their culture is appropriated. I want them to take pride in their uniqueness, in their racial and cultural heritage.

And the best way to teach a child anything is to set an example.

And so I charge you, every one of my lovely readers, to step back from your life for a moment and look for the privilege you experience.

Do you know that you have a place to worship, no matter where in the country you might move?

Do you know that you will get fair pay for your work?

Do you know you can call the police if you are in need and they will see you as an innocent victim?

Do you know that if you speak the language of your childhood home, you will be understood?

These are privilege.

Be aware of it. And consider what it feels like to answer "no" to any one of those questions. To all of them.

The burden of educating my children on race and privilege doesn't fall only on me, it is ours as a culture. My lessons mean nothing without the contrast of reality, or the television they watch and the people they meet and the pictures on magazines on the rack at the grocery store.

It's time we all took some responsibility for that.


  1. In fifth grade, my teacher told the class, as part of a History lesson, that the holocaust was "understandable" since "the Jews owned or controlled everything in the country." My class was about 1/3 Jewish, and we were literally dumbfounded. (That didn't happen to me often.) After a very awkward moment of silence -- I think she knew immediately she had crossed a line -- one of the Christian boys stood up and argued with her. I think he knew how privileged he was.

    But I think you're wrong about Sesame Street. First, I don't think the video is that bad. But even if it is, I'd say that it's outweighed by Shalom Sesame, which is in the middle of its (long drawn out) third season.

    1. I think Sesame Street rarely displays any kind of racial insensitivity. But if they had a a muppet that already bore a resemblance to well documented historic slurs or stereotyping, and they overtly gave it the characteristics of the group who suffered from those associations. If they had Abby's grandparents on and they were flamboyantly gay, I imagine there would be some outcry over the depiction of "fairies," don't you?

      Racial and cultural sensitivities shouldn't be an issue of weighing good and bad. Yes, Shalom Sesame is AWESOME. But doing a good thing doesn't erase having done something bad.

  2. I used to love watching Roseanne. It was one of my favorite shows, and still is(--with the exception of that last season, but that's another story.)There was an episode where DJ had to kiss a Black girl in his school play. And he was incredibly freaked out. Dan and Roseanne were afraid they had unintentionally instilled in their son that she was different...and different was weird, and possibly wrong. And they addressed it. I think that's really all parents can do, isn't it? Try to instill good strong values in their children so they can live them out in the world. Thank you for this post. It gave me some food for thought.

    1. I love Roseanne! That show was amazing, wasn't it?

      I agree with you whole heartedly. The best we can do is address problems head on, keep a dialogue open. Thank you so much for your comment. :)

  3. I am christian and my niece is Jewish. I have never considered her anything but part of my family. I also have never considered my friends that are Jewish anything but friends. I guess I have been lucky to not see race or religion differences, but take everyone as they come. I am teaching my children the same.

  4. For me, it is difficult to consider when and how to tell my daughter about some of these issues. The good thing is that kids look at things with heart, purity and honesty. So, when I have had to broach some of these subjects with my daughter, it has been easier than I have thought. I remember the 10th anniversary of 9-11. She had just entered 1st grade. I wasn't sure if the school was going to do something or not. My family is from New Jersey and my town--my church and high school specifically--felt great loss. I knew that she would make some connections. Fortunately, the teacher was able to inform me what was being done at the school. This gave me the advantage of explaining to her what happened my own way in ways that she would understand. She actually handled what I told her better than I thought she would. I thought she would immediately be worried about all the people she knows in New Jersey. But, they are strong! She is now in 3rd grade and I know we will have a couple of difficult topics to discuss. But, I know she will be better for it and will learn to stand up when she should. This is definitely a good topic. Thank you for bringing attention to it because I think sometimes we are so insulated in our world, we forget.

  5. Fascinating post. I am Jewish, raising Jewish teenagers with a non-Jewish, white partner. I never considered myself not white, but I agree that I always felt a bit different. Such a hard concept to explain to my red-haired, lily white, Midwestern hubby. Luckily, my kids are very secure in their Jewishness -- the college boy's Twitter handle is SuperJew -- but even still I see and hear conversations that make me squirm. Somehow in their inclusiveness (and we all have friends of every size, shape, color and ethnicity - the kids more-so than the grownups) they don't understand that the things they're joking about and don't mean anything by can be hurtful, if only to those who feel the hurt a little more than others.



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